Emma Thompson’s Wonderful Thoughts on Feminism, Ageism, Trump, and Teapots

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Photo: Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

There’s a maxim in Hollywood that nobody knows anything, but perhaps they simply haven’t talked to Emma Thompson. The outspoken Oscar-winning actress can expound on any subject with experience and wit. With her new film A Walk in the Woods out this week, we called Thompson up and asked her to go off on a wide variety of topics. Read on, and be both delighted and provoked.

Older men dating younger women in the movies
Maggie Gyllenhaal made headlines earlier this year when she was deemed "too old" to play a 55-year-old's love interest, and even 20-something actresses like Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone find themselves frequently paired with middle-aged men old enough to be their dads, a subject that vexes Thompson. “The age thing is insane,” said Thompson, though she noted, “It was ever thus. I remember saying years and years ago, when I was 35, that they’d have to exhume somebody to play my leading man … Nothing’s changed in that regard. If anything, it’s got worse.”

In A Walk in the Woods, the 56-year-old Thompson is cast as the wife of the decades-older Robert Redford, and while Thompson says she jumped at the chance to “play opposite a legend,” she’s not going to stop challenging the Hollywood ageism responsible for those skewed relationships: “I remember somebody saying to me that I was too old for Hugh Grant, who’s like a year younger than me, in Sense and Sensibility. I said, ‘Do you want to go take a flying leap?’”

The superhero-movie boom
Thompson has nothing against superhero movies in theory — “I loved the original Superman with Chris Reeve,” she said, “because there was a real tongue-in-cheek-ness to it” — but their increasing prevalence is a whole other matter. “After a while, you do get a tiny bit cynical about it,” she said. “The fact that I know they’re going to win out in the end has now slightly interfered with my continuing to go to those movies. If I see yet another Spider-Man, I’m going to have to actually hang myself. I can’t do it anymore! They’re all marvelous, but how many times can you make this franchise, for crying out loud?” Still, there’s at least one capes-and-tights movie left that she’s looking forward to: “I’m up for Wonder Woman, totally.”

Playing a teapot
For Disney’s forthcoming live-action take on Beauty and the Beast (due in 2017), Thompson lent her voice to the computer-generated teapot Mrs. Potts, played in the classic animated film by Angela Lansbury. It’s not the first time that the two actresses have been intertwined: Thompson enticed the Murder, She Wrote star to return to the big screen for her film Nanny McPhee, presented Lansbury with her honorary Oscar in 2013, and played one of Lansbury’s most famous roles, Mrs. Lovett, in a recent concert version of Sweeney Todd.

“Imagine walking once more into Angela’s shoes!” Thompson mused. So, how did she inhabit Lansbury’s famous teapot? “I think I just had to make her as warm and round and scouting as possible,” Thompson said, adding with a laugh, “I have spent a lot of time considering the emotional life of crockery.”

Women who say they’re not feminists
“I’ve been a card-carrying, radical feminist since I was 19,” says Thompson, which is why she’s puzzled by the rise in women — including several young Hollywood actresses — who tend to demur when asked if they support feminism. “Most women who I would want to listen to wouldn’t have any problem at all with the word feminist,” she said. “It’s bizarre. Any woman who says they’re not a feminist is basically saying that they don’t believe in equal rights for women.”

To Thompson, that means the right has effectively demonized the notion of feminism, and she thinks that sort of pernicious influence can be found everywhere in the sorts of messages that society sends to women. “Any woman who says, ‘I hate my bum, I hate my body,’ is essentially expressing a kind of misogyny,” said Thompson. “All women who come up with that need to think very carefully about what it is they’re saying. Including me!”

Awards season
In 1993, Thompson won her first Oscar for Howards End (she’s been nominated four times, and won another for scripting Sense and Sensibility), and she’s not keen on how mammoth the awards-season circuit has become in the decades since. “I’ve sensed that there’s more financial gain riding on awards season now, and I think I speak for other actors when I say that the lot of us feel quite pressurized by that,” said Thompson, who made the Oscar rounds two years ago for Saving Mr. Banks. “The requirements of that season — constantly dressing up and trotting down carpets — is quite a lot now, because there are so many awards shows. People literally put aside three months of their lives to do it. Seems quite a lot, doesn’t it?”

That’s not the only instance Thompson can cite of the Hollywood promotional machine at its most punishing: “I know how difficult and demanding it is, for instance, for all of the James Bond actors to make a Bond movie,” she said. “The movie takes a long time, but then you spend something like 18 months promoting it! That’s quite hard, I think.”

Donald Trump
Don’t get Thompson started. “Let’s face it, the Republicans have chosen Donald Trump to run — can you take anything they say seriously, on any level?” she said. “I suppose you can, in the sense that many of them have power, and that’s something you guys are really going to have to address, because it’s a disaster. I think it’s terrifying.”

Writing
Even though she’s won an Original Screenplay Oscar, Thompson isn’t immune to having her scripts polished or totally rewritten by others: Last year’s Annie, for example, bore little resemblance to the draft Thompson first scripted for producer Will Smith. Still, she’s sanguine about the process.

“I’m totally used to it,” she admitted. “I’ve had three or four films made on scripts that haven’t been touched by anyone else, but I have rewritten people and been rewritten subsequently. Each time I do that, or when I write something that hasn’t been made, I think, Well, I learned something doing that, so it doesn’t matter. You have to be incredibly philosophical about it.”

Thompson’s not so keen on rewriting, anyway — “For me, the first draft is a really glorious ride, and it’s the next 17 that are like pulling teeth” — though she says the act of writing itself has gotten more pleasurable over the years. “There’s a great thing that happens after you’ve spent a morning writing,” she said, “and you think, I haven’t got anything there, not anything, and then you go away and become depressed, and when you come back, you find a good sentence or a good speech buried somewhere in the yards you’ve written. It’s in those hours of writing crap where you find a little thing that’s worth it, that makes you believe in the process of writing.”