Emma Thompson

She’s still one of the smartest actresses around, but now she’s glamorous too. At 46, Emma Thompson is finally letting go and loving her life.

By Sabine Durrant

Meet EmmaThere aren’t many clues to tell you that you’re standing outside the home of one of Britain’s most exalted film actresses. There’s the pretty rose, a touch of pink against the gray, in the front garden and a climbing hydrangea that gives the house an air of secrecy. But otherwise it’s just an ordinary semidetached house in an ordinary street in an ordinary suburb of London.It would be nice to write "And then you see her…" But the first moments with this actress don’t really work that way. Because when Emma Thompson, actress, writer, film star, comes to the door, her hair is scraped back, her body buried somewhere deep in a voluminous fleece top and baggy sweatpants. She greets you as if you’re an old friend, and when she drags you into the kitchen, she’s all no-nonsense movement — hurling the groceries into the fridge while telling earthy anecdotes and yanking up the fleece top to show the hairs on her navel to discuss the merits of feminine plucking. It’s only when you sit down at the kitchen table, across from those clear-water blue eyes, that slightly lopsided, surprisingly elfin face, that it strikes you she might actually be working hard to put you at ease. Because Emma Thompson may want to appear ordinary, to be ordinary, and she may still live on the street where she grew up, but she is, at the same time, extraordinary indeed. Emma Thompson is the accidental movie star. The quintessentially unactressy actress. A Cambridge graduate with leanings toward comedy and writing, she seems to have become what she is almost inadvertently. She has two Oscars cluttering up her bathroom — best actress for Howards End, best adapted screenplay for Sense and Sensibility — and that each was granted to a different aspect of her career is appropriate. You get the impression she does only what truly interests her. As the novelist Nick Hornby, with whom she’s currently working on a screenplay, says: "She’s not concerned with being a package. There’s no Emma Thompson franchise." She’ll do Hollywood (Primary Colors, Junior) or low-budget British comedy (Maybe Baby, by "my good mate" Ben Elton), she’ll play a housekeeper (Remains of the Day) or a lawyer (In the Name of the Father), an angel or a homeless person (she appeared as both in HBO’s Angels in America); the only unifying factor in Thompson’s roles is that, at the age of 46, her presence — most notably as the betrayed wife in Love Actually — is guaranteed to give a film a quality or depth, a brilliantly modulated expression of emotion.What She’s Doing NowIn her latest project, Nanny McPhee, she stars as Nanny, and Colin Firth plays the father. Thompson adapted the screenplay from Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda books (popular in England in the 1960s) about the naughty, naughty Brown children. "Nanny has taken up nine years of my life. It was terribly hard — but I’m most proud of it. I love it the most of anything I’ve done," she says. The film went to number one in the UK in its third weekend, which amazed her — "I normally make art-house films, so you don’t expect that" — but, typically, she takes even more satisfaction in the response of her local butcher. "Barry, off whom I buy the Sunday roast, said ‘What a good film!’ I was so pleased with that," she says. "You know, he’s 40; he doesn’t have kids. I get even more pleasure from that than from the big numbers." In Nanny, Thompson stars as the "tremendously ugly and rather mysterious" main character, and although she has been playing homely spinsters since she was a slip of a girl, she has never looked nearly this hideous before. She gleefully reports showing the trailer to Hornby: "He looked at it and said, ‘You are not going to be in any romantic comedy of mine. Ever.’" Thompson bangs the table in silent laughter. Then stops. "God," she drawls in mock despair. But she has never seemed to care how she looks on-screen — or off, for that matter. She hoots when she remembers turning up for the Academy Awards, at which she won best actress, in a Caroline Charles trouser suit: "The fashionista on the steps said, ‘Gawd love her, she looks dowdy in anything.’" She’ll happily divide the world into Elinors and Mariannes (Jane Austen’s embodiments of sense and sensibility), pitting herself firmly in the former camp, certain other actresses in the other: "Do you think Liz Hurley’s an Elinor or a Marianne? She’s a Marianne, isn’t she?" But she admits that her own brand of anti-self-consciousness is a sort of vanity: "This is probably snobbery and pride, but I couldn’t stand the thought of getting on a set and saying, ‘No, no, no, you can’t show that side,’ because then you’re not an actor anymore, are you?" She pauses, and then in a characteristic Thompson aside — in conversation, she often takes a topic, holds it up to the light and turns it around — she says, "But then think of somebody like Faye Dunaway in Three Days of the Condor — fantastic — and she probably spent the entire time going, ‘You’ve really got to shoot me from there,’ so that idea about who is really an actress is all bollocks too."A Day in the Life of EmmaWe’re meeting on what may be a typical Friday afternoon in the Thompson household. There are papers all over the table: diaries from a trip to Ethiopia for the charity ActionAid International. A few hours earlier, she was cleaning out her closets, receiving "tremendous satisfaction from throwing out all my old vests." Her 6-year-old daughter, Gaia, is at school, and the nanny and her baby (Thompson’s goddaughter) are out shopping. But Thompson’s husband, the rascally handsome actor Greg Wise (seven years her junior), is in and out of the room, shuffling through papers, checking for phone messages, occasionally striking a pose and saying things like, "We’ve got a lovely white pigeon in the garden." ("Ahhh, beoootiful," Thompson replies.)Their relationship "sort of exploded into being" in 1994 on the set of Sense and Sensibility. He seems a bit gloomy today. "That’s what I told him this morning," Thompson says. "I said he’s a grumpy old bugger at the moment, and he went off and got me a bunch of flowers and my favorite perfume and a decongestant because I’ve got a cold." But there’s a tiny note of softening in her voice when she adds, "He’s done more for my confidence as a woman than anything else." It seems no coincidence that since their marriage in 2003, she has started dolling up when going out in public — expensive dresses, blonde hair, that sort of thing. "You know, I was too proud to be seen as a woman who cared about her appearance. I was not going to be doing that because there are too many people doing that, and it’s all a crock. But" — she collapses her shoulders — "I can’t be bothered with that anymore. And then, Kathleen [her makeup artist] said, ‘I’m gonna dress you.’ It was like being a gigantic Barbie. We would shriek with laughter and have a ball." The press went wild for it. Did she enjoy the reaction? "The photographers — those boys in London, of course — I’ve known them for a long time, so they’re in paroxysms: ‘You look fantastic, you do. What have you done?’" She grins in pleasure at the memory but can’t resist deflating it. "‘I’ve shaved my legs,’ I said, ‘and got into a bit of a frock. You can’t see my varicose veins, can you?’"Thompson has always "absolutely adored boys" and still can’t believe she’s married to "the ultimate boy. And I’ll turn round and think, ‘Bloody hell, you’re gorgeous. How?’" In her 20s, Thompson wasn’t encouraged to think of herself as sexy, "or maybe I was embarrassed by it. Certainly my mother [the actress Phyllida Law] is very embarrassed by ‘feminine behavior.’ She told me when I was young about some posh actress she watched getting a cigarette out and waiting for someone to light it and then saying things like, ‘It’s a bit hot in here’ and waiting for somebody to open the window. But, you see, Mum’s point of view is compounded by the fact that her dad left her mum when she was 12, and she often said she felt it was because her mother had become tedious in some way. Mum had and still has a very, very sharp eye for the tiresome in a woman. I have followed suit partly in slavish devotion to my mother and also because actually I think feigned helplessness is tiresome." The Pain Lives OnThompson is still "slavishly devoted" to Law, who lives in an apartment across the street. Her own father, the director Eric Thompson, died when she was in her 20s. (Her uncle and her godfather died at about the same time: "Our lives were bleached of men.") She says, "I mean, we’ve had 25 years to get used to him being dead, but there’s always a hole," and her voice fades away. That was a horrible decade for her. If there have ever been tensions in the relationship with her sister, the actress Sophie Thompson, they came out then. And while Emma was feted as a serious actress (Fortunes of War, the sweeping television miniseries, introduced her and Kenneth Branagh to the world), her career as a comedienne came to a halt with her first television series, Thompson. "It was really torn to pieces. Oh yes, it was horrible. When you’ve done something that comes from your center and they hate you — and they did hate me…." Her personal life was also a mess. "Not having a domestic relationship with a man until I was 30 was quite unusual. My sister certainly did, you know, have normal boyfriend relationships; she shacked up with people and got to know them, whereas I only had deeply tortured unsuitable relationships with people who were not right at all. Whether to avoid, or whether to test or whether to punish, one simply doesn’t know."Her first marriage, when she was 30, was to the actor and director Branagh. They separated after his affair with the slightly younger and satisfyingly less successful actress Helena Bonham Carter. "He was profoundly exciting as a young man. I met him when he was 27. He just had this extraordinary charisma. He made things happen, and I’m addicted to experience." The breakup was bitter. Does she ever see him now? "I don’t really, no. A lot of damage was done, so maybe that’s why. But you can never tell with life. Things might turn up later, or we might work together again. I mean, as you get older, you think, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I’d really like to see that person again.’ You know, someone who tore your heart out and chopped it up and ate it with bacon." She breaks off and once again hoots with laughter.A New PlaceHer life now, with Greg and Gaia, is a satisfying place to laugh from, though the fact that she and Wise have only one child is a source of sadness to her. Gaia was conceived by in vitro fertilization, but attempts to come up with a sibling for Gaia using the same method were not successful. "IVF is horrible, horrible, and all those drugs and the invasiveness of it. Blah. Having said that, we have this daughter who, you know, is the center of my existence, and there is nothing…I can’t even begin…" She stops, uncharacteristically lost for words.For a while, they considered adoption, but Thompson was already 43 and wouldn’t have been allowed to adopt from the UK. Instead she decided to analyze her motivations. "I thought, ‘What is this desperation, this grief?’ Helen Bamber, who founded the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and who’s a friend, said, ‘You are feeling this grief because you couldn’t keep your father alive, and you feel like you can’t keep babies alive.’ I started to think about the things I could do usefully to help children and be in that frame of reference, if you like, of being a mother." Thompson’s work in Africa for ActionAid International followed, and a year ago, she met Tindyebwa Agaba, a 17-year-old boy from Rwanda at a Christmas party she held for the Refugee Council, the largest such agency in the UK. This young man now spends most of his time with Thompson’s family. "Funnily enough, through finding something else to do with my mothering instincts, other children have come and there is something to offer them — a life with an extended family, which I think is preferable to an entirely nuclear family. Tindyebwa is doing brilliantly now. He got wonderful A-level results this summer. He’s putting in applications for university. He’s going great guns."This domestic turn in the conversation prompts Thompson to get out a photo album and start showing me her wedding pictures. "Do you think this is too personal?" she says in an American accent. There’s Mike Nichols, who gave her away: "He’s funny and dry and clever. Everything you would want in a father figure really." There’s her sister, Sophie, and her two sons (one of whom kept saying, "I wanna go home"), and Sophie’s husband, Richard Lumsden, also an actor, and "Im and Jim" (actors Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter). There’s Gaia, grinning, and Greg and Emma, looking ravishing. And across the room from them in the photo is a picture of Thompson’s parents getting married."I do think I am enjoying being alive very, very much," Thompson says. "It’s just lovely getting older. You know, I don’t worry so much about myself really. I feel as though now there is no time for any of that, there’s no time to kvetch about who you are, what you mean. That sort of self-doubt belongs to when you’re younger." Emma’s Very Lucky LifeThompson impresses upon me how fortunate she is. Last year, she was filming in the United States, playing a tortured writer ("not much of a stretch, frankly!" she says, unable to resist making a joke) alongside Dustin Hoffman, Will Ferrell, and Queen Latifah in Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction. She admits she could move to Los Angeles any time because she’s one of the few British film stars to have made it big. "There aren’t many of us really. There’s Kristin [Scott Thomas], who lives in Paris. There’s Judi [Dench]." Instead, Thompson lives on the street where she grew up, surrounded by actors "who make a living, people you might know or not know."Before I leave, Thompson takes me across the street to say hello to her mother, and we stand on the sidewalk for a little while. Phyllida waves around an invitation to a fancy party, and Thompson makes a big gesture suggesting that she wants to go too, when her attention is caught by someone passing in the street. It’s just a woman with a stroller, weighed down by shopping and children. "Three children. And one on the way," Thompson says, noticing a detail I hadn’t. She’s silent for a moment, then she adds, in a perfectly matter-of-fact way, "Lucky thing."Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2006.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:02

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