Emma Thompson, packing a punch

Gabrielle Donnelly / 26 March 2014

Emma Thompson is back – after several Nanny Years raising her daughter.

Emma Thompson certainly knows how to make an entrance. She strides into the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, all long slim limbs, toothy jolly-hockey-sticks smile and hearty handshake; she stops briefly beside a wall pillar to strike a mock-sultry pose sending up her designer clothes and expensive hair and make-up. She is about to sit down to the interview when she spots genial film director Alexander Payne, who happens to be walking out of the room while she is walking into it.

‘Did you get my letter?’ she demands, bounding up to him and beaming broadly.

They have never before met; but to say that he is pleased to see her is a little like comparing Chopsticks to Beethoven’s Ode To Joy.

‘No!’ he shouts in delighted outrage. ‘Did you write me a letter?’

‘I wrote you a fan letter about The Descendants [the Oscar nominated 2011 film starring George Clooney],’ she says. ‘Didn’t you get it?’

‘No!’ he bellows again. He utters a short word beginning with ‘s’ and generally used to express the sentiment, Oh, darn, what a pity. ‘I’m going to fire everyone at my agency!’ he says, grinning happily. ‘I’ve been wanting to meet you!’

‘I’ve been wanting to meet you too!’ she says.

Some ten minutes later, she at last settles down, while he floats from the room, borne blissfully on wings of contentment. He has just been Thompson’d – and it is plain that he has adored every second of it.

First question to put to the lady herself, therefore, is irresistible. Did she really send him a fan letter?

On writing fan letters to other actors and directors

‘Oh, yes.’ She nods briskly: she is looking film star glamorous in a pale pink shirt over dark trousers, her thick blonde hair perfectly framing that long, unmistakably English face with the huge blue-green eyes. ‘I write loads of fan letters actually. I’ve been doing it since I was very young, and sometimes people write back. I wrote to Alexander, obviously. I wrote to Dan...’  (that would be Day-Lewis) ‘...after Lincoln, and he wrote back, which was very sweet of him.

'I wrote to Bruce Willis after Fifth Element, which I loved, and he called me, he was really pleased. I like a fan letter myself and I think it’s just really nice for people to receive letters which are not from,you know...’ she pauses, wondering how diplomatically to describe people who are less famous than she is, ‘...as it were, punters, but from your peers. People who are in your same profession. It’s a nice thing.’

On her family background

She has her feet firmly placed in niceness, a result perhaps of being more or less born in a trunk. She proudly describes her parents Eric Thompson and Phyllida Law as ‘penniless actors’ – although it’s hard to think they remained all that penniless after The Magic Roundabout came along when Emma was five. But she grew up, she says, with theatre in her bones.

‘A lot of it was tough,’ she says now. ‘I was a mistake so it was quite a thing for my parents to have me – one year my Dad had to get help from Equity. I was born in 1959 (she turn 55 this month), which was only 14 years after the end of the Second World War, and London was quite a dark place still at that time. Rationing had only just stopped and the year I was born was the year of the last pea souper. My parents told me that when the fog came in, you’d be standing on one side of the stage and you wouldn’t be able to see through it to the other corner. It was slightly Dickensian, when I was a child.’

On the other hand, she adds, it was a lot of fun to grow up around actors. ‘It was always so thrilling to go backstage because it smelled so good – of make-up and old damp felt and things like that. I remember meeting Kenneth Williams in a dressing room one time and him saying...’ she drops into a dead-on impression of the famed Williams whine ‘”Never get drunk on champagne, darling. The hangover is just not worth it.” I was 11 at the time!’

These days she hangs around with fellow A-listers such as Pierce Brosnan, with whom she stars in an amiable new comedy caper, The Love Punch, set in the south of France. ‘We’ve always wanted to work together. It was a no-brainer. We just said, “When do we start, when do we pack our knickers and toothbrushes? We’re ready!” Chemistry is an absolute mystery to me... we didn’t know it was going to work quite as easily as it actually did. But it was a joy.’

On her films to date

The 20 or so years of her acting career are well-documented. The glittering appearances with the Cambridge Footlights; the friendships forged with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie that last to this day; the brief flirtation with punk before the 1987 breakout TV series Fortunes of War; the Ken and Em years, when she and first husband Kenneth Branagh, darlings of the young theatre world, more or less double-handedly inspired the word luvvie; the 1992 Best Actress Oscar for Howards’ End, followed by the Best Adapted Screenplay Award for Sense and Sensibility three years later.

Then, however, she somewhat went to ground. There were the few more ‘mature’ roles in films such as Primary Colors, and Love Actually; there was Professor Trelawney in three Harry Potters, and there were of course the two Nanny McPhee movies. But nothing even approaching the frenetic pace of her earlier work until, suddenly, here she is again with four – count them – movies in the space of little more than 12 months: Beautiful Creatures and Saving Mr. Banks last year, and this year The Love Punch and Effie Gray (which she also wrote and co-stars in with husband Greg Wise). What happened?

On balancing motherhood and career

‘I’m a mum,’ she says simply. Her daughter Gaia is now 14 and Emma has been in a happy partnership for nineteen years with Wise.  

‘Gaia is still young and those years when they are very small are very precious. So for a while there I had what I called my Nanny Years. I more or less stayed at home and wrote the Nanny McPhee scripts and did a few things like the Harry Potters. They were great from that point of view because they were short jobs but well paid, so that gave me time to myself. But then when Gaia hit 12, we took her out of school and went around the world and had an amazing time. Then I came home and thought, “Hmm, I really need to get back to work and earn some money and just find something really interesting to do, because I actually feel like acting.”’

‘So I said to my agent, “Could you see what’s out there?” And he came back with three options. One was a very old lady in a wheelchair. Another was playing Bradley Cooper’s mother. And the third was Mother Teresa. So I thought, “They think I really do look like Nanny McPhee – I’d better go out there and do something about my image!”’

So she did. In The Love Punch she looks slim and gorgeous, playing a divorced wife who joins up with ex-husband Brosnan to get back the retirement nest-egg that a con-man has made away with.   In her four most recent films she plays, respectively, an evil witch (that's the same nanny image), the redoubtable PL Travers (creator of Mary Poppins), half of a good guy team in a crime comedy and a renowned Victorian art critic and historian.

Some critics have sniffed that the plot of The Love Punch is just a little, well, lacking in substance. At last year’s Toronto Film Festival she remarked, a little icily, ‘I’m fascinated by the fact that at the moment we don’t seem to make films that are designed to make you happy from the beginning to the end. We actors always seem to have to be on some sort of journey or other. In the olden days we didn’t have to do that. Sometimes actors were required to entertain!’

One accusation you could never level at Emma Thompson is that she’s shy of stating an opinion.

‘I’m a bit bossy really,’ she agrees, cheerfully. ‘And I have to say that some people find it quite difficult to live with, mentioning no names, but my first husband.’

On her husband, Greg Wise, and her life values

Luckily her second spouse is better able to roll with the punches than Sir Kenneth was. Greg Wise, a handsome, low-key actor whom Emma met on the set of Sense and Sensibility where he played the villainous Willoughby, prefers on the whole to stay out of the limelight; but Emma smiles when she speaks of him and loves him, she says, because he is kind. ‘He is kind to the root of his being and I admire that about him immensely.  

‘I tend to feel like Oscar Wilde did when he said that it’s every little action of every day that makes or unmakes character. And you need to be kind to everyone – it’s how you behave towards every person you encounter every day that makes you who you are, not just how you behave towards some of them. It’s no good being nice just to some people and then being unpleasant to the man who’s going to park your car or the woman who is doing your nails. That just doesn’t wash, you know.’

As well as Gaia, the couple have an adopted son, Tindyebwa Agaba – known as Tindy – a 26-year-old Rwandan former child soldier, whom they adopted in 2003. ‘He’s the only member of my family who knows how to load and clean an AK-47, which is something I’m quite relieved about. I’m sure that at some point we’ll need that skill,’ she says wryly, adding: ‘He’s a human rights lawyer – he’s just started his own organisation in Cairo.’  

Meanwhile, she confesses that she worries about Gaia. ‘There’s so much information out there and we both try to make sure she doesn’t have access to things that would disturb her too much. I can remember reading William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch when I was 14 – it was high up on my Dad’s bookshelf and I knew it was not allowed but I read it and I really wished I hadn’t. It was awful: it stuck in my mind like putty and I couldn’t get it out. So we’re quite careful with Gaia. She doesn’t have her own computer.

‘We allow TV but we’re quite strict about it and we only have one set in the house. There are all these terrible, impossible standards out there about how women should look that make young women judge themselves all the time and that’s just not how human beings should live. But they’re there and they’re meaningless and they’re insidious and we can’t just look away, we have to fight them.’

Bossy? Unquestionably. But somehow the world feels much better with Emma Thompson in it.

Find out more about Emma Thompson on her IMBd

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