When Emma Thompson first read the pilot for the HBO limited series “Years and Years,” which tracks a loving but dysfunctional Manchester family from 2019 to 2034, it read like science fiction. She had no idea that the disturbing digital future depicted by “Doctor Who” showrunner Russell T. Davies would so swiftly meet the present.
Before she took on her role as Vivienne Rook, a mediagenic British businesswoman-turned-politician who rises to power as the world goes to shit, “I felt frightened,” she told me from early lockdown in the country home in Scotland she shares with husband Greg Wise, “because of the rise of populist politicians and populism in the world.”
And then came the pandemic. “The crisis has been happening in our world and culture for many years now,” said the environmental activist (Thompson works with Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion), political short maker (“Extinction”) and reader of scary dystopian fiction (“Station Eleven” and “The Second Sleep”). “It’s the bloom, the roots of COVID are everywhere: mass transit, mass transport, not looking after the earth, and not taking care of our health in so many ways. It’s like a strange inevitability.”
As Thompson grows into her authority as an actress, she’s taking on people in power, whether it’s a late-night talk show host, chief of spies, judge or prime minister. The Oscar-winning star of “Howards End” and “Sense and Sensibility” took on all four in recent years, in the movies “Late Night” (Amazon Studios), “Men in Black: International” (Sony), “The Children Act” (BBC/A24), and “Years and Years,” respectively.
In “Years and Years” (BBC/HBO), Ann Reid’s matriarch gives a rending speech that also sums up Thompson’s world view. “Every single thing that has gone wrong is your fault,” the mother tells her family around the dinner table. “We can sit here all day blaming other people. We blame the economy, Europe, the opposition, the vast sweeping tides of history, like it’s out of our control, we’re hopeless little and small…We saw it all going on. This is the world we built. Congratulations, cheers, all.”
In “Years and Years,” Thompson’s ruthless politician is the agent of change, who at first engages and delights the public as an everywoman who speaks truth. “She’s got to be someone who appears to be a friend,” she said. “And that’s why at the beginning she says, ‘I don’t give a fuck: I just want to know who’s picking up the [trash] bins.’ She’s got a point. She’s a bit loud and vulgar. She’s saying it like it is. It’s brilliant how [Davies] draws us into this frightful world. As soon as she starts to gain traction, and other powers gain traction on her and use her, it’s the monster. She doesn’t hide anything and says it out loud, like Donald Trump or Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen.”
Of course, Thompson was fascinated by Trump as she researched her far-right media manipulator. “I was watching Trump and the Supreme Court, and thinking about the confusion of the European court justices in Germany during the rise of Hitler. There was a lot of talk about, ‘It can’t really happen, we’re never going to have anyone that awful running our country.’ Suddenly we have some very frightening people running things in the midst of a international global health crisis. It’s extraordinary.”
Like the United States, Britain has struggled with battling back the pandemic. “It’s been very patchy,” she said, “in the sense that our government is slow and dithery. Conservatives don’t want to intervene: ‘No society should interfere with people’s lives.'”
Writing another “Nanny McPhee” sequel (“We’ll open that on my 90th birthday”) and shopping and cooking in Scotland is not far from the norm for Thompson, where she’s “resting a bit from all the glare.” Thompson had five movies released in 2019, including Mindy Kaling’s Sundance comedy “Late Night” and Paul Feig’s “Last Christmas,” which she wrote with Wise. Thompson voiced a voluble parrot in “Dolittle” (Universal, 2020) and had fun playing with makeup, wigs and costumes as Baroness on Craig Gillespie’s live-action “Cruella” (Disney, 2021) opposite Emma Stone in the title role. Now she’s doing interviews from her sofa.
“I’m grateful, thanks to COVID, that I haven’t washed my hair for a month,” she said. “I don’t want to get back to any of that.” She and Wise help out where they can, including radio recordings for the BBC. “We’re in constant communication to register where there’s a need, ‘What can we do?'”
Not so long ago, humans lived a more local, quiet existence, not unlike the shutdown. “We all had to live like this,” Thompson said. “People didn’t travel until very recently. Hunkering down is basically what Jane Austen describes in most of her books. People sitting in rooms for hours on end, doing samplers and making margarine and milk pudding, reading and staring into the fire and thinking — when they were not working in the fields. We’ve forgotten how our constantly distracting lives are recent and fresh and modern.”
Like many folks staying home these days, Thompson has decided to dramatically pull back from traveling so much. “When thousands in Wuhan flew all over the world, then everyone moved [the coronavirus] on,” she said. “Again, we haven’t been flying for very long. It’s a new thing that we take for granted. I didn’t go to the Golden Globes this year. I can’t take a flight from London to L.A. to go to an awards ceremony. It’s not essential. That’s to do with carbon, something else about our travel habits that is massively dangerous. As it turns out, we can’t just fly everywhere without also destroying the atmosphere.”
Courtesy of Sundance
And as we sit at home, the Earth is breathing. “I can feel the planet healing itself,” she said. “You can feel it healing under your feet. Everyone is suddenly living in the same space, that is to say on Earth. It’s the first time it’s ever happened to us. We have never as a species been so aware of one another, but globally. It’s most extraordinary. If we are lucky, it will change the way we think. After this long period of isolation, I’m curious how we will respond to seeing each other again. There’s something touching about it.”
Good changes could come from the experience of this crisis. “Crucially, of course, we are going to have to face the fact that we can no longer make the economy the first of our priorities,” said Thompson. “That idea was something that was invented, the same as that 10,000 steps a day keeps you fit. They came up with it in Japan. It’s absolute bollocks! The economy being the most important thing is an invented idea. What on earth is the stock exchange? It’s for money. None of it exists. What on earth is that? We have lived in the world a long time. Everything about our perspective is changing terribly fast.”
Thompson hopes that people will stop chasing the latest flavor of lip gloss or cocktail and instead think, “‘I wonder if I looked up, what I would see in the sky?’ We’ve been distracted from our real lives for a long time.”
“Years and Years” is available on HBO.