‘Leo Grande’ Helped Emma Thompson Accept Who She Is: ‘I’ve Judged Myself All My Life’

Only by channeling her character, she told IndieWire, was Thompson able to stand in front of her naked body in a mirror and accept herself.
"Good Luck to You, Leo Grande"
"Good Luck to You, Leo Grande"
Searchlight Pictures, exclusive to IndieWire

Don’t mess with Emma Thompson. Even back in the day, when the Cambridge grad made her way as a London comedienne, she knew how to stand up for herself. She came from a family of actors and “I was also a bolshie individual,” she said. “I managed to stop people from taking advantage of me when I was young — not to say a lot of people didn’t try. But I wasn’t having any of it, because I was too aware of the position of women in society early on. By the time I started to act, I would react with huge obstreperous rage if anyone tried to take advantage.”

Few actresses are willing to discuss how aging affects their looks. This January, her no-holds-barred performance as an AARP-aged woman who hires a sex worker for her first orgasm in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” was the talk of virtual Sundance. Searchlight scooped up the movie for Hulu, where it’s available June 17. (The winner of acting and screenwriting Oscars for “Howards End” and “Sense and Sensibility,” respectively, will be eligible for a second acting Emmy.)

Thompson, 63, took on the whole package with her role as 55-year-old widow Nancy Stokes, who wants to discover sexual pleasure, something her late husband denied her. Thompson said she responded immediately to the story by actress-writer Katy Brand, who co-starred in Thompson’s “Nanny McPhee Returns” and wrote “I Carried a Watermelon: ‘Dirty Dancing’ and Me,” “which was brilliant,” said Thompson. “Oh, my God, she can actually do comedy, and she can write books. And then lo and behold, she sends me a bloody screenplay. And it’s absolutely wonderful.”

“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” surprised Thompson, who called Brand and said: “This is extraordinary. You’ve crossed every boundary, but you’ve kept it light and funny and humane, and compassionate and fun. The script itself is such a pleasure. We have to make this and we have to make it right now.”

"Good Luck to You, Leo Grande"
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”Nick Wall

At the same time, Thompson recognized that it wasn’t going to be easy. “There’s lots and lots of risks,” she said. “Finding the right director, if you’ve got the tone wrong it could have been uncomfortable — now a little bit too comic, or too serious. We tried so many fine lines.”

To navigate the sexual byplay between uptight school teacher Nancy and sex worker Leo Grande (“Peaky Blinders” star Daryl McCormack), the producers imported Australian director Sophie Hyde (“Animals”) to shoot the entire two-hander on a hotel room set. Hyde started off with a luxurious week of rehearsals ahead of the intense 19-day shoot. She asked the actors to take off their clothes and point to parts of their bodies they didn’t like. Only on the sixth day did they start to tackle the intimate scenes.

Thompson has yet to work with an intimacy coordinator, although she said there have been plenty of past sex scenes where she could have used one. Here, they handled the sex scenes on their own, she said, “because it was just two of us, and only us. And we had preparation, and we had rehearsal. And we had Sophie, our wonderful, extraordinary director. We thought we didn’t need one. I am so glad that that’s there now for young actors, because a lot of the time back in the day, it was just: ‘Right, now, take your clothes off.’ And everyone just took their clothes off, because they thought that was the job. And then they ended up feeling abused, which is in fact what they were.”

The movie’s internal landscape is defined by “the faces and the bodies of these two people,” said Thompson. “And Sophie and Brian Mason, her DP, they found the landscapes so beautifully, the design. And the challenge is to find the landscape that you’d normally use outdoors for a city. It’s just us in a room. We were very frightened about that. It was a tightrope act. And we didn’t fall off it.”

The experience was intensified by the pandemic. “The city we were shooting in [Norwich] was in lockdown,” said Thompson. “And so the pair of us had to make our own work. We just trotted to the studio in the morning, shot with a very small crew, trotted home, went through the lines for the next day. We didn’t do any socializing, the city was closed down, the city felt like ours and ours alone. It made the intimacy even more intense.”

The movie consists of two people on a limited set, but “you could not have performed this as a play,” Thompson said. “It absolutely wouldn’t have worked. It was fascinating because Daryl and I used to worry about: “Oh, we need to make this dramatic and funny and pleasurable, and, and hugely diverting, and entertaining. All the way through. It’s just us, there’s no bloody orchestra.”

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande”YouTube

McCormack auditioned after other actors dropped out due to pandemic scheduling issues. “It was one of these journeys,” said Thompson, who met with him at her home. “We wouldn’t even have seen Daryl because he was so young and he wasn’t on the list. He was so thoughtful about it. It was the way in which he sat in my house on the edge of a sofa, talking about about what it meant to him and how close he felt to Leo. He wasn’t involved in trying to make an impression on me.”

The actress also liked that McCormack was tall. “It was important to me that Nancy actually looked up to him,” she said, “because Nancy spent her whole life looking down as a teacher, and surrounded by young people looking up at her. She needed to look up.”

Thompson said she’d never seen a movie that tackled this message of self-acceptance. “It’s a dodgy word — ‘important’ —  isn’t it?” she said. “It makes people feel as though they’re about to have to eat their spinach or learn a lesson. You’re watching two people doing this extraordinary thing together. It doesn’t feel important until afterward. Then you go, ‘Well, that’s how I feel, and that’s how I react to my body. Why do I do that?’ Then maybe you think, ‘Oh, well, Nancy look pretty happy at the end of the movie, maybe I could have that. Maybe I could be more relaxed.’ Maybe self-acceptance is something that a lot of us could have. Maybe it’s okay to think of something that you might want, and actually have it and not feel guilty about it.”

At the end of the movie, Nancy stands in front of a mirror and appraises her naked body. “I’ve judged myself all my life, and continue to do so,” Thompson said. “Playing Nancy was hugely helpful to me, because Nancy’s not an actress, she’s not been judged for her looks, but she’s a woman who’s able to stand finally stand in front of the mirror without hating herself. That was very important for me to try to portray. It was difficult. I couldn’t really experience it in my own psyche, but I experienced it through Nancy. That was very instructive, and helpful. I’ll never be free of the iconography that surrounds us and the brain part of the neural pathways that were carved so young into my attitude to myself and my body. That Nancy reprograms herself, and has managed to take one step over that great chasm of self loathing, is to me one of the most joyful things about the movie.”

Does that mean that Thompson can accept herself as she is? “It’s patchy,” she said. “Obviously, we all are getting older. But you can intensify the experience of life as you get older in the most unexpected and pleasurable ways. That takes the edge off. I never look at my face and think, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible, I look so old.’ I actually don’t. So I don’t mind that. But I’ve never looked at my body, since I was 14, with anything other than a deeply critical, not-accepting attitude. You can still not be able to look at yourself in the mirror and still take your showers in the dark, because you can’t face looking at what the iconography has told you is not acceptable. It’s not even not perfect. It’s unacceptable. And that’s a waste of our purpose and our passion.”

Next up: Thompson dives deep into character makeup as the villainous Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl’s “Matilda.”

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