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Born into a British acting family, Emma Thompson has been entertaining American audiences since her Oscar-winning role in “Howards End” (1992), and in such films as “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), “The Remains of the Day” (1993) and “Stranger Than Fiction” (2006). Thompson also penned the screenplay for “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), earning another Oscar. In 2005, she introduced the moviegoing world to “Nanny McPhee,” whose sequel, “Nanny McPhee Returns,” opens Aug. 20. Just before receiving her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Thompson discussed her career with THR’s Noela Hueso.
The Hollywood Reporter: Somebody once said comedy is the natural outlet for the tragic mind. Do you agree?
Emma Thompson: Yes, I do. I knew a lot of comics when I was growing up and they were all fantastically dysfunctional. That still pertains. The greater the comic, the greater the dysfunction.
THR: Do you consider yourself dysfunctional?
Thompson: Mildly. You’d have to ask my nearest and dearest. Also, there’s always something slightly wrong with an actor, in the sense that if you were entirely at ease in your own body you wouldn’t want or need to go out and pretend to be someone else.
THR: You project great confidence. Are you confident?
Thompson: In some ways that confidence is a blind. I can do a big performance, as it were, and a confident performance, and then, as my husband will tell you, I have to go and be sponged down in a darkened room for a couple of weeks. I do have a lot of weakness.
THR: Would you care to share them?
Thompson: I find the job I do emotionally very demanding. I can get overdone from time to time. I suffer from occasional mild depression, which I think is a very common thing — it’s fantastically common in my country and probably in yours, too — and it’s a very much hidden thing people don’t much talk about. I think it should be discussed.
THR: How do you get over that or decompress?
Thompson: I just go home and be quiet and go back to normal, really — a really intensely quiet, private life for quite long periods of time. Next year, I’m going to take a sabbatical.
THR: What are you going to do?
Thompson: What I’m not going to do is the more appropriate question. I’m not going to fundraise or perform or travel, except in pursuit of new vistas with my family. I’ve been meaning to do this for a long, long time, but it’s been like putting the brakes on a large ship because there is so much going on.
THR: Your father, actor Eric Thompson, was the narrator of the 1960s British children’s TV series “The Magic Roundabout.” How did that influence you?
Thompson: The show was something that both parents and children enjoyed equally. He didn’t write it for children; he wrote it for himself. That’s where the influence for “Nanny” came from. I write the stories for all of us. My devotion to these films is partly a rebellion. I don’t want to be told that “This is a children’s film” or “That’s a chick flick.” I don’t want to be manipulated. I want to make films that people in different age groups can watch together and that are perfectly accessible to all.
THR: When did you first discover the Nurse Matilda stories, on which Nanny McPhee is based?
Thompson: I vaguely remembered the first Nurse Matilda book from my childhood. I read it again about 15 years ago and thought, “There’s something in there that’s terribly interesting cinematically: A character whose face changes during the course of a film — and not because they’re aging, but because of something psychologically obtuse and interesting.” It took me seven years to get it right.
THR: Why seven years?
Thompson: I have a theory that screenplays take quite a long time, because they need to be set aside for a bit. I cannot tell you how many drafts I did. The first draft of the original “Nanny McPhee” bears almost no resemblance whatsoever to the finished film.
THR: Are you a perfectionist?
Thompson: I am — but not stupidly perfectionist, in the sense I do get to a point where I go, “Well, OK, this is ready now.”
THR: Are you anything like Nanny McPhee?
Thompson: No, I’m not. I’m far too unreliably emotional and I suppose I’m volatile and she certainly isn’t. I’m not really particularly consistent, which she is, and while I would aim to be judicious and compassionate most of the time, I don’t manage it always because I’m not a Zen master. She is.
THR: Do you find that English and American audiences respond differently to the character?
Thompson: Not really. What I found interesting about taking her around the world, actually, is that children all respond to her in the same way. She looks like those little old ladies who sit on the corners — the Spanish widows and the little French ladies with their black scarves. There’s something universal about her.
THR: Did you enjoy playing ugly?
Thompson: It’s a great release from the necessity to be attractive in any way — the way in which women are expected to present themselves. That pernicious demand is upheld by the organs of communications that ought to know better — I’m talking about women’s magazines, famously, and it’s a duty among all of us communicators, artists, journalists and writers to refuse to toe this line.
THR: Now you’re working on a character who’s definitely not ugly: You’re writing a new version of “My Fair Lady.”
Thompson: I was thrilled to be asked to do it, because, having looked at it, I thought that there needs to be a new version. I’m not hugely fond of the film. I find Audrey Hepburn fantastically twee.
THR: What is “twee”?
Thompson: Twee is whimsy without wit. Its mimsy-mumsy sweetness without any kind of bite. And that’s not for me. She can’t sing and she can’t really act, I’m afraid. I’m sure she was a delightful woman — and perhaps if I had known her I would have enjoyed her acting more, but I don’t and I didn’t, so that’s all there is to it, really.
THR: Will all this upset fans of the original?
Thompson: I’m sure. Fans of the original won’t want another one to be made — and honestly, one has to just cope with that. The central relationship between Eliza and Higgins is a fascinating one: Do we have a man who is fantastically dysfunctional and hasn’t been able to create a relationship with any woman except this one? Or is it, as I suspect, that she, actually, is the one who turns around and creates him, in the sense that she excavates in him an emotional center?
Emmy Thompson timeline
1980 Graduates from the University of Cambridge.
1984 Stars in a West End revival of “Me and My Girl.”
1985 Writes and stars in TV special “Emma Thompson: Up for Grabs.”
1987 Appears in the British TV miniseries “Fortunes of War.”
1988 Stars in and writes for her own BBC show, “Thompson.”
1989 Marries Kenneth Branagh and stars in his “Henry V.”
1993 Wins the best actress Oscar for her role in “Howards End.”
— Stars in Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and “The Remains of the Day.”
— Stars in “In the Name of the Father” opposite Daniel Day-Lewis.
1994 Stars in “Junior” opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito.
1995 Writes and stars in “Nanny McPhee.”
— Divorces Branagh.
1996 Wins an adapted screenplay Oscar for “Sense and Sensibility.”
1999 Gives birth to daughter Gaia Romilly, whose father, Greg Wise, Thompson marries in 2003.
2001 The HBO telefilm “Wit,” in which Thompson starred and wrote with Mike Nichols, wins Humanitas, Peabody and Emmy awards.
2003 Informally adopts a 16-year-old Rwandan boy.
— Stars in “Love Actually” and “Angels in America.”
2004 Appears in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”
2005 “Nanny McPhee” premieres.
2006 Stars in “Stranger Than Fiction” opposite Will Ferrell.
2007 Appears in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”
2008 Stars in “Brideshead Revisited” and “Last Chance Harvey.”
2010 Writes, stars in and produces “Nanny McPhee Returns.”
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