Thandie Newton may be the only actress on earth who can get away with using the word fecund in a sentence. What makes this even more interesting is that the sentence involves Mark Wahlberg. Consider her take on working with him in The Truth About Charlie, Jonathan Demme's remake of the flimsy sixties spy caper Charade, while nursing her 4-month-old daughter: "Mark is young and out there partying," she says, "and I was in a very maternal zone, homely and fecund."

Clearly Demme was hoping to generate some friction by scratching the feline Cambridge graduate with the imposing vocabulary against the simian Boston tough. ("In the rawest, most primal terms, Mark rates a ten," Newton says.) In Charlie, Newton plays a role previously inhabited by Audrey Hepburn, which makes a good deal of sense—she's gamine, elegant, European, and Hepburnishly long-necked. Wahlberg, meanwhile, takes on a part custom-tailored for Cary Grant, which makes sense only as an act of deliberate provocation. "I think Jonathan likes combining elements that wouldn't normally come together," Newton says, eyebrow arching slightly.

Long gone are the days when Newton's erudition served as evidence that she was more than "pussy and hair," as she puts it. Last seen by the megaplex masses dangling from Tom Cruise in M:I-2, she has carved out a CV that includes films for Bertolucci, James Ivory, John Woo, Demme (twice), and Anna Campion.

Also gone is her near monopoly on slave-girl gigs. The daughter of an English artist and a Zimbabwean princess of the Shona tribe, she played Sally Hemmings in Jefferson in Paris and slaves in Interview With the Vampire, The Journey of August King, and Beloved. "I thought I had a good angle on it because I was an outsider," she says. "I didn't have the baggage, so I could play people who were hideously subservient in a way that an American wouldn't be able to. Now I understand more why they wouldn't be able to do that. And I understand why it was sickening to people that I was able to do it so well."