Sophie Okonedo CBE (born 11 August 1968) is an English film, theatre and television actress. She began her film career in the British coming-of-age drama Young Soul Rebels (1991) before appearing in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995) and Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things (2002).
Okonedo’s breakthrough performance came in 2004, when she co-starred in the film Hotel Rwanda as Tatiana Rusesabagina, the wife of Rwandan hotel manager and humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed by American actor Don Cheadle. For this role, she became the second black female Briton to receive a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress at the 77th Academy Awards in 2005. She later received a Golden Globe Award nomination for the miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath (2006) and BAFTA TV Award nominations for the drama series Criminal Justice (2009) and the television film Mrs. Mandela (2010). Her other film roles include Æon Flux (2005), Skin (2008), The Secret Life of Bees (2008), and Christopher Robin (2018).
On stage, Okonedo starred as Cressida in the 1999 Royal National Theatre production of Troilus and Cressida. She made her Broadway debut in the 2014 revival of A Raisin in the Sun and received a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play and won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Ruth Younger.
Okonedo was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2010 Birthday Honours, and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2019 New Year Honours.
Okonedo was born on 11 August 1968 in London, the daughter of Joan (née Allman), a Jewish Pilates teacher who was born in the East End of London, and Henry Okonedo (1939–2009), a British Nigerian who worked for the government. Okonedo’s maternal grandparents, who spoke Yiddish, were from families that had emigrated from Poland and Russia. Okonedo was raised in her mother’s Jewish faith. When she was five years old, her father left the family, and she was brought up in relative poverty by her single mother (“but we always had books”, she has said).
Okonedo trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.] She has worked in a variety of media including film, television, theatre and audio drama. She performed in Scream of the Shalka, a webcast based on the BBC television series Doctor Who as Alison Cheney, a companion of the Doctor. As well as providing the character’s voice, Okonedo’s likeness was used for the animation of the character. In 2010, Okonedo portrayed Liz Ten (Queen Elizabeth X) in the BBC TV series Doctor Who episodes “The Beast Below” and again briefly in “The Pandorica Opens”.
Okonedo played the role of Jenny in Danny Brocklehurst’s BAFTA TV Award nominated episode of Paul Abbott’s series Clocking Off. She also played the role of Tulip Jones in the film Stormbreaker (2006) and Nancy in the television adaptation of Oliver Twist (2007). She is also known for playing the role of the Wachati Princess in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995).
She was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Supporting Actress for her role as Tatiana Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda (2004) and nominated for a Golden Globe Award for a Lead Actress in a Miniseries for her work in Tsunami: The Aftermath (2006).
She played alongside Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Dakota Fanning as May Boatwright, a woman who struggles with depression, in the film The Secret Life of Bees (2008); opposite Sam Neill and Alice Krige as Sandra Laing in Skin (2009), and portrayed Winnie Mandela in the BBC drama Mrs. Mandela broadcast in January 2010.
In May 2013, Okonedo played the role of Hunter in a BBC radio production of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, adapted by Dirk Maggs.
She appeared in 2014 on Broadway in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun as Ruth Younger. She won the Tony Award, Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play for this role, beating out co-star and fellow nominee Anika Noni Rose.] In 2016, Okonedo returned to Broadway in Ivo van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Walter Kerr Theatre as Elizabeth Proctor opposite Bill Camp, Tavi Gevinson, Jason Butler Harner, Ciarán Hinds, Jim Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Thomas Jay Ryan and Ben Whishaw. Also in 2016, Okonedo appeared as Queen Margaret in the second season of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown, an adaptation of the Shakespearean plays Henry VI, Part I, II, III and Richard III.
She recently performed in the role of Stevie in the 2017 West End revival of the existentialist play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, by Edward Albee. Directed by Ian Rickson and also starring Damian Lewis as Martin, the production’s first preview was on 24 March 2017, opening night on 5 April 2017, and final performance on 24 June 2017, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
In October 2017, Michael Caton-Jones revealed that, in 1998, he had chosen Okonedo to star in B. Monkey. However, the producer, Harvey Weinstein, blocked this because the actress did not meet his personal sexual preference. [
Okonedo was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2010 Birthday Honours and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2019 New Year Honours, both for services to drama.
Okonedo has one daughter named Aoife, from a previous relationship with Irish film editor Eoin Martin. They live in Muswell Hill, London. On her heritage, Okonedo says, “I feel as proud to be Jewish as I feel to be black” and calls her daughter an “Irish, Nigerian Jew”.
Awards and nominations
- Academy Awards
- 2005, Best Supporting Actress (Hotel Rwanda) [nominated]
- BAFTA TV Awards
- 2010, Best Leading Actress (Mrs. Mandela) [nominated]
- 2010, Best Supporting Actress (Criminal Justice) [nominated]
- Black Reel Awards
- 2005, Best Actress-Drama (Hotel Rwanda) [winner]
- 2008, Best Ensemble (The Secret Life of Bees) [nominated]
- 2008, Best Supporting Actress (The Secret Life of Bees) [nominated]
- 2010, Best Actress (Skin) [nominated]
- British Independent Film Awards
- 2003, Best Supporting Actress (Dirty Pretty Things) [nominated]
- 2009, Best Actress (Skin) [nominated]
- Golden Globe Awards
- 2007, Best Actress in a Mini-Series/Television Movie (Tsunami: The Aftermath) [nominated]
- Hollywood Film Festival
- 2008, Ensemble Acting of the Year (The Secret Life of Bees) [winner]
- NAACP Image Awards
- 2005, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture (Hotel Rwanda) [nominated]
- 2007, Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie/Mini-Series (Tsunami: the Aftermath) [winner]
- 2009, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture (The Secret Life of Bees) [nominated]
- 2010, Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture (Skin) [nominated]
- Screen Actors Guild Awards
- 2005, Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role (Hotel Rwanda) [nominated]
- 2005, Outstanding Ensemble in a Motion Picture (Hotel Rwanda) [nominated]
- Tony Awards
- 2014, Best Featured Actress in a Play (A Raisin in the Sun) [winner]
- 2016, Best Actress in a Play (The Crucible) [nominated]
- London Evening Standard Theatre Awards
- 2018, Best Actress (Antony and Cleopatra) [winner]