Emma Thompson Charms BAFTA Crowd With Tales of Oscar Wins, Acting Pet Peeves and Being Angry at John Travolta

Jamie Simonds/BAFTA

The double-Oscar winning actress, writer and producer -- and star of the upcoming "Saving Mr. Banks" -- turns up for one of the liveliest, funniest British Academy's Life in Pictures interviews to date.

LONDON -- Double Oscar-winning actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson regaled a packed British Academy of Film and Television Arts HQ in the British capital Sunday with Oscar tales, stories about being pissed at John Travolta and her take on why being a woman of a certain age means meaty roles are hard to come by.

Having won three British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards herself, Thompson is no stranger to the corridors of British Academy power. Over the course of an hour and a half, Thompson breezily and humorously discussed her 30-year screen career onstage Sunday.

STORY: 'Saving Mr. Banks' Star Emma Thompson Shares P.L. Travers Insights, Favorite Films

Stopping to chastise the enthusiastic audience in the front row at the midway point for not letting her know her bra strap was visible in her chic black dress, Thompson said she was doing her hardest to entertain in spite of the fashion social faux pas.

Thompson, who won her first Oscar just after a Golden Globe in 1993 for her turn in Howards End, described that win as a "totally surreal" experience. She said that back in the early 1990s, the Academy Awards were a "very faraway thing" and that the Oscar statue was an icon "that belonged to Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn," not her.

Thompson said she took her mom with her to the ceremony and had gotten dressed up in "posh frocks" at around 11 a.m., ahead of the ceremony. She said she remembered her mother's dress had a particularly long train, which caused her to choke "like a bulldog" when someone trod on it. But Thompson said all was not lost because nearly everyone that stood on the gown's train was famous, "which meant we stopped and chatted to a lot of very talented people" on the red carpet.

It was when she went backstage after her winner's speech at the ceremony -- her mother had turned to her just before the winner's envelope was opened to tell her she had a snowball's chance in hell of winning -- that the magnitude and importance of the Oscar statue hit home.

"I handed [the Oscar] to a security guard while I hiked up my tights -- there were no Spanx in those days -- and he looked at me like no one has ever looked at me. It was like I'd handed him the Ark of the Covenant or something," she said, laughing.

Thompson wrapped the trophy in some socks and put it in her carry-on luggage to take through LAX. Everyone in security wanted to hold "what must have looked like a nuclear warhead" on the scanners.

"Even the captain on the flight home came down to see me and asked me if he could see it and hold it," she said. "I said I would prefer it if he went back to the cockpit and keep his eyes on the road."

But her answer to the question of whether the Oscar win had been life-changing was succinct. "No," came the response.

Thompson noted that the Oscar legend goes that actors don't work for a year after winning one, but she recalled that curse did not hold true for her.

Her next screen role was in James Ivory's The Remains of the Day, a movie that reunited her with Anthony Hopkins onscreen. Thompson's mother sent Hopkins a note asking that he not "eat her," considering that he had just starred as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs prior to shooting Howards End.

In one of the interview's most revealing segments, Thompson grew visibly moved talking about her grandmother, who had spent her entire life in servitude from age 14 and had been raped and birthed a child by one of her masters. But asked if this knowledge had informed her portrayal of Miss Kenton opposite Hopkins' socially and sexually repressed character in Remains, Thompson said she simply tried to play the scene in front of her and bring the character and words to the screen.

In 1996, Thompson won her second Oscar, this time for writing, picking up the best adapted screenplay statuette for Sense and Sensibility, the Ang Lee-directed movie in which she also starred. She won her second Golden Globe for the same work and picked up her third BAFTA for best actress for her turn in her own script.

When asked to adapt Sense and Sensibility, Thompson turned to her friend and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to ask her what to do "because she didn't know where to start."

"She told me, adapt the whole book and then go from there," Thompson said, adding that her first script came in at around 500 pages before smiling to the audience and saying: "They're meant to be 90, you know."

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Thompson described her joy at the "brutality" of Lee's direction notes on set after an initially frosty period when she and co-star Hugh Grant had suggested to Lee after one take that they move "over there and do it again."

Thompson said Lee, who was making his English-language debut in 1995 with her script, fell silent, and the rest of the day's shoot was "sticky" but they got through it.

"I realized that not once in his life had anyone ever asked him anything on set. He made films where actors and actresses never said or did anything he didn't tell them to do. They certainly do not make suggestions," Thompson said.

But she said after realizing that she had spent the night writing an apology to him, they must have passed in the corridor at night because he had written one to her and pushed it under her door.

"After that, the notes were brutal and funny [from Ang]," Thompson explained, describing the first one she got from him as saying simply, "Don't look so old," while one to Kate Winslet in the film stated, "Don't worry, you'll get better."

Thompson's BAFTA discussion was littered with her trademark humor -- she spent seven years as a stand-up comedienne and comedy writer before landing a part in TV's Tutti Frutti and Fortunes of War, both of which earned her British Academy Television Awards in 1988 -- throughout the evening hosted by journalist, broadcaster, critic and self-confessed Thompson fan Boyd Hilton.

Thompson described how she has never been afraid to voice an opinion and how she plainly and sternly shouted at John Travolta while they were filming Primary Colors, "that film not about [former U.S. president] Bill and Hilary Clinton."

She said the problem had arisen a day after Travolta had exercised his turnaround clause in his contract that allowed him to come in late on a subsequent day's shoot if the previous day's filming had gone longer than 14 hours. She said that while Travolta was not one of the actors who had become "too grand" and starstruck by their own powers, he had come in late even though there had been nothing the crew could have done.

" 'You're pissed at me,' John said pointing at me on set." Thompson smiled. " 'Yes I am,' I just told him, 'Yes I am.' "

She said when young actors -- or any actors -- turn up late or seem like they don't want to be there, her advice to them is to get lost and let someone who really wants the job to do it.

Thompson explained her hatred for tardiness. She said that when she was making Last Chance Harvey with Dustin Hoffman (an actor who himself has been the subject of a BAFTA Life in Pictures), he got stuck in traffic.

"He was so worried about being late and keeping people waiting that he got out of his car, took his shoes and ran in his socks to get to set on time," Thompson said. "That's who you want to work with, someone with that enthusiasm."

She said that while she genuinely loves Hollywood, she reserves a good deal of hatred for the star system and the hierarchy it creates.

She said Hollywood [and the studios] were adept at creating a situation of "better than, less than, better than, less than" with VIP areas on top of VIP areas and different colored tickets for premieres that always seem to leave her wondering just who you have to be to get into "that particular" area.

"That is the one thing I really hate," Thompson said. She noted that for myriad reasons, the U.K. doesn't create that kind of atmosphere and that "no actor should ever be a part of it."

Thompson described her latest turn as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in Disney's Saving Mr. Banks as the hardest role she has ever taken on because the woman she portrayed was "inconsistent and complicated."

Thompson described the script as "one of the best I've read in a long time" and said she was drawn to Travers, who behaved like a "total cow" at times because "you just didn't know what she was going to do from one minute to the next," such was her emotional state.

Starring opposite Tom Hanks, who plays studio mogul Walt Disney in the movie, Thompson described working with her co-star as a great experience despite ending up with a perm, because she hates wigs.

She said everyone had been surprised that Disney had allowed the use of the studio founder's image in a role that portrays him "smoking and drinking whisky." But she said the film is "about parenting and the effects that has on the soul of a child."

She noted that if you "asked any woman of 50-ish years old" how often scripts and parts like these came their way, the answer would be very few.

Other asides from Thompson included the jokey theory that if she hadn't spent "a very short few days" shooting two of the Harry Potter franchise movies in the U.K. she felt she'd have had her actors' union Equity card "confiscated."

Said Thompson, laughing, "We [the entire British acting profession] were all in them."

The Oscar winner also described Richard Curtis, the writer of her first movie, The Tall Guy, who also wrote and directed Love, Actually as a one-man antidote to the British filmmaking penchant for all things gloomy, depressing and downbeat.

"He's the embodiment of the milk of human kindness," Thompson said. "I've never seen anything else come out of him."

Thompson left the stage to rapturous applause after suggesting that humor in everything is a mantra by which she lives.

"It does help I think. [Not having humor] is like eating food without salt and pepper. It would be too bland. You could laugh or you could cry; that's where I want to be," Thompson remarked with a grin.

Her honor roster also boasts an Emmy for her performance on Ellen in 1998.

In 2010, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, which was written, produced and starred Thompson was nominated for a British Academy Children's award for best feature film.

BAFTA -- A Life in Pictures is a long-running series of onstage interviews in which some of the film world's leading talent discuss their lives and career and share insights into the experiences that helped them hone and develop their crafts. Other actors who have taken part include Hoffman, Hanks, Martin Scorsese, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Kenneth Branagh and Helen Mirren.

 

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