Following in the recent footsteps of her Saving Mr Banks co-star Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson sat down in London on Sunday afternoon for a trip down memory lane. At a BAFTA Life in Pictures event at the British Academy’s headquarters, Thompson spoke of the important role that comedy played in her early career, and touched on her collaborations with the likes of Merchant Ivory, Richard Curtis and Ang Lee. The Oscar-winning actress and screenwriter also peppered in some stark feelings about Hollywood.
Thompson has steadily worked across borders since the 90s and while she feels there’s no real difference between great actors in the States and Britain – “Dustin Hoffman is as exquisite as Anthony Hopkins” – the star system in Hollywood “is not a good system.” Thompson called it “hierarchical” and said it was “just revolting for people who are actors to become grand and unattractive to watch.” She recalled that while working on Last Chance Harvey, Hoffman had been stuck in traffic one day and, so concerned with being late to set, ran there in his socks once he’d arrived at the location. “Those are the people you want to work with. You find some young actors who really can’t be bothered and you think well, let someone else do it,” she said to the largely British crowd. Thompson noted that “some of the most intelligent people” she knows live in Hollywood, but lamented that the town “always finds a way to make you feel bad.” At parties, there’s “always some bit that’s penned off that you’re not allowed into,” she mused, adding that it’s the “better than/less than judgment you’re making upon yourself and others that Hollywood is particularly good at and that’s the one thing I really hate.”
On the brighter side, Thompson talked about her experiences with the Cambridge Footlights, the theater troupe that was a proving ground for herself and contemporaries Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Although she calls comedy “the noblest” of the arts, after trying stand-up, Thompson realized she’d be “dead of a heart attack before the age of 30” if she’d continued down that path. “There is nothing harder.” She did offer up a bit of her former shtick when explaining the kind of material she used to work with: “Herpes, which was big at the time… It seems to have gone away now. Then, you had it forever and now no one has it. ‘Herpes, Where Is It?’ that’s going to be the name of my autobiography.”
Thompson’s segue from comedy to being an Actor began with Tutti Frutti, the 1987 BBC series that starred Robbie Coltrane, and Fortunes Of War, the BBC drama mini she made with former husband Kenneth Branagh. Thompson won a Best Actress BAFTA TV Award for both in 1988. She then returned to TV in comedy Thompson which was poorly received. “They made it too big, it should have been on at 11” where people could discover it for themselves, she said. All these years later, comedy is still a struggle. “People still think that women are not allowed to be funny, but if you are, you’ve got to be somehow grotesque.”
Thompson first worked with Richard Curtis on 1989’s The Tall Guy and later on 2003’s Love Actually. That film has been much talked about lately given it’s celebrating its 10th anniversary, and its impact has not diminished. When BAFTA showed the now-iconic clip from the film of Thompson’s character reacting to a sad truth as Joni Mitchell sings ‘Both Sides Now’, the assembled BAFTA members were visibly moved (it still gets me, too). Curtis receives criticism for being sentimental, it was suggested, and Thompson responded – that poignant clip aside – “He makes movies that are designed to make us happy from beginning to end.” After they first screened the film in New York in 2003, Thompson says co-star Hugh Grant whispered to her, “Either that’s very good or it’s the most psychotic thing I’ve ever been in.” But Curtis is “made of the milk of human kindness,” Thompson said and added, “We can’t cope with it because so many of us are bitter, twisted, cynical little islanders.”
Of working on Howard’s End, which began a collaboration with James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Anthony Hopkins that carried on with The Remains Of The Day, Thompson noted that Hopkins had at the time recently played Hannibal Lecter. She drew big laughs saying, “I think my mother gave him a note that said, ‘Please don’t eat her’.” Thompson won her first Oscar for the film and had a predictably surreal experience. “It was a very far away thing, an iconic object that belonged to people like Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn.” But the evening itself was diffused with help, again, from her mother Phyllida Law, whose long dress train kept getting stepped on by famous folks, who then apologized. “We got to meet a lot of people for that particular sartorial decision.”
The Merchant Ivory work also allowed Thompson to meet screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. She later called upon that relationship for help when preparing to write the screenplay for Sense And Sensibility. Thompson told Jhabvala, “I have no idea where to start, and she said to adapt the whole book” before whittling down. It was great advice, “The first script was 500 pages long… But then you see what works dramatically.”
Shooting the film under the direction of Ang Lee in his first English-language production was a particular experience. When Thompson and co-star Hugh Grant asked for another take after one scene, “Ang went very quiet,” she explained. Apparently Lee was unused to actors speaking to him. “Not once in his lifetime had an actor asked him for anything… Actors spoke only when spoken to… We both wrote apology notes to one another overnight.” In another kind of note, Thompson said the director gave tips that were “brutal and funny.” One of his first comments to the actress was, “Don’t look so old.” Thompson said, “I’d much prefer ‘don’t look so old’ to ‘that was great.’ If it was so great, where do you go?”
Thompson won the Oscar for that screenplay, and offered up a bit of her own advice to future winners. With all the awards ceremonies that precede the Oscars, “you do get a hint” of the potential for a win. So, she wondered of those who ascend the stage unprepared, “Why don’t you know what to say?… It’s a performance. Try to make it funny and get off quick.”
Turning to Saving Mr Banks, the story of how Walt Disney convinced Mary Poppins author PL Travers to sell him the rights to her beloved nanny, Thompson said the script was one of the best she’d read in a long time. The wig-averse actress also recounted how she ended up getting a perm to play the part. “It was a fantastic decision. Frightful. It really helped with the character. I really didn’t have to do any acting at all,” she laughed. More seriously, she called the role one of the most complicated she’s ever had. Many of her other parts have traced “a moral arc” but PL Travers was so inconsistent, “I didn’t know how (she) was going to behave… But that’s of course what made her a blissful joy to embody.”
At the end of the 90-minute discussion, an audience member told Thompson she had just finished her first feature script and was looking for some advice. To much applause, and in what was a nice way to wrap up a Sunday afternoon, Thompson asked her assistant to get the girl’s details so she could read the script.