As Sophie Okonedo was leaving her London home for the premiere of "Hotel Rwanda," her mother reminded her of a story. When Sophie was little, someone from the government came to visit the family's public-housing flat. "They check up on you in those places," Okonedo says. "In our small apartment we had a big bookcase with tons of books, and this man said to Mother, 'What do you do with all those books?' Because of course poor people don't read. My mother never forgot that."

In "Hotel Rwanda," Okonedo, 36, plays Tatiana, the wife of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), whose decision to house refugees at his workplace saved more than 1,200 lives in 1994. Tatiana's struggle to keep her family alive and together makes for one of the most memorable film roles in years for a woman of color. Born to an English mother and a Nigerian father, Okonedo believed she had much in common with the real-life Tatiana. "I'm a mother"--of a 7-year-old--"so I know all those feelings of protection you have for your child. And the story of Rwanda is such that you can't help but feel it to the core."

Okonedo was surprised she was chosen for the part: her only previous mainstream film was "Dirty Pretty Things" (2002). Her voracious early reading, though, had given her a love of language and literature that led her to a career onstage with the Royal Shakespeare Company; despite her upcoming action film, "Aeon Flux," with Charlize Theron, the stage remains her "first love." But in Act I of what we might call "The Bookworm's Revenge," her mom should get the curtain line. "Before I got on the plane to the premiere," Okonedo says with a smile, "my mother said, 'That bloke knows what we did with those books now'."