Sophie Okonedo

She’s head-spinningly brilliant in Ratched.

6 November 20219 min read

Look up the phrase tour de force in the dictionary. Alongside the definition, you’ll find a portrait of Sophie Okonedo. That’s because tour de force is the only way to describe the actor’s turn as Charlotte Wells in the Ryan Murphy co-created drama series Ratched. She delivers a simply stunning performance — opposite some powerhouse collaborators, no less.

Okonedo’s work in the theater is evident in the energy of her portrayal. A graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Okonedo earned a 2016 Tony nomination for her performance in Ivo van Hove’s production of The Crucible and a 2014 win for her featured role in Kenny Leon’s production ofA Raisin in the Sun, starring Denzel Washington. She’s also a force to be reckoned with in British television, with BAFTA-nominated turns in Criminal Justice and Mrs. Mandela under her belt, plus a Golden Globe-nominated part in the HBO miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath, alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor and Toni Collette. Moving into film, she made an early appearance in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things, in which she played the sex worker Juliette, and from there went on to projects like The Secret Life of Bees and Hotel Rwanda, the latter of which garnered her an Oscar nomination.

Ratched marks a new chapter for Okonedo in American television. The series is a prequel to Ken Kesey’s classic novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (and to Miloš Forman’s 1975 screen adaptation), but Ratched has its own distinctly lush and deeply twisted vision. Season 1 follows the infamous Nurse Mildred Ratched, played by Sarah Paulson, as she weasels her way into work at a California psychiatric hospital in the late 1940s. Paulson joins a stellar cast that includes Cynthia Nixon, Sharon Stone, Finn Wittrock, Charlie Carver, and Amanda Plummer; Jon Jon Briones hypnotizes as Dr. Richard Hanover, the psychiatrist who runs the facility, and Judy Davis is delightfully strange as Nurse Betsy Bucket.

Okonedo, for her part, shows up like a tornado in Episode 5 to take the series to a whole new level. She plays Charlotte Wells, a shy patient with multiple personalities — the innocent toddler Baby Taffy; the athlete Apollo, who thinks Adolf Hitler is hunting him; the brash and allegedly world-renowned musician Ondine Duquette; and, at one point, Dr. Hanover himself. Okonedo is practically an ensemble unto herself, and months after Ratched’s release, audiences can’t stop talking about it.

Tre’vell Anderson: At this point in your career, you don’t have to say yes to any old role. Why this one?
Sophie Okonedo: I was in Los Angeles just for a few days, doing promotion for something else, and I got a call from my agent that Ryan Murphy wanted to have a cup of tea with me. I hadn’t met him before. We met at his office, and he told me about Ratched and said, “I’ve got a part in mind for you, and I think it’s going to play to your acting skills.” He described Charlotte. I just couldn’t believe it. I was thinking, Did he really mean that? Did that just happen?I got the contract the next day, I think.

That was before you even saw the script. Once you finally got your hands on it, what went through your mind? Had you ever played a character like her before?
SO: I’d never played the many faces of Charlotte, but I was really excited. The script came couriered, and I just stood up by the door. I didn’t even sit down; I just read it all standing up. I knew that I was excited with that sort of reaction.

Does your approach change when you’re playing someone like Charlotte, who has multiple, very different personalities that you have to embody?
SO: The way that I approached it — I’m not sure this is the correct way — was I just made a real life for each of those characters. Each of the personalities, I gave them as much attention as I would give to the core of Charlotte. They were part of me. When I had done that work, it was a matter of turning the corners very, very fast between the characters. Because I knew them so well, and I knew everything I was saying inside out, I could make very sharp turns.

It required a lot of energy to play all those parts like that. But I have loads of energy, and I’ve got to use it up, otherwise I’d drive everybody at my house mad!

Sophie Okonedo

In terms of the fuller lives that you gave each of the individual personalities, how much of that was already on the page?
SO: The words they said were exactly as written. I didn’t change anything. This was written in quite a stylized way, and it felt really important to stick to exactly what was written. That’s my theater background: I always try to make work what’s written first, and I only try to change things if I come up against something that doesn’t feel right. My characters in Ratched each had their own individual way of speaking, their own rhythm. I also worked with Liz Himelstein, a brilliant dialect coach, and she really helped me. It required a lot of energy to play all those parts like that. But I have loads of energy, and I’ve got to use it up, otherwise I’d drive everybody at my house mad!

You gave each character a unique voice that helps signal a shift. How did you go about finding and assigning those?
SO: I listened to people from different areas that I felt the characters were from. Liz had some brilliant tapes of people that she sent me. I do the spinal work that’s required, the foundation work. I think very deeply about all the characters. But when I get to set, I just throw that stuff away. I start playing. You can’t start working out how you’re going to do it because the other actor is going to do something completely different, or you can get there and the director has very specific ideas about how they’re going to do it. It’s better to stay open. I think the less that’s going on in my mind, the better. The way that I act, generally, is I use my head in preparation, but when I’m on set, it’s just all in my body. I’m quite blank, it feels, almost. Then the whole thing just sort of takes over. I don’t like to question it too much.

I wonder though, does embodying the character in that way ever impact you, as yourself? When “Cut” is called, are you able to divorce yourself from the character fairly easily?
SO: Everything impacts me. Absolutely everything. I would love to say that I separate, but I’m always affected by everything that I’m doing. That’s why I have to be quite careful about what roles I choose. I’m a really, really sensitive person, so I get affected by most things I see. That’s probably why I live in the middle of nowhere in the countryside. I’m part of the character; they’re part of me. I take them home with me. My husband has to hear it all. Some characters he prefers more than others. He said Cleopatra [from the 2018 National Theatre production of Antony and Cleopatra] was a handful. For Ratched, he was back in England, I was over in L.A., so we were separated. It was probably good. I just went back to an empty apartment with all those characters.

Is there something from your experience doing theater work that you think adds to your performances in film and television?
SO: Oh my goodness, yes. I feel that both help each other. You’re still researching, doing the work the way you do whatever you’re doing, but there’s a different energy that’s required. For example, when I started acting, it was really difficult as a Black woman in Britain getting cast in anything other than certain niche roles. But in the theater, I was already playing queens and duchesses, and playing in Chekhov and Shakespeare and Ibsen. I was doing that when the television and film world wouldn’t let me; they just couldn’t see Black people playing those roles at that time. I have a big love of the theater because of that. And of course during this pandemic, theater has died, and it’s been just awful for so many of my friends. Hopefully it’s going to come back soon. I’ll be watching plays every week, I’ve missed it so much.

Some of your bigger scenes in Ratched are opposite Jon Jon Briones. What was it like working with him and playing off of his energy?
SO: He’s an actor with a lot of energy. So is Sarah Paulson. In fact, the whole group of us had a lot of energy. There were a lot of theater actors there, and to do eight shows a week — which Jon Jon really knows, he did that for many years on Broadway, the West End — it requires a kind of stamina. Jon Jon is really prepared. He knows his stuff. When he comes to set, you’re working with a real pro. He’s incredibly generous and just wants you to be at your best. I was so lucky to have him. I couldn’t have done the performance that I did without all the people around me. That’s a real lesson to young actors: You’re not just on your own. It’s an exchange all the time with other actors, with the cameramen, with everybody.

Is there something that you did with this character that was particularly enjoyable for you as an actor?
SO: Oh my God, the whole thing was so enjoyable! I think one of the most enjoyable scenes was the very first scene with Ondine, when she’s confronting the violin player. It was so fun because he was laughing so much, that actor. I could see that I was making him laugh, and it was really fun seeing him try not to laugh. I also got that great big staircase to go down, and you know I love an entrance. Give me a staircase and an entrance! I was in heaven.