Emma Thompson Lives Our Fantasy Life

In her charming London home, the award-winning writer and actor finds joy with extended family, a pantry full of  comfort food—and a new burst of creativity. Her latest role: cantankerous Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, in Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks

by Leah Rozen
emma thompson image
Photograph: David Burton

Emma Thompson calls it her “poodle” look—the unflattering hairstyle she wears throughout Saving Mr. Banks (opening December 20). In this new, very un-Disney-like Disney movie, the two-time Oscar winner plays a middle-aged P.L. Travers, the cranky author of Mary Poppins and several follow-up books about the umbrella-toting English nanny. For the role, which is stirring up Oscar buzz, Thompson had her locks cut short, dyed dark brown and permed into a tight cap of stiff curls.

“Beware the hair,” she warned her friend Richard Curtis, the writer-director for whom she has starred in The Tall Guy, Love Actually and Pirate Radio, before meeting him for dinner during her Travers phase. “Emma’s gag that night was that she actually thought it was the style for her,” he recalls. “She wasn’t going to change it. She said she hoped Greg [Wise, her actor husband] would come around to the way it looked.”

Apparently he didn’t. “I didn’t get much sex, I tell you, in those two months,” she says of her time shooting Banks, which costars Tom Hanks as Travers’s employer and nemesis, Walt Disney, and (in flashbacks) Colin Farrell as her magnetic, alcoholic father.

On a recent fall afternoon, Thompson, 54, is sporting a far more winsome, streaky blonde bob when she swings open the front door of her house in an unpretentious north London neighborhood. Before answering the bell, the British star could be heard singing along to a recording of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. In her kitchen, where she has just brewed a pot of fresh ginger tea, she turns off the music while explaining that she’s preparing to play pie-baking Mrs. Lovett in five concert performances of Sweeney Todd with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center in March. “I am terrified,” she says. (She played her last major role in a musical in 1985, when she starred in a London stage revival of Me and My Girl.)

She is home alone this afternoon. Wise, 47, the dashing actor she met and fell for while they worked together in Sense and Sensibility (1995), is shooting a movie in Italy. Their daughter, Gaia, now 14, is staying late at school to rehearse for a production of West Side Story (“She’s one of the Jets. She’s singing and dancing and she’s loving it, I’m afraid,” reports Mum). Their son, Tindyebwa “Tindy” Agaba, in his twenties, a onetime child soldier in Rwanda whom she and Wise unofficially adopted 10 years ago, is in Cairo working with a refugee assistance program he helped found. (Long active in human rights work, Thompson says, “I see it as on the same level as cooking meals for the family. I don’t understand how to be alive and not be engaged in other people’s difficulties, even if they don’t directly affect your life.”) And her assistant, who was originally her daughter’s nanny (“She’s my nanny now,” says Thompson), is working at Thompson’s office just down the street.

First published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue

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