T H E A D V O C A T E s e p t e m b e r 1 9 9 5
For her new starring role in Carrington, Britain’s favorite Oscar-winning royalty takes on sexual ambiguity and the complexities of loving a gay man
By Judy Wieder
“Someone from the press tried to talk to me while we were making Carrington, and I just couldn’t do it,” three-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner Emma Thompson says passionately. “I was too into my character. I couldn’t get out and be Emma.”
Exactly where the lines are drawn between Thompson and Dora Carrington—the unconventional ’30s English painter she portrays in Carrington, which opens November 10—is up for grabs. During the course of this interview, which took place in London at the Hyde Park Hotel, the 36-year-old actress came to the realization that there may be “more of Carrington in me than I’ve been admitting to myself. I always thought she was so different. It’s a bit unnerving.”
Equally unnerving is to expect to interview a somewhat austere actress with a stiff-upper-lip public image rooted firmly in Cambridge thespian aristocracy, Merchant-Ivory adaptations, and Shakespearean grandeur—only to encounter a free-spirited, barefoot, and blue jeans–clad renegade who doesn’t care if she never has children, wishes she could get out from under words, and wouldn’t mind having a thing with a woman someday. Maybe it’s an early midlife crisis? “Actually, I’m always looking for adventure,” she says, her clear blue eyes shining.
“Emma’s candor and openness are very much like Carrington’s,” says the film’s scriptwriter and director, Christopher Hampton, who won an Oscar for his screenplay Dangerous Liaisons. “I don’t know what the role is making her rethink in her own personal life, but like Carrington, Emma seems to have one skin less than everybody else.”
Born in London in 1959, Thompson is the daughter of director Eric Thompson and actress Phyllida Law. After early forays into acting at Cambridge University with the comedy troupe Footlights (which included longtime gay friend and actor Stephen Fry), Thompson won a British Academy award for her performances in two 1987 BBC series, Tutti Frutti and Fortunes of War. It was during the shooting of Fortunes of War that Thompson met and fell in love with her costar, Kenneth Branagh. He cast her in his 1989 Oscar-winning adaptation of Henry V, and the two were married soon after.
Thriving in the safe environment of her off- and on-screen relationship with Branagh, Thompson went on to costar with and be directed by her husband in Dead Again (1991), Peter’s Friends (1992), and Much Ado About Nothing. But it was her Oscar-winning performance in Ismail Merchant and James Ivory’s Howards End (1992) that once and for all staked out Thompson’s own special screen terrain.
Although more awards and Oscar nominations followed with The Remains of the Day and In the Name of the Father (both from 1993), for those who missed much of Thompson’s earlier comedic BBC and stage work, her slapstick stint opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Junior (1994) came as something of a surprise. Still, nothing she’s done to date is likely to prepare audiences for the extraordinary departure her performance in Carrington represents.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that has meant more to me,” Thompson says of the androgynous Carrington. The film tells the true love story of the courageous female painter and the celebrated Bloomsbury writer Lytton Strachey—a gay man portrayed by Jonathan Pryce, who won the 1995 cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor Award for his performance. Daring to explore the differences between love and desire, the film has had such an impact on Thompson that she’s begun “to question all sorts of things in my life.”
“Emma is an activist, so nothing she does would be surprising,” says Julie Christie, one of the original free spirits to reel out of London and on to international fame in the mid ’60s. “She’s not afraid to stand for—or stand up for—things that challenge conventional thinking. That’s something I value very highly.”
Currently putting the final touches on Sense and Sensibility, which she costars in with Hugh Grant and adapted herself from Jane Austen’s novel, the unexpectedly contemporary Thompson bursts into her hotel suite with a big grin and a friendly commotion.
Have you ever spoken to the gay press before?
[Circling the room, looking for something] Not knowingly.
Emma, are you ever going to sit?
Oh, yes, of course. I’ll sit here. [Flapping the shirttails of her blouse to cool herself down] I have just been doing telly interviews, and it got so fucking hot. My shirt is sticking to my back. Do you mind me smoking while we talk?
No, no... [Watches Thompson pull out papers and roll a cigarette] You roll your own?
Yeah. They go out a lot, and there are no chemicals in them, but they’re still not good for you. [Gets up to look for matches, then brings in her floppy purse and begins dumping things out of it] Good, I’ve got a lighter. My handbag is so full of shit. OK.
In your career, you’ve worked with several gay directors. Is there something in the sensibility of a gay director that connects with you differently than a straight director?
Yeah, I think so. But it’s a generalization, because one of the most feminine directors I have ever worked with is Ang Lee [who directed The Wedding Banquet and Sense and Sensibility]. With Ang, it’s an Eastern thing. But, yeah, there is something different. My uncle was gay and my godfathers; I was brought up in a very gay environment.
When I was young, the fact of their homosexuality was not hidden. It was so much a part of my life that when I went out, as it were, from the family environment into the world and discovered that homosexuality was not generally acceptable, I was deeply shocked.
So your introduction to homosexuality was quite different...
My experience is the opposite of most people’s—which is that they leave their homes and encounter homosexuality as something new and different. I was surrounded by gay people. It has never been odd.
Your gay uncle and gay godfathers actually raised you?
My uncle certainly did, and my godfathers, yeah, absolutely had a lot to do with my upbringing and my attitudes toward life. I was really lucky.
What about gay women?
I lived with two gay women at college, which was wonderful.
In both Peter’s Friends and Carrington you play a woman in love with a gay man. Has that ever happened to you?
No. I have never actually fallen in love with somebody who is gay. However, I have the honor of being the only woman I have ever known to pick up a gay guy in a gay club. I’m so proud of that!
Did you know he was gay?
Oh, yeah! He was just gorgeous. I’m just not used to thinking about the difference. What I think is more interesting is people who are asexual. I think that most people really are bisexual, but asexual people are very interesting.
You wonder if that is a real state or a frightened, withdrawn side of some other sexuality.
I know. I like people who are sexual because I am a very sexual being. I have always been driven in that way. That’s why I have gone for men who are very heterosexual, who have a very strong response to women.
That’s quite different from Carrington’s character.
What is so interesting about Carrington and Lytton is that they do contain so much of the masculine and the feminine, only the opposite in each other. Carrington didn’t like being female at the beginning. I think that was because she didn’t want to be penetrated in any way—not morally, physically, or spiritually.
And a gay man would leave her this space?
Yes, she didn’t want to be judged and she didn’t want anything to get inside. One of the things that attracted her to a homosexual—and I think it attracts a lot of women to homosexual men—is that he didn’t judge her.
Gay men don’t judge you physically?
They don’t judge you full-stop, actually. There is a great link between homosexuals and women, because women are also not part of the patriarchy that makes the rules and says what is right and wrong.
You see a bond?
Yes, but that might be changing. When I talk to my gay male friends, they say there is a new conflict between gay men and women. As the gay structure has gained weight and momentum, that creates a conflict. I think it will be very interesting to see what happens to a relationship that started off as the unspoken, mutual understanding of not being part of the superstructure.
Everyone assumes that there’s a huge bond between gay men and gay women, which there is, but unfortunately, until AIDS gay men didn’t always wish to include gay women. When AIDS hit the gay male community, they often turned to gay women for help. It can be seen as one upside to this awful disease.
And it’s very important to look at the positive sides to AIDS. I know AIDS had produced so many changes, not only in the gay world but also in the straight world, where people have had to think about very, very deep-rooted taboos. Matters of life and death always break these kinds of things down. AIDS has started to break down a lot of taboos, particularly between gay children and their heterosexual parents. They have to deal with homosexuality, and in dealing with it, they learn about it. Then they are able to communicate their learning to others around them.
Do you know that you have a dedicated following in gay men?
I have no sense of an audience or a group of people, any group of people, being aware of me. But I mean, that’s thrilling.
You have no awareness?
Well, yes, of course I know I have an effect on people. I suppose, in some ways, I have always tried to be the sort of woman I’d want to be. [Laughing] Do you know what I mean? I had a great role model in my mother, who was always against a kind of manipulative femininity. I too fought against that—even looking feminine.
Are you a feminist?
When I was young, I was very angry about the woman’s position and society’s attitude toward gay people. It just spurred me on to be berserk, and I wanted to get away from all those stereotypical women.
I know you’ve said that you get irritated with people talking about your marriage. I don’t know if you were speaking particularly about here in England, where they call you “King Ken and Queen Em.” So I don’t want to put you off with this question—
No, no, not at all, not at all.
Well, wait, you might be put off. Are you aware of the fact that there are rumors that you and Kenneth are a marriage of convenience?
[Puts her hands over her mouth to muffle laughter] Oh, no! I’ve never heard that one. That’s marvelous!
Yes, we actually heard a rumor that your husband fell in love with his male exercise trainer for Frankenstein. Emma, are you going to leave the room?
[Rocking back and forth in her chair] No, it’s wonderful! Just the thought of my husband with Josh is just very, very amusing. I’ll pass that on to them. They’ll both love that. They’ll adore that!
Did Kenneth just sign to do The Normal Heart?
That’s another rumor. I have heard him talking about it, but at the moment I know he’s not. He’s doing Hamlet next year, so he’s stuck in Shakespeare.
There are so many layers of sexuality going on in Carrington. Also there’s clearly a lack of monogamy, and yet there’s a devotion that’s even bigger than monogamy. Does this ring true for you and the way you lead your own life?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think the film asks so many questions—questions that have always been asked by the gay community. Masculine gay promiscuity has always been a tremendous fear for people who want to believe in the ideal of romantic love. That it is possible to have all kinds of erotic experiences without necessarily having that romantic relationship is very, very threatening to people.
But not to you?
I think it is something that human beings have to start accepting and exploring, because it is powerfully a part of our nature. Then, of course, you get into the question of female sexuality, which has never really been understood. And because we live in a Christian patriarchy, the whole notion of women having a kind of free sexuality is threatening simply because of inheritance.
What do you mean?
Meaning a man does not wish to pass all his wealth on to a child who is not his. And he may be doing that if his wife is allowed her independent sex life. This question of possessing other human beings has to be looked into. If we persist in this notion that somehow people have to belong to us, we are not going to get very far in any kind of development of our self-understanding. A lot of people find this thinking threatening because it asks exactly these questions: How do you live? Do you live full-stop? And do you understand that if you do live full-stop, you will suffer, because this will cause impermanence, and impermanence will bring loss and grief—and yet life is constant impermanence.
It was surprising to me that there were no women in Carrington’s life, that she never explored women sexually.
She did! Carrington had several female lovers later on in her life. We didn’t bring them to the screen. We couldn’t.
First of all, we had only two hours in which to examine 17 years, and the main love story, upon which we had to hook everything, was the Lytton-Carrington love story. We had at least four more love stories going on with all the different men that come into their lives and relate to one or the other of them—or in some cases both of them—sexually. I think to introduce more lovers, particularly female ones, complicates the story to such an extent that people would have gone away thinking, Well, fuck ’em all! But I would love to have done that—love to have done that.
We have heard that you are going to do the film version of Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness.
I want to do it, yeah.
The book is very stereotypical compared to our thinking about lesbians today. Would it be updated?
I would think it would have to be in some ways, because it suggests that the main character, Stephen, is a lesbian because she’s been brought up to be a boy with a boy’s name. You couldn’t make that the premise. I think that’s a problem for whoever writes the screenplay. Actually, I hope that in a few years’ time I’ll get a gay role in a romantic comedy.
In the beginning of Carrington, you are mistaken for a boy. Your hair is cut shortish, and you’re dressed somewhat butch.
A lot of lesbians have been told they don’t want to really be women when they dress like this. Did you feel any loss of femininity dressed this way?
Oh, no! I felt lots of freedom, complete freedom. But when I went to university, I shaved my head, wore little wrap glasses and butch overalls, because I didn’t want to be trapped in femininity. I felt it as a trap. I don’t think it is necessarily; I love seeing gorgeous women dressing themselves up as gorgeous women. I like looking at them.
But you don’t want to dress that way?
It’s not something that I feel comfortable with, because it draws a particular kind of attention that I’ve never wanted and that I’m really not interested in. I’ve never, ever wanted that extreme femininity. Carrington’s persona was incredibly liberating to me, even though it was also frightening because it posed so many questions.
You have said that Carrington’s character is so different from yours. I’m not getting that from you at all.
I know, I know! I don’t know whether that’s true. I think maybe I’m just kind of kidding myself. Why did I end up playing her?
So that you could play out some part of yourself?
Yes, I think so. I’ve got this very articulate image of myself—and I think that’s especially to do with Cambridge and with learning how to speak and how to really express myself. One of the major differences between me and Carrington is that I use words all the time to color everything. And Carrington was a visual creature. For her it was a wave of feeling—nothing to do with words.
And that’s not you?
I think that I have always been beguiled by people who can use words, which is very confusing, because people who can use words don’t necessarily know how to live life. [Laughs uproariously]
In fact, people who use words best use words to keep life at bay. It’s a great temptation, and it’s something I probably suffer from, because I want to explain all the time and I want to analyze all the time instead of saying, “Yeah, but what do I need? Where are my feelings?”
What about when you do a physical love scene with another actor, something that is beyond words, that only involves your body? Have you ever been taken away by that?
I think that part of the eroticism of doing a sex scene is that there are boundaries, but within those boundaries you can do whatever you want. If you want to be that vulnerable and that open, you can even make love.
Do you like doing sex scenes?
I haven’t done very many nude scenes or sexually explicit scenes in my career, because a lot of the characters I’ve played have been living in times when you don’t show that. But I found all the sexuality in Carrington incredibly moving to do. It was naked in every way, because I was using my body. Carrington was definitely a very sexual experience. It was very releasing.
What did it release in you?
The fact is, once you are at it hammer and tongs, as it were, the delicate thread of sexual tension is broken. I find that very satisfying. Look, we’re talking about sex, and sex is its own master, its own mystery, its own life force. It’s beyond us. Yet we’re always trying to get the “animal” back in the cage, you know?
What you’re saying is particularly important for gays, because the “animal” that runs through our lives scares homophobic people big-time. They really want it caged.
Oh, God, yes! But sex is the most powerful force in the world. So forget it. If we could only accept our own ambiguities and the variation of our souls and our desires, we would be so much happier.
You don’t have children. Do you imagine you will someday?
I never wanted children, but it doesn’t worry me one way or the other. I think if I got pregnant, I’d be very excited because I would think, Oh! A new era, a new phase, a new life. Wow! Anything that has ever happened to me that is different, I have welcomed. That’s what excites me, something that is unexpected or different or that I don’t know how to do.
There are a lot of fears about gay parenting. How do you feel about gays and lesbians raising children?
I think the more different kinds of parenting that we examine, the better. I’ve got two male gay friends and two female gay friends who have children, and to me there is no difference. I don’t understand why people would think gay parenting is threatening. It’s only threatening to what they perceive as some sort of inculcation. They think that if you are brought up by two male parents or two female parents, you are bound to look for a different kind of partnership. (a) That doesn’t matter anyway, and (b) I just don’t think it’s true. I think people will go their own way, whatever.
You think that being gay is biological?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. There is no question in my mind that it is entirely natural, therefore it must be biological. Whatever any human being does is natural, because a human being has done it. We like to call it unnatural because we like to demonize: good/bad, right/wrong, that way we can fit in. I don’t even like using the word “natural,” because it implies that there is an unnatural. That’s not the case. But don’t you think people are very frightened of their sexuality? I think a lot of people are very, very frightened of it.
Were you ever?
Never. I was incredibly lucky, because as a very sexual teenager, I was allowed to have a sex life. When I was 15, my mother took me to see one of the first proponents of birth control, who was 80 at the time. There was this 80-year-old woman telling me, “I give out birth control to allow human beings to enjoy each other sexually.” Even at that age, it was a revolutionary notion. I was so lucky—but even luckier that I wasn’t judged by my parents for having a very active sex life from a very early age and really enjoying it.
Was there ever any time—from your 15-year-old sexuality to today—that you felt sexuality for another woman?
[Long pause] No, not really. I’ve never met anybody who made me feel that way. But I have absolutely no problem whatsoever imagining it. And it wouldn’t be something that would be difficult to play onstage or in a film at all. It would be a tiny shift in perspective, actually.
Would you be surprised if it ever happened to you in your own life?
No, I have always longed for it to happen to me. I’ve longed for it to happen to me because it would be a really wonderful experience. It probably will happen to me one day.
Perhaps if you do The Well of Loneliness or anything in which you play a woman who is in love with another woman, then you will—
Yes, I think that’s when I will experience it, because it doesn’t frighten me, so I’ll allow myself to experience those feelings—which is why I would really like to play a lesbian.
If you do The Well of Loneliness or something else where you play gay, what actress would you like to be in love with?
[Pulling her hair and laughing] Oh, God, well, lots of women, because I love women so much. I think that because of my masculinity—I’ve got a lot of masculinity—I would probably put myself with somebody very feminine, overtly feminine like Michelle Pfeiffer. Actually, I find Michelle fantastically attractive. I’m always kind of rushing up to her and kissing her on the mouth because she’s so delicious. She’s so-o-o delicious. But oh, God, it could be any number of women, actually. I would go for somebody that I could really communicate with.
Do you ever get love letters from women?
No, I never have.
Well, you will now!
[Laughing] I sure will! A lot of women do write to me. I think more women write to me than men. Young women write to me a lot, because I represent something that is really strong for them.
You did a diary for Premiere magazine on the making of Junior. Would you considering doing that for The Advocate if you do The Well of Loneliness?
Oh, absolutely! that would be great! If I do The Well of Loneliness or anything that you’re interested in, I would love to!