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
Globe in '92
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
"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.' "