The Im­por­tance of Be­ing Emma

On the cusp of 60, the Os­car­win­ning British ac­tor and screen­writer chats fam­ily, fem­i­nism, ag­ing and the joy of be­ing alive

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS -

THERE IS A PIC­TURE, taken at the height of the 2017 Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, in which I want to live. In it, He­len Mir­ren, Emma Thomp­son, Kris­ten Scott Thomas and Ni­cole Kid­man beam at the cam­era, arms around each other. It’s clear that Thomp­son is the in­sti­ga­tor – her na­ture is mis­chievous bril­liance – and it’s also clear that there could be no bet­ter con­ver­sa­tion hap­pen­ing in Canada or maybe the world at that mo­ment.

Of course, any con­ver­sa­tion with Thomp­son, 59, is the best con­ver­sa­tion you will ever have. I first met her in 1990, when she and Ken­neth Branagh, her then-hus­band, were liv­ing in a Hol­ly­wood Hills aerie, work­ing on their film Dead Again. She was do­ing three things at once: tak­ing off her makeup from a photo shoot (which felt like a metaphor – the longer we talked, the more her­self she be­came); pop­ping up to stir a huge pot of stock she had bub­bling on the stove (“Hello, you lovely,” she said to the stock); and ut­ter­ing streams of the fun­ni­est, frank­est and most in­ter­est­ing sen­tences any­one had ever said to me.

“She’s just so lu­mi­nously in­tel­li­gent,” Richard Eyre, the di­rec­tor of Thomp­son’s lat­est film, The Chil­dren Act, says. “An in­tel­li­gence that she doesn’t show off – it’s just there. She’s also hugely sym­pa­thet- ic. You be­lieve her.”

More than that, you be­lieve in her. In ev­ery role she’s ever played, from The Re­mains of the Day to Love, Ac­tu­ally and the Harry Pot­ter films, Thomp­son ra­di­ates hon­esty, hu­mane­ness and con­nec­tion. She con­ducts her life that way, too. She lives in West Hamp­stead, Lon­don and Dunoon, Scot­land, with her hus­band, the ac­tor Greg Wise (they met dur­ing the film­ing of Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity and mar­ried in 2003); their daugh­ter, Gaia, 19; and their son Tindyebwa, a for­mer child sol­dier from Rwanda whom Thomp­son first met at a Refugee Coun­cil event. She’s an athe­ist, a lib­eral, a “card­car­ry­ing, vir­u­lent fem­i­nist” and an ac­tivist for hu­man rights and the en­vi­ron­ment.

She is also hi­lar­i­ous, an ex­cel­lent sto­ry­teller, the naugh­tier the story the bet­ter. The Chil­dren Act, which is based on Ian McE­wan’s novel, is a tough film: Thomp­son plays Fiona, a British High Court judge who has to rule on the com­plex case of a mi­nor’s right to die, while her own life is fall­ing apart. And taxi scenes are tough to shoot be­cause the ac­tors are crammed in with the cam­era and sound equip­ment. But while shoot­ing a taxi ride in The Chil­dren Act, Thomp­son slayed the cast and crew with a clas­sic British thes­pian story, the kind ac­tors live to trade: Julie An­drews, dewy fresh at 18 in My Fair Lady, ap­proaches Rex Har­ri­son, no­to­ri­ously un­pleas­ant. “I won­der, Rex, could I pos­si­bly in­tro­duce you to my par­ents af­ter the show?” An­drews asks.

“Why on earth do you think I want to meet your c*nt­ing par­ents?” Har­ri­son replies. “Emma’s de­liv­ery was mar­vel­lous,” Eyre says.

I’ve in­ter­viewed Thomp­son nu­mer­ous times over the years, and – not un­like her lovely stock – she gets warmer, richer and more de­li­cious with ev­ery pass­ing mo­ment. Our most re­cent en­counter was at TIFF 2017, where she pre­miered The Chil­dren Act (it fi­nally opens in Canada this month). I told her she looked ter­rific. She replied, “Be­cause I’m lit­er­ally cov­ered in makeup – slapped up to the eye­balls in it.” Here are high­lights from that con­ver­sa­tion.

JS What are you glad you know now? ET I love this time of life. [She drops her voice dra­mat­i­cally.] I love it. I keep wan­der­ing into mates my age, and we’re just clutch­ing each other go­ing, “This is nice, isn’t it?” I’m still alive, and grate­ful for that ev­ery f**king day. I’m healthy [she knocks wood]. I have wis­dom. I have the means to make what I’ve learned pro­duc­tive. I’m very pro-

duc­tive. And I’m happy. I’ve never known how to use my pow­ers more and I’m in one of the most pow­er­ful times in a woman’s life.

I can get up and speak in pub­lic with­out wor­ry­ing about it, with­out think­ing, “Do I know how to make my point?” I have con­sid­ered cer­tain themes for so many years, that I’m able to de­fend the things I think need de­fend­ing; I’m able to make choices about what I do with my time so healthily; and I feel I have ac­cess to a men­tal health that I didn’t have ac­cess to be­fore. That’s very com­fort­ing and sooth­ing. I’m on very good terms with my­self. Ex­tremely good terms. That’s a great place to be. JS Was that hard get­ting to? What did you have to get over? ET Oh, boy. Oh, was it! Be­ing young, be­ing fe­male. Just be­ing born into a fe­male body – that’s enough to give you pause, isn’t it? JS My friends and I joke that we’re fi­nally free of our es­tro­gen poi­son­ing. ET Yes! Men have testos­terone poi­son­ing, and they have it for the rest of their lives, poor souls. [She sucks in her cheeks to de­liver her next sen­tence.] Meryl thinks we should put es­tro­gen into the drink­ing wa­ter, to mit­i­gate the testos­terone. JS Meryl. Streep? ET [Nods in an ex­ag­ger­ated, mic­drop way.] JS Who else are you glad you know now? ET All my old­est friends, peo­ple I’ve known for nearly 50 years. The rich­ness of old friend­ships is a glory, much to be en­joyed. JS How do you like be­ing the mother to adults? ET My kids are so in­ter­est­ing! My son is work­ing with the United Na­tions Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion; he was just back for a week from his job in Iraq, and we had a wild, fas­ci­nat­ing time dis­cussing what he’s been do­ing. He’s work­ing with dis­placed peo­ple com­ing out of Mo­sul. Which has been pretty rough. My daugh­ter is study­ing amaz­ing stuff. Talk­ing to them is so great. Boy, am I glad I know them. JS What’s your idea of a per­fect day? ET Wak­ing up in Scot­land. The sun is shin­ing. I hard-boil some eggs, get out my lit­tle ruck­sack and stick in an egg, a packet of crisps, some fruit and a bot­tle of wa­ter, and I head off with any mem­ber of my fam­ily who hap­pens to be around, walk up a hill and look at the view. Be on my own with the wind. I’m a lit­tle bit tired when I get back, so I lie in the ham­mock, nod off for half an hour. Then I have a cup of tea with mum [the ac­tress Phyl­l­ida Law], talk about the news. Then I head off to the kitchen, and cook some­thing lovely, maybe a risotto, some­thing aro­matic with herbs. At six, I go up to the bar, which my hus­band built when the smok­ing ban came in, and have a drink with the fam­ily. Then at half past six, I go down, fin­ish off din­ner, and they all come down and eat. JS Your hus­band built a bar in your house? ET In Scot­land, in one of the barns. And he doesn’t even smoke any­more. Well, hi­lar­i­ously, he smokes a pipe. I caught him wear­ing socks and san­dals the other day. He’s not go­ing to for­get about that in a hurry. JS What do you like about mar­riage now? ET That all our cor­ners have been rubbed off, and we just laugh like hye­nas most of the time. It’s heaven. We get hys­ter­i­cal some­times, and our chil­dren get quite cross. We’re like kids. Of course, you have to be able to for­give, to let things go. Be­cause we all make mis­takes. Don’t carry it around. That thing of say­ing, “You al­ways do that” or “You’ve al­ways done that” – that’s death to any re­la­tion­ship. JS What made you say yes to The Chil­dren Act? ET Ev­ery­thing about it was fas­ci­nat­ing to me. Fiona is do­ing a job that’s com­pletely ab­sorb­ing, that takes so much from her. I mean, all women need to be bet­ter than men at what they do. I don’t care what men

say about that – it’s true. In the course of my re­search, I be­came friends with two fam­ily court judges, and my ad­mi­ra­tion for these women – they have fam­i­lies, they work hours you can­not imag­ine, their brains are so ex­tra­or­di­nary. And they bal­ance that with their ca­pac­ity for com­pas­sion, com­mon sense, un­der­stand­ing – things that some­times are not read­ily avail­able to the law as it stands. And the broader story is about a bor­der in the hu­man land­scape be­tween re­li­gion and a sec­u­lar in­sti­tu­tion, the law, and how quar­rel­some that bor­der can be. It’s so timely. JS How did you cope, play­ing such a heavy sub­ject? ET I did light a lot of scented can­dles. I play the pi­ano in the film, so I had a pi­ano in my dress­ing room. That was re­ally help­ful. When things got emo­tional, I would go to my trailer and prac­tise. JS You’re writ­ing a mu­si­cal ver­sion of Nanny McPhee for the the­atre and a screen­play for a ro­man­tic com­edy-drama. You also played Goneril in a tele­film of King Lear with Tony Hop­kins. What did you learn from her? ET She’s a piece of work. I re­ally want to know, how were those girls brought up? They were shat on from a very early age. Lear is a dread­ful old bas­tard. I look at those girls and think, “Yeah, he re­ally messed you up, didn’t he?”

I’ll tell you what I’ve come to un­der­stand about my­self – like a lot of women grow­ing up in the 1970s, some of us swal­lowed the pa­tri­archy whole. You think that within that sys­tem, you can shift it and change it. I now un­der­stand that’s not pos­si­ble. It’s a sys­tem that needs to be shifted. Be­cause it’s not work­ing. It’s not serv­ing us. Be­cause it’s so one-sided and lop­sided and overde­vel­oped in some di­rec­tions, many of which are fan­tas­ti­cally un- healthy. I now re­al­ize it’s not for me to try to make my way in a man’s world. It’s for the men to come into our world and say, “How do we do this? Can you help us?” It’s time that they come and ask us. JS Who else has caught your eye lately? ET I saw a Tas­ma­nian comic in Ed­in­burgh, Hannah Gadsby. [Her one-hour spe­cial, Nanette, is now on Net­flix.] Her show is so fresh and so brave, speak­ing the truth about what it is to be fe­male. It isn’t ag­it­prop, it isn’t dogma. It was just the f**king truth, and I’d not heard it! I was so ex­cited and in­spired by it. JS How do you keep your­self op­ti­mistic? Are there things you have to tune out? Or do you force your­self to pay at­ten­tion? ET I’m not on any so­cial me­dia. But I’m ac­tive. I re­cently did a Green­peace photo in a wind farm to an­nounce that wind tur­bines now cost half as much as they used to, and this is a fan­tas­tic step for­ward. I feel there’s a real move­ment hap­pen­ing, peo­ple are com­ing to­gether from all sorts of si­los, join­ing up. I feel very hope­ful, in that sense. Whether we make it or not, that’s an­other ques­tion, be­cause the cli­mate change is­sue is so dev­a­s­tat- in­gly ob­vi­ous to all of us now, ex­cept to peo­ple who still are bam­boo­zled by the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try. They just can’t see that wind power, which is clean and cheap, is also some­thing that no one will ever fight a war over. JS What other ad­vice would you im­part to the world, if you could? ET I would say at the mo­ment, be­cause it’s a dark time, you need to con­nect. Make a con­nec­tion. Do that now. Find out where peo­ple are mo­bi­liz­ing and re­sist­ing the dark stuff. It’s no good hold­ing your hands up and go­ing, “Isn’t it aw­ful?” Be ac­tive. Do some­thing. You feel bet­ter im­me­di­ately. Ran­dom acts of kind­ness, also. Get con­nected and do one ran­dom act of kind­ness a day, and you’ll be happy. JS Last ques­tion. How do you deal with ag­ing? ET I think you have to ac­knowl­edge what’s chang­ing, what you’re los­ing and lean into it. You have to say, “Oh, god, I’m re­ally sad about the fact that my legs look like this now.” Gen­er­ally speak­ing, I’m not a mir­ror girl, so I don’t think about that too of­ten. Al­though I did get into a yoga po­si­tion the other day that was so hor­rific. Any­way. I think ac­knowl­edg­ing all sorts of rage or frus­tra­tion or fear about get­ting older is mas­sively im­por­tant. It’s no good wan­der­ing around go­ing, “You’re as old as you feel” or “Age is just a num­ber.” No! Get­ting older is a real thing. Your body chang­ing is a real thing. Be hon­est with your­self: What do you re­ally feel about it? Then ask, “So how do I ac­com­mo­date that in my daily life?” be­cause you’re as young as you’re ever go­ing to be. Start with “I’m alive,” and that’s a fan­tas­tic thing be­cause I could easily be dead. Easily. My fa­ther died at 52. I’m re­ally grate­ful to be alive. I’m re­ally, re­ally grate­ful to be alive. And I find from that, all else fol­lows.

He­len Mir­ren, Emma Thomp­son, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ni­cole Kid­man dur­ing the 2017 Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val

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