Fresh off Catherine Corsini’s sharp French adultery melodrama, Leaving, Kristin Scott Thomas is playing another very difficult woman: the severe, utterly uptight Mimi, aunt to a hunky John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) in Sam Taylor-Wood’s biopic, Nowhere Boy. The film catches Lennon in his teens, after his mother, Julia, had virtually abandoned her son while living just around the corner in Liverpool. Mimi and her husband were left to care for and clash with the prodigy — and Mimi obviously did something right, despite her rough persona. “She’s not bitchy,” Thomas tells us. “She’s just really single-minded.”
Why do you think we’re still interested in John Lennon’s life?
This film for me is a love story between two women and this boy. A love triangle. If John Lennon hadn’t become superfamous John Lennon, it would still be a really interesting story about a boy discovering his talent, and not about a great songwriter, because we didn’t get to that bit. We’re making films about him because he was incredibly influential, and because he would now be a senior person in our society. I didn’t know anything about him until I started making the movie. What potential to be such a useful, extraordinary participant in the world — and what an incredible waste. But wouldn’t it be great if kids watching that film would then go out and buy guitars, or they would write poems or something?
Do you think we’ll be interested in today’s pop stars in the same way 30, 40 years from now?
I think the sheer number of pop stars has kind of drowned out, somewhat, our interest. We’re just submerged. The thing about him is he was sort of a useful person: He wasn’t just entertainment; he made you think. I guess there are people like that today. I just wouldn’t be able to put a name to them. Maybe someone like Thom Yorke, who’s very concerned with the environment … But it just seems to be pop stars’ jobs to do that, where at the time Lennon was the only one doing it. In 40 years, will they have such an enormous influence on pop music, as he did? I don’t think so.
You play John’s Aunt Mimi in the film. What drew you to the film and, specifically, the character?
Somebody sent me the script and it was completely obvious that I had to do it. A no-brainer. Also because this was the sort of role I always get asked to do — you know, these uptight, repressed women, those are the ones they call me for; I’m on the list. I felt, I’ve got to do it, otherwise someone else’ll do it. And they’ll do it wrong.
What do you mean, they’d “do it wrong?”
It means, I wanna do it! They’d make her bitchy, basically, and she’s not bitchy; she’s just really single-minded. I wanted it to be clear that this woman loves that boy so much, she’s just overwhelmed by love and doesn’t know how to deal with it. And because that boy could walk out at any given moment — because he doesn’t belong to her — she has to protect herself in some way. There’s certainly a disturbing sexual quality to the relationship between John and his mother as we portray it in the film, but with Aunt Mimi, it was a purely maternal love. She was in fact extremely straight-laced. It’s even been reported that she was a virgin when she died! Anyway, that’s my 2010 interpretation of it. I really felt for her, and you do sort of have to fall in love with your characters. I’ve turned down roles if I can’t find a reason.
In Leaving, you play another tough woman: a frazzled, histrionic runaway wife — a “bitch in heat,” as her character’s controlling husband calls her. But when I first read the synopsis I was also just kind of like, Ehh, adultery movie, whatever. Did you feel that way at first?
Yes. I’ve known Catherine Corsini a long time, and she just called me up and said, “I wanna make a film about this.” And I said, “That’s really banal. Hello, it’s just adultery … ” But she was interested in the economics of it, the aspects of being imprisoned and not being brave enough to leave, and how to accept abuse and just be locked into it. I was really interested in domestic violence, too. It’s absolutely all over the place. People have come to me since making the film. They’re scared to leave abusive situations because that’s all they know; so many people are beaten by their husbands, and they come home from their office, where they’ve got a really nice job, and everyone assumes that because they’re well off that there’s no violence. It happens absolutely everywhere.
There’s a lot of female sexuality in Leaving. How do you think that will play for Americans?
I’m very afraid, very worried about that. Because it’s very strange in America, the way people perceive women and their sexuality: It’s either completely brazen and totally gratuitous, like the things you see in pop videos, or it’s totally brutish. Not so much in New York and other places where it will be shown, but as a whole, you know, it’s, “You got wobbly bits. Oh my God, she doesn’t work out!” I think French film audiences are far more willing and nonjudgmental about the way women look. There isn’t this obsession with facial lines. They actually like women. The women may look more wrinkled and wizened, but they like seeing women grow older because it’s in relation to their lives. It’s understood that aging can be enriching.
Have you seen any American films you’ve liked recently?
I just don’t see very many films. Because I make them. The last films I’ve seen are — you’ll be surprised — I can’t remember the title of it, but it’s got Sylvester Stallone and everybody else in it. The Evictables … no, The Expendables. I went to see that with my two boys, had a great time. Inception. It didn’t really do what it was supposed to do to me. The last film that really, really bowled me away was Fish Tank. Unbelievable. That was fantastic. Extraordinary. It’s also about sexuality, and it’s one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen about women. I think that and The White Ribbon are my favorite films.
What kind of films do you want to see more of?
We should have stories that are about things that make you happy even when you’re not. I’m not saying you should make a comedy, or a romantic comedy, but something that explores the intimate relationship between two people who aren’t necessarily ones that you’re curious about. That’s why I liked doing Leaving, because it’s about a middle-aged woman and a bloke who isn’t rippling with muscles and doesn’t have perfect hair.