Having previously examined the downside of being of a star actress, it seemed time for a corrective tonic. Not that I feel any A-list actress particularly needs to be acclaimed a heroine. Actors traditionally receive the lion’s share of attention, at the expense of others equally deserving, and it is within this column’s aspirations to address that inequality. But actors are always going to be famous, and their personal lives and opinions under the radar far more than their less well- publicised colleagues. Given this, it seems fair to wish that more of our stars were like Emma Thompson. Here are ten reasons why.
1. She can act
Not a pre-requisite for stardom by any means, but thankfully Thompson passes the test. She has excelled in starring roles (Howard’s End), supporting roles (In the Name of the Father), TV (Angels in America) and cameo roles (An Education). But the true test of a star actor is being the best thing about a bad film, and that’s how I’d classify her turn in Love Actually – a film whose most moving scene involves nothing but Thompson and a Joni Mitchell CD.
2. She can write too
Indeed, she is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter (for her adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility) and the only person ever to win Oscars for both acting and writing. Thompson has focused more on the latter in recent years, explaining “I don’t see how I could be as effective a mother as I’d like to be if I had to go away and act all the time”. Forthcoming projects include her intriguingly unlikely (and potentially disastrous) collaboration with none other than Jay-Z on a new adaptation of Annie.
3. She has the right attitude to awards
Famously, Thompson kept her two Oscars in her bathroom. This in itself never impressed me – it’s so knowingly self-deprecating that it’s almost ostentatious – until I heard that she since moved the statuettes to her study to make room for her daughter’s artwork. Now that’s the right attitude.
4.…And to awards ceremonies
Actors are the natural stars of awards ceremonies, and all the best ones know that the trick to not appearing an over-indulgent, over-reacting egoist is to have fun – and let the audience have fun too. Thompson has always provided amusement in her acceptance speeches, famous collecting her screenwriting Oscar “on behalf” of Jane Austen. If further proof of her attitude were needed, it came when Meryl Streep beat her to the Best Supporting Actress Emmy for their co-starring roles in Angels in America. Streep lavishly praised all her fellow nominees “apart from Emma Thompson, who will resent me for the rest of my life”. Clearly, she knew Thompson as a woman who could take a joke.
5.She can poke fun at herself
Like Meryl Streep, Thompson is a master at playing the self-deprecating card to please the crowds, but when you look at the vanity exhibited by her fellow thespians, it is nothing if not refreshing. As a case in point, take her anecdote shared recently on Britain’s Jonathan Ross Show. Thompson was appalled when police came to her holiday home in Scotland, reporting that a naked man had been spotted in her garden. However, she soon realised that the nude intruder was her, walking back up to her house after a skinny dip in the river. How many actresses can you imagine not only admitting that, but finding it funny
6. …and at others
At the height of her fame, she was cast as the lead in Basic Instinct, but pulled out when the requirements of the role became apparent. She later hit back with some delightfully bitchy comments on Sharon Stone’s performance, claiming “as far as I can see, they molded her body out of tough Plasticine. She was shagging Michael Douglas like a donkey, and not an inch moved. If that had been me, there would have been things flying around hitting me in the eye”.
7. She’s prepared to speak out
Thompson hit the headlines when she spoke out on the contentious and highly unfashionable topic of racism among the English middle class. In 2003 she informally adopted Tindyebwa Agaba, a Rwandan former child soldier, but when he later attended Exeter University and suffered racist abuse, she caused a stir with some comments in a speech at the university itself. Following the furore, she returned to the university with her son to assist a seminar on racial integration.
8. She’ll admit when she’s wrong
Many were surprised when Thompson added her name to a petition calling for the release of Roman Polanski from house arrest. But one 19 year old student, Caitlin Hayward-Trapp, cornered her at an event and presented her with the case against Polanski. Upon reconsidering the facts, Thompson agreed to remove her name from the petition, showing an awareness of the consequences of her influence in public debate.
9.She’ll put her money where her mouth is
Thompson has been a vocal opponent of the long-feared plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport. In 2009, she joined together with three other Greenpeace members to purchase land half the size of a football pitch in the proposed construction zone. In Thompson’s words “I don’t understand how any government remotely serious about committing to reversing climate change can even consider these ridiculous plans. It’s laughably hypocritical. That’s why we’ve bought a plot on the runway. We’ll stop this from happening even if we have to move in and plant vegetables”.
10. …and her mouth where her food is.
My favourite of all Emma Thompson anecdotes concerns a dinner she threw for Hayley Atwell when they were cast together in the Brideshead Revisited adaptation. When pressed why she was not eating the food Thompson served her, Atwell confessed that the film’s producers had asked her to lose weight for the role. Thompson threw a fit and called the producers, threatening to pull out of the film unless they relented on their request. She got her way.
You can follow Matthew Hammett Knott on Twitter @mhknott.