Actress Sophie Okonedo, a Tony Award nominee for her role in the Broadway revival of "The Crucible," gravitates toward serious and important work
Actress Sophie Okonedo, a Tony Award nominee for her role in the Broadway revival of "The Crucible," gravitates toward serious and important work on stage, film and television. (Scott Gries — the associated press)

NEW YORK >> It was the last day of 2015 and Sophie Okonedo was getting ready to go out and have fun at a New Year's Eve party when she got an email that would keep her very sober indeed.

It was from the creative team of the Broadway revival of "The Crucible" and they politely wanted to make sure that Okonedo would have all her lines memorized by the first day of rehearsals in a few weeks — and in an American accent.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God.' My New Year's Eve party was ruined. I went into complete panic after that," said Okonedo. "But I did come with all that ready. We all did."

New Year's Eve may have turned into a bummer but audiences on Broadway this spring surely believe it was worth it. The revival of "The Crucible " got four Tony Award nominations, including one for Okonedo.

"Sometimes you just have a gut feeling. I hadn't even read the play for years and I just said, 'Yes, I'll do it!'" she recalled. "Then I thought, 'Oh, I should think about this, shouldn't I?' But I didn't have time to think."

Dutch visionary director Ivo van Hove has starkly illuminated the paranoia and descent into madness as a small town turns on itself in Arthur Miller's classic tale about the Salem witch trials.

"I felt like I understand the panic these people are in," Okonedo said. "You only have to read the news to understand religious fervor or strongly held beliefs by the people in charge and everybody has to follow those beliefs or you're out."


It's the English actress' second time on Broadway, having made her debut in 2014 playing Denzel Washington's wife in "A Raisin in the Sun" and winning a Tony for best actress in a featured role.

She was actually still in "A Raisin in the Sun" when she was offered the part of Elizabeth Proctor in "The Crucible" by producer Scott Rudin. He wanted her to lead a cast that includes Saoirse Ronan, Ben Whishaw, Tavi Gevinson, Ciaran Hinds and Bill Camp.

Camp, who also earned a Tony nomination playing the Rev. John Hale, is in many ways Elizabeth Proctor's nemesis inside the theater but he is a fan of the actress who plays her.

"It's just a privilege to have the opportunity to actually look into Sophie Okonedo's eyes and work with her on the stage. The stakes are just about as high as they get. It's just a privilege," he said. "She's quite amazing and she's always working. Always working."

Okonedo has put her body and soul and something else into the production — her sweater. Costume designer Wojciech Dziedzic fell in love with the actress' own sweater — known as a "jumper" in England — that she wore during rehearsals.

"I thought, 'I don't want to give my own jumper to this production.' But he kept going on about it and we tried every other jumper and jumpers that looked like it. In the end, I said, 'I will donate my jumper to the production.'" She doesn't want it back? "I'll be sick of it by then," she said, laughing.

Okonedo, who earned an Oscar nomination for "Hotel Rwanda," was raised in London and studied at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. At the age of about 7, she was watching a variety show on TV when the cast of the musical "Annie" came on.

"One of the little orphans was a girl who looked like me. I was so sort of struck by this — that there was someone in the chorus who looked like me — that I thought it was just fantastic. I was going to do what she did," she said.

She gravitates toward serious and important work and that trend has continued in two small-screen dramas that she did for the BBC that are due to air in America this fall.

In the miniseries "Undercover," Okonedo plays a human rights lawyer whose 20-year marriage she discovers is based on an explosive lie. And in the latest series of "The Hollow Crown," Okonedo plays William Shakespeare's Queen Margaret in "Richard II" and "Henry VI." What, no silly movies with aliens?

"I think even if I did a frivolous sci-fi, I feel I'd still have to find something in it for myself," she said. "I don't think I'd be good otherwise. I don't think I can just pull faces and make sort of funny voices."