E M M A S   T R U E   C O L O R S
e l l e   m a g a z i n e   n o v.   1997
b y :   T a d   F r i e n d

I went in for an MRI for my two herniated discs," Emma Thompson says. "I'm in my tiny lunatic's outfit, anxiously waiting to be trundled into this cigar tube, and the MRI doctor sidles over. 'I've got a script for you. But I'm not sure you're right for it- you may be too old.' I said, 'I'm only 45.' And he looked quite discouraged- apparently the script featured a lot of large- bosomed women in bikinis." Laughter lights her eyes. Yet though the story is self- deprecating and playful in several respects- Thompson gives "large-bosomed" a wry spin; she is actually only 38- it also reflects her sensitivity to careless scrutiny.

We're in her suite by a leaf- blown swimming pool at the Bel-Air in Los Angeles, where she and boyfriend Greg Wise (the dashing Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility) have been in residence much of the year. Thompson's first visit was for five months as she played the Hillary Clinton- like Susan Stanton in Mike Nichols's Primary Colors, out this month. Based on Joe Klein's roman a clef about the 1992 Clinton campaign, the film also features John Travolta as candidate Jack Stanton, and Adrian Lester as a black George Stephanopoulos. After a career of doing Shakespeare, Austen, E. M. Forster, and the odd knockabout comedy, Thompson makes her bow to big mainstream Hollywood drama with Primary Colors. It's her Sally Field role: She plays a whip- smart woman who puts her feelings aside to take charge in a crisis (remember Gennifer flowers?). Now Thompson has returned to the Bel-Air -and her more nuanced dramatic roots- as she and Wise complete their independent film, Judas Kiss. "We're in a welter of hiking boots and sweat socks here," Thompson says, apologizing for the mess as she pads around in thick purple socks, black leggings, and a woolly green turtleneck. "The problem, I believe, is that I'm just a lazy slut." She wipes off makeup, boils water for tea, then sits cross- legged in her chair. When I reach for a cup she says sternly, "You must let that steep for ten minutes." The aqua teapot cost $7; the brown sugar is presented in a martini glass. It's the Mad Hatter's tea party, down to the pink "Honorary Lesbian" award propped nearby- a tribute to her turn in a recent Ellen, Thompson sent herself up as a gay lush who frantically licked vodka from the bottom of a glass, then barreled from the closet with abandon: "Let's go out and terrify some Baptists!"

Thompson likes playing clumsy and out of control, likes toying with her Waterford- crystal image, In The Tall Guy, she and Jeff Goldblum broke all the furniture in the bedroom in one athletic love scene; in Peters Friends she (misguidedly) disrobed in front ofher (gay) friend Peter and, beaming with idiot bliss, cried, "Fill me with your little babies!" Offscreen Emma Thompson has an equally sketchy acqualntance With impulse control: She shaved her head at 20, character in put her Oscar for Howards End in the bathroom of her London home, and at the theater often longs to shout, "Rubbish!" or "Get them off". After a few minutes of conversation, it becomes clear that we're both uneasy with this slippery business of celebrity proflles. "If it's Pamela Thing Thin, [Anderson] and Tommy Lee Thingityblah, with their sex video tape-if it's fantastically salacious-then that's interesting," she says. "But otherwise, who cares? If I was a journalist, I wouldn't want to interview actors and listen to their tedious thoughts on their craft."

"I do it for the money." "' "It's whoring!" she says gleefully. "You're whoring!" "Well, we both are." "Absolutely! I'm a cog in the giant publicity machine, and I only do it because I'm made to feel like a heap of shit if I don't." We're both smiling. She jumps with knight's- move logic, confident I'll know how she got there: "Words, hard words, words on the page are wholly different than us sitting here talking." "Like when you said, 'Ken is so tired doing so many jobs. I should think all his sperms are on crutches'?" I ask, referring to actor-director Kenneth Branagh. "Oh!" she says. "Perfect example. It was a joke. I was backstage after winning a Golden Globe in '92 doing stand- up, getting quite a laugh. Someone asked about getting pregnant, and I thought, Oh, personal question, laugh it off. So I tossed off that sperms joke, and everyone laughed. But when I saw it written down, I thought, Oh, my God! It was so wounding. quite good grounds for divorce on its own. I groveled in apology, and Ken was really good about it." She makes a small, sad I face. "But that was a ground of contention between us, that I was so open with the press. He was very cIosed, and he felt I should be. ..and he was right." When they married in 1989, Thompson and Branagh seemed to be living a fairy tale. They made four movies together, attended premieres with the likes of Prince Charles, and were glamorous international "luvvies." "It was wonderful for three years," Thompson says. "Ideal- you're working together, you understand each other ...but it didn 't last. Constitutionally he just wasn't suited to marriage.

"In a funny way," she continues, making another intuitive leap, "all the things you keep private in interviews are extremely clear to the public on other levels- they sense unhappiness on-screen. Your facial muscles look funny, or whatever-it's all subterranean and in animal-y." Her face is framed by her hands. "I do this job because I'm sort of exuberant and a show-off and clownish. I like the applause and making people laugh and cry and receiving their feelings in return. But meanwhile, all these unintended things are communicated. I saw Sense and Sensibility on TV recently and thought, blimey. I filmed that when I was just getting out of the marriage, and all the terrible fatigue and misery is there on my face, there for all to see." She smiles bravely. It was then that Branagh ended up with Helena Bonham Carter and Thompson with Wise. "So. ..."
In the Ellen episode it'was "revealed" that Thompson is really from Dayton, Ohio. Absurd yet she made it comedically plausible. "Dayton is very nasal, with the 'parr-king lot' and the hard 'r's," Thompson says now, nailing the adenoidal tones perfectly, "while for Susan Stanton I did a hard Chicago accent that's flatter, much chewier." She now sounds like an eager hog-bellies trader. "But you must have the reason for the accent. For Primary Colors the key to Susan Stanton is that there is no gap between thought and ac- tion." (When Susan gets bad news, she slaps John Travolta; when she gets more bad news she slaps Adrian Lester.) "My Susan Stanton seems more hard- nosed, more sharp as a knife than Hillary Clinton." Hillary doesn't strike you as hard-nosed? . "Yes, very much. ..."Thompson begins, blithely reversing course. She mentions that she prepared by watching an A&E Bi- ography of the First Lady: "Running for president and maybe being able to change the world must be thrilling. When I tried shifting into that mind- set I got this terrific buzz. But I don 't know how it is for Hillary- I've never met her." She bubbles with laughter. "And Im not bloody likely to now, am I? "I also just did a Southero FBI agent named Sadie Hawkins for Judas Kiss. " Her voice has become pure molasses. "My voice coach, Joan Washington, says that accents have to do with social history. And with weather." She takes a breath and ladles out a big dollop of grits: "With the Southero thing you've got to get all that air out of your lungs, get it all out before anyone else can talk, because the air is too hot and you don't want to have to breathe in, it makes absolute sense that you're trying to keep this thick air out of your body."

It makes no sense at all, actually. But it's lovely. She shows off with a delicate awareness of the pleasure it gives each of us doing her plummy BBC voice and her Tim Roth voice, segueing seamlessly into her Tim Roth-as-a-New Yawker voice. So what couldn't you play? I ask. She trundles out a funny answer as if each word were heavy as a sewing machine: "Spanish ...um ... flamenco. ..expert? And I couldn't do Southern white trash"- though she dips reflexively into a L'il Abner twang- "because there's something about me that's patrician, in an odd way. It's physiognomy-the hands and the nose and the cheekbones." She slides her fluted fingers along her vaunted cheekbones with a sense ofwonder. Indeed, Thompson is one of the very few people who can say a line like "In fact, her romantic prejudices have the unfortunate tendency to set propriety at nought" without sounding like they have a mouth full of soda crackers. "But in your journal about writ- ing the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility you said, 'l look like a horse with a permed fringe,' " I point out. "In my journals, from when I was fifteen I'm talking about how fat I am," she says truefully. "It's an absolute mantra. But if I have to do a nude scene, I won't fudge it, I won't lose 20 pounds, because I don't want to screw up young women the way that I was screwed up by magazines and images- all those ideas that can cause illness and death and profound self- loathing. I'm proud that I won't lie, given my feelings about how fucking fat and ugly I am." Is that hateful idea fixable? "It's fixable ..." she says slowly, having no idea where this thought is going but curious to find out, "because I control it with a will of iron, by eating and drinking a lot." Thompson breaks into peals of laughter, and we both end up grinning like madmen.

I had a photo shoot today," Thompson volunteers after a long pause. "I hate photo shoots, I can't do them anymore, except if l'm allowed to wear my own clothes with no makeup. And this morning I suddenly felt there was too much attention on me. When you're young, you believe that you're quite interesting. As you get older and the interesting part of you actually starts to grow, a photo shoot seems to have nothing to do with you, somehow, and you feel embarrassed and apologetic. "So I burst into tears and said, 'I'm so sorry, I can't stop crying.' I took my makeup off and went for a walk. Afterward I thought about what I'd done this year: two movies back to back, in between learning Spanish, travelling to Chile, injuring my back, having a miscarriage, and getting divorced. And so I shouldn't feel surprised that I'm burnt out and sort of. ..ugly." She laughs, turning her eyes toward me. "When the camera was turned upon me I just thought, No, no, no. It reminded me of that wonderful word glamour- originally, when a witch put on her glamour, it was an actual thing, a charm that took visible form. And now you just don't have your glamour with you- it's in a shoebox somewhere." The boisterousness has vanished beneath a tide of emotional honest, a welling-up that is a form of trust. These wells of feeling, which are exhausting to undam, are what prompted Thompson to teach her father English from scratch after he'd had a stroke. And they are the reason she is so quietly enthralling on- screen. In crowd scenes it is always Thompson we watch; she unerringly reflects the emotions at play. In the recently released The Winter Guest, there is a wonderful moment when a boy on the beach touches Thompson's spiky auburn hair and remarks that it tickles; her warily yearning expression declares more clearly than speech that it is the first time she's been touched since her husband died. And there is no more affecting scene in recent film than the one in Sense and Sensi- bility in which Thompson sobs uncontrollably upon learning that her secret love, Edward, is not married after all.
> Thompson, of all the actors I've interviewed, seems the most real. Her engagement in the moment, her curiosity and wild lunges of logic and affection remind me of the life- intoxicated Natasha in War and Peace. Like Natasha, Thompson winces at false emotion. When, after more than two hours of headlong conversation, we get on to Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain, Thompson is clearly furious about the book's soppy ending: "Oh, fuck om" she says, as if Frazier might be hidden in the room somewhere. "You've tried too hard to win me here, to soothe me."

This connects to why she always wanted to be a comedian, not an actress. "I never liked Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplin, I only liked Huster Keaton," she says, frowning. "I was so supremely in love with him because he was so beautiful. But also because he never moved his face except in very subtle ways, and he was a genius. Charlie Chaplin was a genius, too, but he was too cute, always asking for love. Buster Keaton never said, 'Pity me' or 'Love me.' He said ...,,- Thompson dives within herself. Her eyes bank and then flare, and she has somehow thrown on Keaton's chalky, flat-lipped beauty w hen she declares, "He said. 'I am a wreck. I am a wreck. Look at me.' "