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Emma Thompson Talks Oscars, Herpes, ‘Saving Mr. Banks,’ and Talking Back to Ang Lee in ‘A Life in Pictures’ BAFTA Q&A

Emma Thompson Talks Oscars, Herpes, 'Saving Mr. Banks,' and Talking Back to Ang Lee in 'A Life in Pictures' BAFTA Q&A

With her role as “Mary Poppins” author
P.L. Travers in “Saving Mr. Banks” injecting fresh impetus into a career that’s
already blessed with two Oscars (Best Actress for “Howard’s End” and Best Adapted
Screenplay for “Sense And Sensibility”), Emma Thompson made the ideal subject for
BAFTA’s latest installment of their “A Life In Pictures” series. During a breezy
90-minute interview, Thompson covered the gamut of a career that began in
sketch comedy; soared in the 1990s on both sides of the Atlantic with leading
roles in “The Remains Of The Day,” “Sense And Sensibility” and “Primary Colors” before seguing into supporting roles in the following decade; took detours into
script doctoring and her family franchise “Nanny McPhee,” which she wrote and
headlined; and is back on a fast track with “Saving Mr. Banks.”

Thompson
was her usual breezy self, keeping it light, banter-y and self-deprecating. Upon
watching a video montage of her career highlights at the start, she quipped
that possessing a good set of upper teeth “has accounted for an awful lot” of
her success and went on to reminisce about working with the likes of Anthony
Hopkins, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ang Lee and Richard Curtis, as well as sharing
that comedy will always be where her heart is: “Comedy to me was the noblest of
all the aspirational arts, and it still is.”

Highlights from the “Life in Pictures” talk, below. Thompson also stopped the show with her witty asides at the recent Hollywood Reporter’s Actress round table. 

On her brief stab at stand-up comedy:

“I
was of course and still am very feminist so a lot of my act was about that. I
did a whole set, I remember, on Nelson’s Column in front of 60,000 people at a
nuclear disarmerment rally and I used to do a lot on herpes, which was big at
the time. It seems to have gone away now. Everyone had it in those days and you
were meant to have it forever. But now nobody seems to have it all. I find
myself wondering where it has gone. Where is herpes? Herpes: Where Is It? — that’s going to be the name of my autobiography.”

On
her Oscar-winning turn in “Howard’s End”:

“It’s
the only time I’ve ever written to somebody to say, ‘I really do know who this
woman is and I can play her. Please let me.’ I loved E.M. Forster’s book and I
was a fan of an era when women thought that, because of the vote, because of
suffrage, because of education, things would change for women… I felt very
connected to her fighting this fight against morals and mores in society that
made no sense whatsoever, and still don’t to be honest. I felt I could inhabit
her in a very powerful way.”

On adapting “Sense & Sensibility”:

“I
went to Ruth [Prawer Jhabvala, “Howards End”’s screenwriter] and said, ‘What do I
do? I’ve got no idea where to start.’ She said, ‘Adapt the whole book and then
see what works.’ My first script was about 500 pages long. It’s very peculiar
because in books, there will be moments that you remember. For instance, in ‘Howards End’, there’s a famous scene where they talk about “only connecting” and
James Ivory was just desperate to get that scene in. We shot it but it got cut.
You watched Margaret connecting all the way through the film so what I realized
in the process of adaptation is that the powerful things in a book that you
need to release onto films are sometimes found not in the book.”

On winning her first Oscar:

“The
Oscars now is very big but when I was a girl it was a faraway thing. It was an
iconic object that belonged to people like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn,
even to another age. I didn’t really take it in [because] I wasn’t in that
world. I went with my mum and we had to dress up and everything. Mum was
wearing a dress which had a long train, I remember, and everyone who trod on it
was choking her. So she would just sort of sound like a bulldog being dragged
on a chain every time and I would turn around and there would be Placido
Domingo or Al Pacino and they would be apologizing to my mother and then we
would all have a chat. I got to meet an awful lot of people because of that
sartorial decision.”

On what the Oscar meant to her:

“The
odd thing was not so much getting up and standing on stage and looking at the
front row and everyone who was sitting there was famous, it was going backstage
that made me realize the truly iconic quality of the Oscar. I had to haul up my
tights and I handed it to a security guard and I’ve never seen a face like that
on anyone: I could have been handing him the Ark of the Covenant. I thought,
‘Oh! I had no idea!’ I looked at it in a different way after that… When I had
to take it home, I wrapped it in a pair of socks and stuck it in my hand
luggage. And it went through the security camera at LAX, clearly looking like
some sort of nuclear warhead, so they took it out and again it was a
Spielbergian moment because this thing came out, they took the sock off it and just went, [Thompson sings in an operatic voice] ‘It’s an Oscar!!!!!!’”

On working with Ang Lee on “Sense
& Sensibility”:

“He
didn’t speak English very well and this was his first movie in the English
language. On the first day of shooting, Hugh [Grant] and I had a scene
together, which we shot outside, and we finished doing it and then we had a
little chat between us and we went up to Ang and said, ‘Would you mind if we
did that again over here?’ And he went very quiet. In fact, everything went
very quiet. We got through the day but it was a bit sticky and I found out that
not once in his entire life had anyone asked him for anything, because actors
are absolutely slave to the director [in Taiwan]. They do not speak unless
spoken to and they certainly do not make suggestions. I was up at 2am writing
an apology note and he was doing the same thing. But from then on, we had the
most wonderful time because his notes were so brutal and funny. One of his
first notes to me was just, ‘Don’t look so old.’ My favorite was to Hugh: ‘Now
do one like bad actor.’ And Hugh said, ‘That was the one I just did.’”

On Richard Curtis’s “Love, Actually…”:

“I
remember when we first saw it, Hugh Grant coming up behind me and saying,
‘Either that’s very good or it’s the most psychotic thing I’ve ever been in.’
And I sort of knew what he meant because Richard’s the most unusual man. He’s
just built, it seems to me, of the milk of human kindness. Actually made of it.
So that’s what his movies are like and we [Brits] can’t cope with it because so
many of us are bitter, cynical, twisted little islanders who can’t cope with
the idea of happiness, never mind someone trying to present it on film. Whereas
we get very over-excited when we make films that show truly how utterly
miserable the course of human life can be.”

On basing her “Stranger Than Fiction” character on Judy Davis:

“She
was heaven to play, this very, very twisted, tortured writer. She smokes all
the time and one of the people that I tried to base her on was Judy Davis, who
I worked with once. She’s a wonderful actress — arthritic with tension — and
she smoked like that. There was this tension in her all the time, that’s
probably one of the reasons she’s such a great actress. I remember thinking, ‘I
want to do Judy smoking.’ Ironically, cigarettes were the only thing keeping that
character alive.”

On working with actors who aren’t
professional or “can’t be bothered”:

“If
people are late, I say, ‘You can’t do this because it’s disrespectful to your
crew. These are people who work very hard to make sure that your image is going
to be on the screen so you just can’t do this.’ I don’t know what I would do if
I were to work with someone who was late in a kind of psychotic way, like
Robert Redford, who’s weirdly late, even when he’s directing. How did ‘All Is
Lost’ work? I’m really fascinated to know.”

On Hollywood and the star system:

“It’s
not a good system because it’s all heirarchical and I think that’s revolting.
It’s revolting for actors to become grand. Just not excusable and very
unattractive to watch… I love Hollywood, I love going there, some of the most
intelligent people I know live there. But as [“Nanny McPhee”producer] Lindsay Doran says, they always
find a way to make you feel bad. The thing we struggle with all our lives,
which is the better-than, less-than judgment that you’re making upon yourself
and upon others every single moment of your lives, Hollywood is particularly
good at. That’s the one thing I really hate about it. We don’t do it as much
here.”

On P.L. Travers being the hardest
role she’s ever had:

“She
was so inconsistent. You look at some of my other roles and you see that
essentially they have a moral arc that goes in much the same way through the
film. You know how Margaret Schlegel is going to behave, and you know how Karen
in ‘Love Actually’ is going to behave. But you didn’t know how [Travers] was going to
behave from one minute to the next. I thought, ‘Everybody’s going to think that
I’m just making mistakes, that I’m just doing something different for no good
reason.’ But it was the inconsistency that made her such a blissful joy to
embody.”

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