Emma Thompson opens her door, extends her arms and with her infinitely complicated smile greets me soothingly. “Fanshawe…..” Only in England can a surname be a sign of real warmth. And Thompson is a very English woman. Her formality offers intimacy. It’s what she does so well on screen, what made her portrayal of romance so perfect in Sense & Sensibility. Her restraint as Jane Austen’s heroine, Elinor Dashwood, suggested engagement rather than coolness. The height of her reserve was the strength of her passion. Her detachment spoke more eloquently than any emotional outpouring of the sheer depth of her love. Not for me, you understand, but for Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferris.
It’s a while since we have seen each other and an even longer time since we first met doing shows back to back on the Edinburgh Fringe, almost 16 years ago to the day, in between her Footlights success and her now legendarily panned eponymous TV comedy series. But Thompson is a girl who returns phone calls. She discards no one from the height of her fame, mainly because she really doesn’t believe in the trappings of her career. There may be two Oscars in the downstairs loo, making her the only person to have won for both writing – Sense & Sensibility – and performing – Howard’s End – but, a little surprised, she rejects any suggestion that she might now be a “player” in Hollywood, or even want to be one. “ It’s easy to abdicate from all that. You just say no to things. If I wanted to do that I’d have a company and a four-picture deal with a studio. But I don’t. I don’t want to be a player. I just want to write scripts and do a bit of acting.” Later she says, “I shall probably never move from this house.”
She lives on the other side of the same street where she was born in West Hampstead. Also in the road live her mother, the actress Phyllida Law, and the third thesp in the family, her sister Sophie, with both of whom she was bound into eternal comradeship by the premature death of her father Eric in her early twenties. The only new additions are a husband and baby for her sister and the actor Greg Wise, who was the first man to scoop Kate Winslet out of the rain in Sense & Sensibility, for herself. He is decidedly a bit of crumpet, over whom few women or gay men would readily step to get their bedroom slippers. “Everybody fancies Greg,” she says looking a little triumphant but also what I take to be slightly weary about it being pointed out. But it is shyness not weariness in her voice and, more than that, in her eyes you can see an unbearable anticipation that she is going to be asked to talk about her “private life”, which she explicitly says she doesn’t want to. For all her exuberance and vivacity she finds it genuinely uncomfortable to talk about herself rather than her work. Her face clouds over at the prospect. What she does want to talk about is Chile, the screenplay she is writing about its most famous folk singer, Victor Jara, who was murdered by the Pinochet regime, and the concert in London on September 6th to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the right-wing military coup that toppled President Allende in 1973.
And it’s this kind of thing that gets her into trouble with the hacks in Britain. She’s an actress so they require her to be gushing, insincere and self-promoting like the rest. But she will insist on remaining independent of their view of her. She will continue to express her political opinions when she thinks it matters, no matter how foolish they then try to make her look. Despite the fact that she really does care about such things, when she brings them up the papers will continue to screech “luvvie” the minute she mentions Chile or the Gulf War. If she cries, as she freely does about things that move her – it is after all her job as an actress to feel and then filter emotions – they refuse to believe her sincerity. If they saw tears come to her eyes, as they did when we talked about the atrocity in Omagh, they would insist that it’s self-indulgence. Yet when an entire nation took to weeping for a Princess they’d never met, these same writers talked of a new age of caring and sharing. When she married Ken Branagh, the press was utterly determined that their life would be a constant fur-lined Jacuzzi of celebrity despite the more mundane truth that they fell in love and just liked working together. So the press invented “Ken and Em”, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, the His and Hers of Tinseltown, Mr and Mrs Star Turn. And in the end did their marriage fall apart partly because they were being pushed into something they weren’t? “Yes, inevitably that was part of it.” There’s a long pause. “That’s what they wanted us to be.” And then she tries to steer the conversation back to work.
The point about Thompson and her fame is that everyone, except those who actually know her, apparently refuses to accept that she really could be who she seems to be, which is a fairly conventional North London girl with a great family and a bucket load of talent. For instance she has no car and often uses the tube. “I just wouldn’t like to lose my anonymity, which makes it very easy to turn down a big movie. The way to guard your independence is to be quite strict about what you chose to do. And not to need the money….or want the money”. But how can this be? This is the movie star equivalent of not playing the Lottery, not indulging in the habit of perpetual greed and dissatisfaction-with-life fomented every day by the tabloids. When the media spends all its energy dangling the glories of fame, celebrity and double page sun-tanned, leatherette spreads in Hello and OK! In front of a permanently thwarted and depressed population, who the hell does an Oscar winning actress who could have it all, but just won’t collude, think she is?
She’s not daft about all this. “I know that what I appear to be saying is that I’m just an ordinary person. And people get resentful about that because it would be disingenuous not to recognise that I can go to places where I get paid an awful lot of attention. But I just don’t want to live like that. I couldn’t bear to live behind walls with bodyguards. I don’t want to be rude about America, but LA is lovely as long as you know you can leave”. And she says later. “Anyway, if you live in the same place as you grew up like I do, you can’t start putting on airs and graces, people just won’t stand for it.”
All this makes her an emancipated woman in a rather old fashioned kind of way. “I think the thing that my mother and sister and I are probably most proud of is that we have always earned our own living, which is the most important thing for any woman.” As Jane Austen says through Elinor to Edward “you will inherit your fortune, we cannot even earn ours.” This self-reliance is what gave Thompson the confidence to write. “I was apparently always fearless as a little girl. You just do things and see. You can’t worry about what happens if you fail”. What about criticism? Before the Oscar for screenwriting came the terrible condemnation for the TV series. “Well criticism can be bracing ”, she says a little bravely. “But actually I wouldn’t have been asked to write Sense & Sensibility if at three o’clock in the morning in LA Lindsay Doran, the producer, hadn’t seen a sketch I’d written for the series about a Victorian woman and thought I’d be able to do Jane Austen” And you get a definite feeling that Sense & Sensibility was where her whole life had been heading up to that point. And that now she is in something of a new phase. She responds by saying that she just has lots of confidence now and “I just feel older and wiser”. Bathed in the approbation of her peers she is doing the writing thing again.
This time it’s not an adaptation but a script based on the biography of Victor Jara by his widow, Joan. At the moment it’s uncommissioned. “I’m doing it for us”, says Thompson, “because it’s important that Joan has the chance to say. ‘I can’t bear this, don’t make a film’”. Although it may already be too late for that. The re-issue of the book, first published in 1983, already carries the inducement on the back that “ ‘Victor – An Unfinished Song’ is to be a feature film starring and with a screen play by Emma Thompson”.
It is the story of a love affair between an English dancer who went to Chile and one of the country’s great folk heroes. Theirs was a romance that lasted for fifteen years and was only ended by the barbarity of a regime that, apparently offended by poetry and music, tortured and then killed Jara. “I want to tell not a slushy romance, but a story about the reality of love rather than its infantile stage. It’s about two people from different backgrounds, classes if you want to use that word, and cultures who lived in the Chile of the 60’s which was a place of extraordinary genius and creativity”. She wants the film to reflect the fact that the suffering and torment that people experienced in Chile is not foreign, somehow “other”, but that “it could happen here” perhaps not literally but “in a way that makes people realise that we can’t separate ourselves from it”. “And I’d love to write a film that started in English and ended in Chilean, without people really noticing the subtitles. I’d like to do it without the audience thinking they were watching a foreign language film.” Which is strange because that’s one of the few Oscars she hasn’t won yet. “I’m going for make-up next time.”
Of course it may be uncommissioned at the moment but there are producers waiting in the wings and moneymen salivating. It’s not blockbuster material but you have to have more confidence than Thompson herself who says without anxiety “I’m not box office in America. I’m just a popular Brit”. Although she may be right. Primary Colours, her latest movie in which she co-stars with John Travolta and the one whose rumoured two million dollar fee enabled her to choose to take time off for a year to write, has not been a money spinner in America. An elegantly written political morality tale, in which the staff of a State Governor who aspires to President, Jack Stanton, have to defend their man’s sexual misbehaviour because they believe in his politics, it may have proved just a little dark for the Americans. “It’s not a satire. When we made it no one had really heard of Monica Lewinsky. It’s a warts and all story of a political journey.” And it may have been rejected by the American public because in the same way the Brits cling to honest Bobbies and faith in British Justice despite multiple proof of the opposite, Americans, cheered on by Hollywood, have an almost fairy tale belief in the goodness of their political system. After all ‘Mr Smith’ went to Washington long before Bill Clinton.
Thompson is very good in Primary Colours. She produces an uncannily authentic American accent and she slaps Travolta with such satisfying ferocity at one point that you feel she’s administering the belt that everyone wants to give Clinton for jeopardising his Presidency by failing to control his zipper. The palm of her hand packs a moral punch. The steadfast Susan Stanton has much of Thompson’s backbone and straightforwardness. When the movie comes out in Britain in October Thompson will still be immersed in writing her Chilean love story. The Premiere will probably benefit the young homeless charity Alone in London of which she is patron.
Acting, writing and demonstrating an almost Victorian sense of social responsibility, all at the same time, she is a woman of whom her heroine Jane Austen would have heartily approved. “When you’re older you just stop whining about how you’re perceived. There’s always going to be somebody who thinks you’re a prat. But I don’t believe any of it any more… good or bad. It’s just great being free and independent.”