NEW YORK — With her sorrowful doe eyes, luminous skin and delicate bone structure, Thandie Newton could easily settle into any fragile-flower part tossed her way. But over the years, the actress has steadily avoided such typecasting, and her role in the upcoming drama “The Pursuit of Happyness” is no exception.

Set in early Eighties San Francisco and based on a true story, the movie follows Chris Gardner (Will Smith) as he struggles to make money to support himself and his son, Christopher (played by Smith’s real-life son, Jaden), as they flounder on the brink of utter poverty. Newton plays Smith’s wife, Linda, whose disappointment with her husband’s financial failures leads her to abandon him and their young son.

And the actress is the first to admit her casting was a surprise but, of course, one that in her view works.

“I would have thought that Linda could have a more obvious toughness because she’s this strong, pivotal, dominating character and, I think it was much better to have me because I think that the film could have fallen foul of demonizing the mother who leaves her child,” explains Newton, who, in a baby-doll Derek Lam dress and black Fendi shoes, looks a far cry from the life-weary Linda. “What I think is really important is that you understand and feel sympathy for someone who commits a slow suicide by leaving her child.”

Indeed, while audiences may still perceive her character’s actions as thoroughly selfish and irresponsible, Newton accounts for her behavior as a form of self-destruction driven by shame.

“I think the pain you feel independently in life can be magnified when you have to be responsible for a child,” she muses. “You’re their role model and if you don’t think you’re able to even succeed on a daily basis, you just want to be away from their gaze … you don’t want them to even have you as a parent. And that’s the suicide, that you have so little value for yourself that you can’t provide your kid with the role model that they need.”

Fortunately, Newton’s own experience with motherhood is in stark contrast to Linda’s. Based in London, she has two daughters, Ripley, six, and Nico, almost two, by her husband, director Ol Parker. Among many other pleasures of becoming a mom, Newton’s pregnancies have given her a greater sense of comfort with her body and weight, an issue she struggled with when she was younger.

This story first appeared in the December 13, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“I went to boarding school to dance. We were encouraged not to eat, when I was like 13 years old. I didn’t even know what an appetite was. By the time I was in my 20s, I wouldn’t even know how to read a hunger pang, literally, because we’re so used to overriding the hunger pangs in order to maintain a body,” explains Newton, 34. “When I got pregnant it just changed everything, because suddenly you’re so driven by what your body needs. It got me so in touch with what I need and what’s healthy, and it just never stopped.”

Her newfound healthy body image certainly came in handy when filming the upcoming romantic comedy “Run, Fat Boy, Run,” directed by David Schwimmer, for which she was asked to gain a stone (14 lbs). Though Newton readily agreed, calling it “a no-brainer,” her co-star, Simon Pegg, stayed trim.

“It was funny to arrive on set. I had assumed Simon would also be gaining weight … and he didn’t,” she laughs. “He got a prosthetic butt, stomach, tits, everything. And I was like,’Oh, that’s just great.'”

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