“The way in which I frame my past,” says Emma Thompson, sitting in her cool Manhattan hotel room on a sweltering late-summer day, “is always changing.” And yet some things stay the same. The poise, intelligence, and warmth of the British actress’s breakout early-’90s work in Howards End and The Remains of the Day has never diminished, and radiates throughout her performances in The Children Act, an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel that’s in U.S. theaters September 14 (and on DirecTV now), and as Goneril — opposite her old sparring partner Anthony Hopkins — in King Lear (streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning September 28). Such consistent excellence is a rare thing, and as its purveyor knows, worth enjoying. “I don’t think,” says Thompson, a bawdier conversationalist than some of her screen roles might suggest, “that I have ever enjoyed being alive as much as I do now.”
Your character in The Children Act is in a marriage where the couple’s love evolves in a way that isn’t usually shown in film. Did portraying that make you think about how your own view of love has changed?
Absolutely. What we see in the film is the relationship between my character and Stan’s [Stanley Tucci’s] crumbling, and then a new one starts to grow. Which is what happens in all long-term relationships. Or if it doesn’t, someone’s in denial.
You think a “crumbling” happens in every long-term relationship?
Not necessarily crumbling, but if the relationship hasn’t changed for long periods of time then the people in it are probably serving a facsimile of what the relationship used to be. People change and life changes and you can’t have the same relationship as when you first met. When people say, “Our relationship has been bliss,” I just go, “I don’t believe you.”
This is reminding me of an old op-ed you wrote — I want to say it was more than 30 years ago — where you argued that “love is converted into romance and romance is a con.” What were you referring to?
Romance is a very interesting subject. I don’t know whether I’d say it’s a con now. Back then I was challenging romance for all the right reasons. I was angry about the lies and fairy tales that were sold to young women — that romance was the be-all and end-all. Now I’d say that what happens after happy-ever-after is where love begins. Falling in love is an exalted state, but it is a temporary state, and I suppose what I was taking issue with was the idea that this temporary state was supposed to last. Nobody told us it doesn’t. It’s like childbirth: Everybody lies. Nobody tells you the truth.
What are the lies people tell about childbirth?
Maybe lying’s not — no, they do tell lies. There’s no honesty about “yes, it’s painful” and people are now terrified of that pain. So you’re getting an awful lot of elective C-sections, which is a huge operation and very difficult to recover from. The pain of giving birth is now “optional” and yet there’s no honesty about what that option can actually do to your body. It’s odd how frightened we’ve been made to feel about the pain of it [childbirth].
In the press materials for The Children Act you talk about the time you spent with women judges in preparation for playing one, and how you wanted to honor those women’s work. What was it specifically about women judges that you wanted to do justice?
I always want to do justice to women because we’ve been so unspeakably oppressed for so long — and still are in so many ways. So there’s that, and women judges have often managed to enter into an exceptionally male bastion by doing twice as much work and being twice as competent. And the women I know have children. The way in which women have to run their lives in order to be able even to step foot in a courtroom is heroic and we don’t talk about it. It’s doubly difficult for women. That’s why I wanted to do them justice.
Has your thinking about feminism changed over time?
Oh yes. I find it incredibly exciting at the moment because this new generation of girls — Generation Z, I believe — are challenging me all the time. I’m learning new things. Gender fluidity is fascinating to me. Every time someone says you’ve got to learn words like cisgender or trans, or when someone asks me to refer to “thee” or “thou” I get so excited. This is where we might be able to leapfrog some of the rigid definitions of what it is to be human. We might have a generation — and God knows we need it — that may help us leapfrog the death throes of the old ways. I mean, Brett Kavanaugh coming is just fucking hell, but at the same time other things are happening. You think about what might happen here with Roe versus Wade, and then also think about what happened in Ireland where abortion and gay marriage were made possible — extraordinary. The shifts in the sands of our development are so interesting at the moment.
I heard a colleague describe the current situation with women’s rights in America as extremely upsetting but also long-term hopeful. Insofar as we’re likely going to end our lifetime behind where we started on things like abortion, but 100 years from now we could be much further ahead.
That’s right. The thing is, you were asking how my thinking has changed: I was reading The Madwoman in the Attic when I was young and I suddenly realized there was a whole other way of seeing the world, which filled me with joy and absolute rage — and I still feel that rage — about how women are treated. I get very passionate about this stuff. I reread Betty Friedan’s book recently. It’s so fucking brilliant about the 1950s — the ways in which women were completely brainwashed about what it was to be female. Then I think about the women I’m listening to on The Guilty Feminist podcast and I go, “This is fantastic! There are new voices describing what it’s like to be female.” So women are less lonely, less fearful, less weirded out by themselves. There’s less going, “You mean I’ve got to fit into that mold?” Which is good, because these gender roles that we’ve created are so reductive and painful and dull. They’re so fucking boring.
I read a quote of yours about Harvey Weinstein, where you said he was at the top of a ladder of systemic misogyny, but that the system was larger than one man. Have we seen changes to that system beyond the removal of the most egregious offenders?
No. That’s going to take a while because you’re talking about power structures that have been around for millennia. Our power structures aren’t healthy. So we have to undo them, and that’s going to take an awful lot of imagination and work. We have a party in the U.K. called the Women’s Equality Party, which is very interesting.
They’re who you supported after leaving Labour?
Mm-hmm. Their leader, Sophie Walker, is a terrific woman and one of the first things noticeable about her is that she really isn’t interested in power.
What does it mean for the leader of a political party to not be interested in power?
It means that she wants everyone to be powerful. Here’s a story to describe what I mean: I was in Ethiopia doing some work for an NGO and I met a woman who was very good at healing. She was taking us around, showing us what plants she used, and I said, “How have you managed to avoid being picked upon for having that power? How have you managed to avoid becoming the witch of the village?” And she said, “I show people the plant, and then I tell them what to do with the plant, and then they do it.” That’s what I mean. Sophie shows people the system and how to do things.
But with the entertainment business, do you have a sense of what will cause the systemic changes that haven’t happened yet?
Well, Frannie McDormand had a very good point about inclusion riders: Make sure that you include people. It’s about behavior, too. You have to challenge behavior that’s entitled or bullying or sexist or racist or homophobic — all the time. Because if you don’t challenge it, as repetitive as that might get, the behavior becomes normalized. If a bullying producer is not called on it by groups of people saying, “You can’t behave like this,” then they carry on and it just gets worse.
One more question on this topic — and if you don’t want to get into it, I understand. But somebody with whom you’ve worked a couple times, Dustin Hoffman, had a situation last year where it seemed that he didn’t understand what he was accused of having done wrong and why it was coming to light years later. The answer is because it took that long for the accuser to feel able to bring the accusations up. But there are generational differences about these things, for men and for women, and there’s the understandable desire now to draw hard lines and say, “Get rid of all these people.” But Dustin Hoffman aside, not every situation is the same and maybe every response can’t be the same — I’m really sorry; I’m conflating way too many things. I have no idea what my specific question is. This is such a complicated subject.
But what you’re identifying are, indeed, the complications. And the complications are the things that we need to discuss. There’s no clear pattern to all these situations. We have to recognize that Dustin might well have felt very confused. But also that John Oliver, when he challenged him, was extremely brave. As a woman, I was very proud of him [Oliver] for doing that even though I love Dustin. Dustin and I haven’t talked about this. I don’t know what he would have said to me about it. But if you think about — okay, another story: I was doing a thing with trafficking.
You were trafficking?
[Laughs.] It’s just when I’m a bit low on cash. But, no, I was at a do raising money for victims of gross human exploitation, and I was sitting next to a terribly posh Englishman. I immediately made assumptions: Oh, Christ. This fucking asshole. Probably went to Eton. I started talking to him and he was saying, “Surely these women know what’s happening… ” I said, “Well, no, often not because there are certain vulnerabilities …” I banged on. Then he said to me, “I was abused for years at Catholic school and it affected me all my life. Thirty years later a group of us got together and brought a civil suit against our abuser and it was thrown out of court because it [the abuse] was too long ago.” So woe betide you when you judge, because it always comes back to bite you on the arse. This man — the pain, the horror he felt. And when you’re young, you think everything is your fault. That’s why people don’t say anything. We are given to feeling ashamed. So when things do come to light, we have to recognize the fact that it is confusing. But let’s listen to who’s talking and work with them. And let’s talk. The conversation that is perhaps missing at the moment is the conversation with Weinstein, with [Kevin] Spacey. They need to talk: Where does their entitlement come from? No matter how dreadful the behavior, you’ve got to learn why it happened.
Well, I very much appreciate your ability to make something useful out of my fuzzy cloud of a question. But to get back to your career, I think it’s fair to say that from about your first Oscar nomination in 1992 to Primary Colors in 1998 was the period when you were most in the Hollywood fame spotlight. I’ve read you talk about that period as being difficult. Why was that?
I can’t remember saying it was difficult.
Wasn’t it around that time that you also became clinically depressed?
I forget — let me think. Certainly I have had clinical depression, but for all sorts of reasons. The thing is, I don’t think of my career in phases. There’s a great interview between [Henri] Cartier-Bresson and a young journalist who said something like, “Oh, monsieur Cartier-Bresson, you said in 1965… ” “What I said in 1965 is irrelevant. It is 1985.” And this young journalist says, “Yes, but you said … ” and Cartier-Bresson said, “Mon ami, there is the moment and there is eternity and that is all.” So I always get infinitely depressed when I have to think about things I said 30 years ago because I’ve forgotten what it was.
I’m sorry for asking.
No, please don’t apologize. I’m explaining that I have changed, and my ideas have changed, and my memories have changed. I don’t even think of myself as ever having had a Hollywood career on any level. I felt like an outsider and I liked that. I always lived in Europe and being a visitor meant I was always welcomed here. The best bit of working in America was meeting and working with Mike Nichols.
Because one of the greatest connections I ever had in my working career and my personal life was with Mike and [Nichols’s wife] Diane [Sawyer]. And to me he represented — he was so connected to what I thought of as Hollywood. That’s a Hollywood career. Actually, I’ve been rewatching great ‘70s movies like All the President’s Men and The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor.
Those movies certainly fit today’s mood.
Yes, I just happened to be watching those. Gosh, they’re good. You should watch The Parallax View again. It’s amazing. Anyway, we’re straying away. I can’t honestly, hand on heart, look back and say anything was particularly bad about that period you mentioned. I did find the Oscar stuff quite hard. I got ill every time. I used to get chest infections. That glare — I don’t think I would have liked the fame that Dustin and [Robert] Redford had. The effects are often deleterious, shall we say?
Is it really true that Hillary Clinton was not a model for your performance in Primary Colors?
She wasn’t. I was doing a Chicago-y accent but I didn’t watch her or try to model my character on her even though John [Travolta] was doing Bill [Clinton]. I thought that was probably enough indicating. I also thought I might get sidetracked if I was trying to impersonate somebody. And Mike [Nichols] agreed.
So you don’t feel playing that role offered you any particular insight into Hillary as a person or public figure?
I’m not sure. I haven’t met her and I haven’t read her book. I imagine it’s got an awful lot of insights into what it’s like being married to someone who’s extremely powerful. The exploration of sex and power is something that, again, we’re very unwilling to face. I thought the sudden emergence of the new Puritanism following the whole Clinton scandale was extraordinary. The denial about what power is, what it does to people, how attractive it makes them. I wanted to ask people, “What on earth do you think goes on?” This is what happens and it’s always happened because our power systems have always been about a massive power imbalance. That’s the whole idea! It was all so fucking dishonest. Those politicians, the press — their dishonesty and hypocrisy fucking blew my mind.
And there’s been this bizarre turnabout where someone can be caught on tape saying “grab ’em by the pussy” and certain people just shrug their shoulders.
And say, “It doesn’t matter.” You want to say to those people, “You probably thought Bill Clinton was a really bad person and now you’ve voted for someone who …” It’s all so messed up.
Twenty-five years ago, when you won your Oscar for Howards End, you said in your acceptance speech that you hoped winning might inspire more strong roles for women. All these years later, are things better creatively for women in the movie business?
Well, the problems have been identified more cogently and persuasively — largely by Geena Davis’s excellent institute: Young people are going to films and seeing a lot more men than women. It’s so annoying to be female and consistently going, “Have I got to see a fucking story again about a guy who does things that I’ve already seen a guy do a million times?” So I’m bored. The difference now, as I get older, is that I’m released by my boredom. I no longer bother. I’m free to go and look for new ideas and new voices. I’m able with absolute comfort and ease to reject so much. It’s fantastic being this age. I’m old.
You’re not that old! What are you, 57?
Fifty-nine. I mean “old” in the really good sense of the word. Ageism is another aspect of what we’re talking about. We’re constantly watching films where older men have wonderful roles and older women really don’t. But I’m a character actor, don’t forget. If you’ve got form and you’re a character actor, you’re much better off because you’re not fighting the way you once looked.
Does the prospect of turning 60 have any special significance for you?
It feels extremely fortunate. My dad died at 52. My uncle was 51. My sister-in-law, a couple years ago at 51. I’ve got quite a number of friends who have dropped off. You can’t take survival for granted. What else do I feel? The work I’m doing is more fulfilling and happy-making than ever. I think your 60s, if you are well, are the most fantastic decade. No more periods: resolved! Menopause over: hooray! Kids grown up: bye! Marriage, if you’ve managed that long — 20 or more years — you’re fine. So this should be one of the most powerful patches of your life, the youth of old age as it were. I’d say it’s the best bit ever.
This is going to sound trite, but sometimes I feel like appreciating one’s life is such an obvious thing to try for, but is so hard to actually do in any holistic way. I’ll have a moment of deep gratitude and then get on the crowded subway on a hot day and immediately I think screw this.
Absolutely, but you’re young. When you get older it’s much easier to hold onto that appreciation because you’re more mortal. I want to enjoy every minute and use the wisdom that I’ve accrued whilst acknowledging my fallibility and the continuance of all sorts of foolishness. It’s so enjoyable to be alive in this state.
You’re honestly bringing a tear to my eye.
Good. I hope it makes you feel optimistic about your own aging. So many young people are confused and unhappy. All the demands and the judgments and the better-than, less-than culture — it’s fucking disastrous. Although we mustn’t get gloomy. Lots of things are better today: dentistry.
Not a small a thing.
Not a small thing.
You started out in comedy, right?
Did you ever try stand-up?
Do you remember one of your jokes?
Sure: So my boyfriend, anyway, he gave me thrush, which is what you call candida. So I said, “Okay, go get some yogurt for me, so that I can you, know…” And he came back with tropical fruit and nut flavor. That’s a 35-year-old joke that I told on various occasions. I also remember I did a Reagan Out rally in Trafalgar Square — tens of thousands of people — and I did stand-up on Nelson’s Column. Such a stupid idea. Those people were angry. They didn’t want to listen to my jokes about herpes and Margaret Thatcher — both very big at the time.
Did you like doing stand-up?
It terrified me. But I did scary things like that when I was a young woman. I had all of my 20s to fail. I wanted to be a stand-up and then I wanted to be Lily Tomlin. I had a chance to experiment, and that’s riches beyond compare. Young people who are successful now can’t do that because the spotlight is there all the time.
What made you confident that you could pursue drama?
I was doing sketch comedy as well, and I worked with Robbie Coltrane. He was then cast in a wonderful thing that this Scottish artist called John Byrne had written. They needed to cast a role, and he [Coltrane] said, “You should see Em for that because she’s half-Scottish; she can do a Scottish accent.” And I remember being there on the first day of shooting thinking, Oh, I’m scared, and then I realized that drama was just like doing a character in a sketch, only for longer than three minutes.
Drama wasn’t this whole other thing.
It absolutely wasn’t. Comedy is your best training anyway.
Because in performance, however serious, there has to be some humor underneath. I’m not describing something as obvious as being tongue in cheek. Maybe it’s a matter of personal taste, but the greatest actors I know have a sense of irony. Humor gives everything a real edge. I’ve always felt that humorlessness is the root of all fascism, really.
Which performances of yours stand out as personal breakthroughs? I mean in terms of your craft, not visibility or financial success.
There were two recently: Playing Robert Carlyle’s mum in the movie he made [The Legend of Barney Thomson]. I played a 77-year-old serial killer. I loved playing somebody so far removed from myself. And also doing Sweeney Todd in London and on Broadway. A lot of the time, even with something like The Children Act, you’re using particular colors in your palette because that’s the nature of that character. But those other two performances were full throttle. I could really let rip.
You enjoyed playing a part far removed from the real you. What about the converse: Which character of yours felt closest to Emma Thompson?
[Howards Ends’s] Margaret Schlegel was probably the closest: That sort of loud-mouthed bluestocking with the slightly conservative side, but who finally has to break the rules in order to survive. Yes, there was a lot of me in her. That was the only time that I actually wrote to someone and said, “Please give me this role. Because I know how to do it.”
At this stage of your career, do you feel like your acting is still improving?
Absolutely. I’m fearless now. I was doing King Lear with Tony Hopkins and he said, “Isn’t it great? I can do absolutely anything now.” That’s how I feel.
I know it’s hard to talk about acting in concrete ways, but can you explain what makes Anthony Hopkins so good, and so good to act with?
He watches and listens and he’s completely without defenses or any internal systems that might get in the way. He’s not protecting himself. You know that you can do anything and what will come back from him has nothing to do with the actor and everything to do with the part. He’s remarkable in that way.
This is maybe weird, but when I was watching Lear, I found Goneril’s metallic-blue nail polish striking. Can you tell me about that choice?
I loved those nails — claw-like. Mike Nichols had this wonderful way of describing people. He said they’re either metallic or porous. And of course Goneril is profoundly metallic because she’s had nothing but abuse since she was a child. She’s been ignored, she’s been rejected, she’s been belittled and has defended herself accordingly. Her nails were of a piece with the armor of her clothing.
I realize this is a hackneyed question but I’ll ask it anyway because I’m interested: Do you see differences between British and American acting?
I kind of do. Back in the day when Brando turned up there was a huge difference. That kind of film acting [Brando’s], which was born and bred in America, was a completely new thing in my country. And since then everyone says, “We’re all so old-fashioned in Britain. It’s all shouting and histrionics.” There was the belief that the more naturalistic style was better. For a while that belief persisted, but I think everyone’s beginning to realize that good acting can be all sorts of things. Sometimes naturalistic is great but other times you want someone to give a fucking performance, you know?
And what can you tell me about the Nanny McPhee musical?
I’m writing it at the moment and I think I’ll direct it, too. We’ve nearly got to the end of creating the music. We did the workshop for the first act in February and we’re doing the workshop of the second act in March next year. I’m using more or less the plot of the first film. What’s been interesting about adapting is how different it’s turning out to be. The characters change — it’s fascinating what happens when it moves into a different medium.
Along those lines, when you were adapting Sense and Sensibility, how difficult was it to write for the mind-set of characters created in 1811? Did you have to stop yourself and think, would they use this word or this is not an idea they would’ve had?
It’s a really good question. I’ve read so much literature from that period that I’m slightly more versed in that language than I am in the modern day. So writing Austen-ian I actually didn’t find that challenging. I mean, as I was growing up there was an internal moral pugilism going on in my head that was influenced by the writing of Austen and George Eliot, but also Henry James, Edith Wharton, and the Brontës. There was this battle going on inside where I was trying to be wild and free, and I had one voice going, “You slut. You’ll never be any good. You’re morally degenerate.” And another going, “Live! Live! You have to live!”
And as I’m sure you know far better than I do, the more you read about the preoccupations of people from earlier eras, the more you realize how little people have changed.
Yeah, there’s a very good book by Neil Postman called Building a Bridge to the 18th Century — I really get that. There’s also a fantastic book that was hugely influential on me called The Swerve [by Stephen Greenblatt]. The people who influenced me are those writers. And Montaigne.
I was reading Montaigne last night! I love how you’ll be in the middle of an essay of his about, I don’t know, the nature of fathers’ relationships to their children, and all of sudden there’ll be a digression about the best time to take a dump.
I know! He was an extraordinary figure. What I’d like to do in the future is a series of essais about what it’s like being human now. I’ve even started writing a few little vignettes on living in Scotland. The first one I wrote was about what happens when you’re up a glen in Scotland and it won’t stop raining and you get depressed and the things that go through your mind. You get bored of being depressed and you think, Actually no, I’m gonna clean out my cupboard. And you clean out the cupboard and you find something in it that leads you to another task, which you get terribly involved in, and you think, Great, that’ll take me another day. Then the following day the sun comes out and you can’t do this other thing because the sun’s come out and you’re depressed again but for a whole other reason. So it’s about weather in Scotland, but also about how contrary we are; what happens when you’re prevented from doing something that you imagined you wanted to do, and the journey to something that you do do.
Something just occurred to me. I think every actor I’ve spoken to has, in some fashion, said what you said earlier: that they feel like an outsider and that they’re a character actor at heart. Do people say those things because they’d feel too weird saying the opposite?
Actors shouldn’t fit in for God’s sake! Actors should be beyond the pale. That’s what we’re here for! I’m conjecturing about myself, which feels weird, but I wonder if all my challenging of issues is a way of placing myself somehow “outside.” I’m busy saying, “I don’t agree with this; I don’t agree with that. Don’t you fucking try and label me.” And yet, hilariously, now I’m a Dame. So I guess my approach didn’t work. And I’m jolly happy about that.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.