MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

Byline: Louise Farr

HOLLYWOOD — At first the waiter at the Chateau Marmont seems all business, flicking open a crisp white napkin and carefully setting a tray laden with china cups and a pot of steaming tea in front of Thandie Newton. But once he recognizes her, he actually falls to his knees by her chair, grasps her hand and gazes into her eyes.
“I adore your work,” he says, looking for all the world as if he adores her more than her acting.
This is exactly the reaction director John Woo and Tom Cruise had in mind when they set out to cast Cruise’s love interest in “Mission: Impossible 2.”
“We wanted to make everyone fall in love with her — not just in the film, but in the audience,” says Woo. “We wanted to find someone who had a similar quality to Audrey Hepburn: a great character, strong and elegant. Not a piece of furniture.”
Newton is hardly that. Since breaking through at age 16 in the Australian film “Flirting,” set in a girls’ boarding school, she has brought her own brand of sensual innocence to the roles of Thomas Jefferson’s mistress Sally Hemings in “Jefferson in Paris,” an overdosing blues singer in “Gridlock’d” and the ghost of Oprah Winfrey’s daughter in the controversial “Beloved.”
Newton insists her intention has never been to make it big. “Very often, it’s not about your acting skills,” she says, her small English voice becoming even more hushed amid the baroque fustiness of the hotel lounge. “Very often, it’s the right look, the right boobs, the right hips. I don’t want to be preoccupied by those things. It makes me nervous.” Whether she’s looking for it or not, her professional profile is about to change with “Mission: Impossible 2,” in which she plays a thief who dances flamenco, drives fast cars and tumbles amid rumpled sheets with Cruise. “It was like working on five films back-to-back,” says Newton, 27, who describes “MI2” as a romance, an action film and a drama in one. “It was a technology ride. We’d find ourselves doing the same scenes for three weeks because that’s how long it takes. You almost have to play tricks on yourself to maintain your enthusiasm.”
The $100 million-plus movie went over schedule at the Australian locations where it filmed for most of last year, its plot shrouded in secrecy. Originally slated for Christmas ’99, it was pushed back to this May. “I felt I was existing in Mission: Impossible,” says Newton. “It wasn’t my work. It became what I was.”
She hadn’t even read the script when she met Woo and Cruise at London’s Dorchester Hotel, where Woo sat and observed as she and Cruise chatted about their lives. Cruise, she says, is “charming.” Then she backtracks: Charming is not quite right. “He absolutely commits to the moment he’s spending with you,” she says. “There’s no looking over your shoulder.” Newton bonded with Cruise much the way she had with his wife, Nicole Kidman, while making “Flirting” — because of a shared sense of fun. “She looks for the laughs,” says Newton.
But there was a dark side to “Flirting,” for which Newton was plucked from dance school. During filming, she became embroiled in an affair with director John Duigan, 23 years her senior.
It was more about power, she says, than romance. “I wish it had been a romance, because I was really a sweet, impressionable girl, and it dragged on for quite a long time, me with the best intentions and ultimately very scarred,” she says. “Your instincts are telling you one thing: I’m sure this is wrong. But you’re being told that it’s right, so you start to misjudge. You’re the perfect victim if someone reaches out and offers to be a guardian and protector.”
Duigan subsequently directed Newton in “The Journey of August King” and “The Leading Man.” Now the relationship is behind her. “But for a period there,” she says, “I just became a mess.”
Four years ago, Newton, who is half-English and half-Zimbabwean, met her husband, writer Oliver Parker (not the director). She fell in love with him at a BBC reading and now, married two years, they live in a rambling house in North London. She didn’t really think that love at first sight was possible — until she found out firsthand that it was. “Sometimes I actually feel panicked at the thought that we may not have met,” she says.
Only since marriage has she realized how driven she used to be by a Protestant work ethic, and she’s begun to ease up on herself. “It’s like this beast behind you that’s running, running, running after you, and you’re running to keep going,” she says. “And hang on, you turn around and there’s nothing there. You don’t have to work like a nut.”