Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
December 3, 2004
Based on true events that occurred in the political hotzone of 1994's Rwanda, Hotel Rwanda chronicles the story of Paul Rusesabagina, a real life hero who used his resourcefulness and connections as an upscale hotel manager to save the lives of over 1,000 refugees. Tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsi, two Rwandan social factions, had set the stage for a bloody genocide, and nearly 1,000,000 people were killed in the span of 100 days while most of the world stood by and did little to intervene.
Hotel Rwanda is directed and co-written by Terry George (In the Name of the Father) and stars Don Cheadle in a dramatized portrayal of Paul Rusesabagina. In this exclusive interview, Sophie Okonedo, who plays the role of Paul's wife Tatiana, talks about her experience of making this critically acclaimed feature.
RadioFree.com: How did you come to being cast in Hotel Rwanda?
SOPHIE: Terry George saw a film I did called Dirty Pretty Things, and they came up to me and said, "Wow, let's take a chance and send the script to that girl." And they sent the script to me, I read for it with Terry reading the part of Paul Rusesabagina, and two weeks later, I got the part.
How did you feel during the auditioning process? Nervous, anxious, elated?
When you really want something, you get very nervous. I really, really wanted to do it, so that makes you very nervous.
Did you get a chance to meet Paul's wife Tatiana, the real life counterpart of your character?
Yes, I met her before I started filming, and I went to Brussels to meet her. We just hung out for a couple of days. And she doesn't speak English, so it was very difficult to talk. But we just kind of made lunch.
And you had fun despite the language barrier?
Yes, yes, we sort of sign languaged. [laughs]
Did you get a good feel for her personality?
I got a sense of her. I wasn't trying to mimic. Her in the film is different from her in real life because we're creating a drama. We're in the entertainment business.
Do you think dramatizing this story, as opposed to shooting more of a documentary piece, gives it a more effective voice?
Oh, goodness me. If we just filmed what happened day over day without editing it and compacting it...You'd have a very boring film. We're not documentary makers, we're filmmakers.
What difficulties emerged during filming?
It was absolutely chaos. I mean, it was chaos because everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong.
Like what, specifically?
Like it rained for two weeks and we needed sunshine. So we started moving scenes inside that should have been outside. We lost the financing the day we started shooting. They didn't tell us. [laughs] We found out later on. We had a mini-riot with the extras because we were using refugees from Rwanda and Congo, and we had these very strange casting directors. Casting directors that cast the extras in South Africa, the way it works there is they pay the extras. And they had withheld some of the money.
So no political riots, just irate people getting cheated out of their pay?
Yeah, exactly. There was a lot of emotion because people were recreating. Like that scene where the women are in the cages. Some of those women had really been through that. And they wanted to do it. This woman was crying. She said, "I want people to know what happened."
As a citizen of England, do you remember Rwanda being major news back in 1994 while the genocide was occurring?
It was in the news. Yes. But it wasn't as prominent as if it had been going on in say, Chicago or London, you know. We'd all be hearing about it every minute of the day.
Did you do much research on Rwanda to prepare yourself for the role?
Oh yes, yes, yes, yes. Lots, of course. I couldn't have been in the film unless I researched it. I researched it all, watched everything, read everything I could.
What were you thinking about the Rwandan situation while you were doing your research?
How could this have passed me by? And how could we have done nothing? I felt ashamed. I had the same reaction as many people who have watched the film, really. And it would have taken so little to make a difference.
Did you have a good time working opposite Don Cheadle?
Oh, he's an extraordinary actor. He's generous and truthful, and is a great storyteller. He's interested in the notion of storytelling, as I am. And so we're kind of on the same page. And he's also very funny and very good company, so I had a very good time. We're still very good friends now. And the same thing with Terry. I mean, Terry's passion is quite infectious, really.
Is the Hotel Mille Collines seen in the film a real hotel or a set?
It was a recreated, but they built it like the hotel. It was recreated and we had our little rooms inside it.
Did any of you get a chance to visit the real Hotel Mille Collines?
Terry did, yes, and I got the raw footage. He filmed a lot there.
How do you feel about the way Hotel Rwanda turned out?
It's so hard to watch. I'm very proud, but it's very hard to watch and be objective. And it was very emotional to watch. We put our heart and soul into it, and it's difficult to watch because you just want it to do so well, because you want people to know about what happened.
You have the upcoming action adventure Aeon Flux in the works. Is your role in that movie different than anything you've done before?
Yeah, totally. It's the antithesis of Rwanda, but it's great. I mean, if I had done another film like Rwanda, I'd have end up in the local looney bin. There's only so much you can do. And it was just perfect to just go and learn gymnastics and get really fit and kind of throw myself around on a wire.
Is your character good or evil?
I'm goodish. [laughs]
When is shooting scheduled to wrap up?
And you'll have a giant blockbuster on your hands come next summer?
Yeah, we hope! [laughs]
Thanks for your time.
Nice to meet you.