Chimerica: Interview with Sophie Okonedo (Tess Kendrick)

Category: Interview

What were your first impressions reading Lucy Kirkwood's script?

I thought it was a really epic story that investigates so many different areas - something really original, different and complicated. I was drawn to this project because it was just so interesting and it touched on subjects that I hadn't seen in a script before.

The image of the anonymous Tank Man in Tiananmen Square is at the centre of this narrative, why do you think it’s such a powerful photograph?

I just think it's so powerful because it's just a single man against these huge tanks - so that's incredibly poignant.  You don't need really need any words for it.

Tell us about Tess Kendrick and her backstory. Can you tell us what challenges she faces during the series?

Tess is an interesting character full of contradictions, and I think it's so human to play someone like that. She works for an American credit card company who are trying to break into the Chinese market and her job specifically is in profiling. She goes into China and makes profiles of the type of customers they're trying to sell to.  She's quite comfortable working in a corporate world.

She was married and lived in London working for a similar type of company in London and then after a painful divorce moved to New York. When we meet her she’s still new to the city and she doesn't really know anybody – she’s quite lonely and so her whole attention is on her work. She focuses on her trips to Beijing and it’s on one of these flights that she meets Lee Berger and Mel Kincaid. Tess gets drawn in to their search for the Tank Man and the thrill of piecing together the jigsaw of his identity.

The series deals with our relationship to truth and how it has changed over the years, particularly due to advances in technology (photo manipulation, social media, 24-hour news cycle etc). Can you speak about Tess’s relationship with the truth and what it means to her?

Tess’s relationship with the way technology has advanced and the way photography is manipulated is different from Lee’s – she doesn’t see that his manipulating two real images together in a hybrid to tell a story as an issue. It’s not about the truth of the specific image but more the truth of the story it’s telling and the power of the image to affect people.

What has it been like working with Lucy Kirkwood on creating your character?

The character was already there on the page so fully formed, but I really enjoy working with playwrights. I came up professionally the same way as Lucy, through the theatre, so I’m used to having a script as my bible. Lucy thinks so deeply about every word that it’s been a very rich experience.

Can you tell us a little bit about Tess’s relationship with Lee and what attracts her to him?

Tess and Lee together are an interesting mix - I think at another time in her life perhaps she wouldn't have struck up a relationship with him, but he enters her life when she’s quite vulnerable and living in a strange place with not many friends. Lee brings a whirlwind of excitement along with him which gives her a thrill and fills a gap in her life – but it’s not straightforward, she’s not immediately sure of her feelings for him. 

How do Tess’s ideals and opinions evolve over the course of the series?

She's not without heart, Tess, she does care about people she meets and politically she is also anti-Trump. Some of Lee’s ideas are things she’s probably thought about before but through meeting him she becomes a little bit more open to being politically active if only on a very personal level. Over the course of the series she definitely shifts her perspective, and part of that is from her experiences with Lee who opens her eyes a bit.

Have you found any ways in which you can relate to Tess?

Yes, I think it's very human that she's full of contradictions and she's not ashamed of them. That feels familiar to me – but there is a lot about her as a person which is quite different to me and my experiences.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned through the experience of filming the series or researching your role?

I didn't know anything about customer profiling before this and now I know quite a bit! It’s quite scary, we’ve been filming this as the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal came out and it made me even more aware of how much we are monitored and profiled on a daily basis through the gadgets we have.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Chimerica?

If you look at the Tank Man picture itself you think – there’s a man standing up against a tank in protest – but really the context of an image is not always so simple, there are other ways of looking at that picture and I think Lucy’s story demonstrates those nuances. Everyone has a slightly different take on the same story which is really interesting, and you get to decide for yourself what you think happened.