BEYOND THE CRINGE
She smokes roll-ups, dresses down and means well, yet the words Emma Thompson can set teeth grating. But then Mrs Branagh is that rare thing, a semi-ironic star
Sunday 03 September 1995
To her detractors, Emma Thompson is a maddening, cringy synthesis of pale linen and good intentions. In the category of swottiest Head Girl in Motion Pictures, there could be no other nominations. Her teeth, her sensible manners, her good causes, her Oscar for Howards End, her husband - people's goats are widely got. It is unclear why this irritation should be felt so strongly, and it is often unclear whether the criticism refers to Thompson's roles or to the Thompson we see in the papers - either spangly at a film premiere, or speaking her mind about the Gulf war or Shakespeare's beautiful oak tree. But whatever the source of the Emma Thompson Problem, it seems to have something to do with irony and English understatement, and with her reluctance either to commit, so to speak, to the simplicities of stardom, or to abandon those simplicities altogether. Thompson is a semi-ironic star, like Richard Branson is a semi-ironic millionaire.
To be a celeb, ideally, is to present a fairly simple thing to the world - babe, hunk, drunk - and Thompson doesn't care for simplicity. She's crazy about complexity. She reserves the right to dress down and say cringy things, as real, complex, people do. But her job is film star, and in the name of publicity she'll pose for extraordinary photographs - with no top on and holding her breasts, or wrapped in lavatory paper, or cutely dishevelled in pyjamas. She'll support the Coalition Against the Criminal Justice Act, but do Junior with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and schmooze with royalty (She once told Princess Margaret, in public, that she looked "gorgeous as usual".) The result is a very English, and to some a very annoying, version of glamour. The Oscar? This old thing?
When I interviewed her a few weeks ago, she said "I value ambiguity almost above all." She said that the recent liaison between her friend Hugh Grant and a Los Angeles prostitute was "wonderful, absolutely wonderful, I don't think it was a mistake at all." This was because it had made the public's perception of Grant more complex; he had undermined his media stereotype. His hair had been firmly ruffled, rather as Divine Brown's had been. "With Stephen [Fry] I had the same response. I thought, Thank God, you know, you've broken out."
THE INTERVIEW - to promote the forthcoming film Carrington, directed by Christ-opher Hampton - was held in a very large room in a posh hotel in central London. We were just a few miles south of Thompson's real home, which is a semi-detached house in West Hampstead where she choses to live - to the amazement of some - with Kenneth Branagh. She is 36; she has lived in the street all her life; her actress mother lives over the road, her actress younger sister lives round the corner. "Sorry we're stuck in a hotel room in fucking Hyde Park," Thompson said, as if she had pres- sed for a nice fortnight for two in, say, Umbria, but had been unsuccessful. Her schedule allow-ed us an hour - this was true A-list brevity. Her publicist let it be known that this is the longest interview she was giving in the world.
She wanted to be a real person in these predictably unreal circumstances. There was some swearing, and smoking of roll-ups. She was wearing jeans and a long, light blue linen shirt with metal buttons, which was not tucked in; nor done up very thoroughly. She registered the obvious dampness in the tails of the shirt, but said she hadn't "peed" herself. She seemed clever, and was extremely affable, but somehow less real for her efforts to be more real - it's hard to find the ground between stardom and the absolute subversion of stardom.
She had just finished playing Elinor in a film of Sense and Sensibility, for which she wrote the screenplay over five years: "It's been such a huge... like having digested something enormous: a scatological metaphor, God knows, or simile, is it?" Later, she said "I've spent years trying to prove myself, particularly to Stephen and Hugh [Laurie], wanting to write and wanting to be a comedian... one of the great pleasures of having finished Sense and Sensibility was they liked it so much. I suddenly realised I'd wanted that for a long time - their approval."
But she was promoting Carrington, which is released next month. (Thompson's precis of her life: "Sort of wandering around in this rather unreal bubble, in a cozzie, pretending to be somebody else".) Carrington shows the life of the painter Dora Carrington, or that part of her life that included Lytton Strachey (who was gay, and who she loved: in Peter's Friends, Stephen Fry explained kindly to a sexually over-excited Thompson that he was "not really in the vagina business". Strachey explains he is "desoriente" by the same region. Thompson seems to have found some sub-genre of unrequitedness here.)
The film is adapted from Michael Holroyd's much-revised 1967 biography of Strachey (played here by Jonathan Pryce: "God damn, blast and fuck the upper classes"), and critics may feel the story suffers for never being quite handed over to Carrington herself - who, in fact, is perhaps done a favour by this relative neglect: a larger portrait would have been more warty; under closer examination, an allegedly selfless love would have seemed more selfish. As it is, Thompson can tussle fairly blamelessly with some of the more handsome young actors in Britain - Samuel West, Rufus Sewell, Steven Waddington and so on - yet forever return to Lytton and his big beard.
"It's very clear in the book," said Thompson, "that Carrington was wilful and perverse and treated Brenan [her lover Gerald Brenan] terribly, absolutely tortured him. Once she gave him a whole load of Lytton's ties, a big parcel of Lytton's ties, as this kind of love gift, absolutely monstrous, but not knowing it to be..." Lytton Strachey, she said, "offered Carrington liberty because he didn't want to own her; he was an easy person to be with. I'm sure a lot of women fall in love with homosexuals for precisely that reason - that there is a form of freedom there and it doesn't confuse passion with lust. It was very difficult to boil all that down, without making this a paean of devotion, which is much less complicated than it was."
Thompson wants to be involved in the telling of complicated stories, or stories that at least have some complicated people in them. "The trouble with glamour roles is that they tend not to be ambiguous at all. Even though they're set up to be, they're not. Even in Dead Again [directed by, and co-starring her husband] - where I found it very stressful to be in a part that was supposed to be beautiful, for a start - I loved the story, it was well told and a good thriller, you know, but it's not nearly as interesting to play, actually, as the stuff that I normally do. I just find it's important to play people you're not sure about."
Although she has a reputation for playing assured representatives of the upper middle classes, Thompson is in fact as likely to be found representing ambiguous Maggie Smithish people of more modest social status, whom she invests with a capacity to embarrass and be embarrassed: (Miss Kenton in The Remains of the Day, the appallingly cheery children's entertainer Nanny Gee in Cheers, Maggie in Peter's Friends: "Peter", she gushes on arrival, "Peter, Peter, Peter, Peter, Peter." ) And the way she plays those awkward, ambiguous people - often slack-jawed, a deflating hint of Kenneth Williams in the voice - seems to include an intelligent, self- conscious person's commentary on the awkwardness and oddness and phoney assurance of acting itself. (Her old Cambridge chum Stephen Fry is a less accomplished actor, but does the same sort of thing.) Thompson is very good, but somehow makes you know you're only a heartbeat away from the sheer naked horror of amateur dramatics. The question seems to be raised: what kind of terrible person would not weep with embarrassment at being asked to kiss or shout without reason in front of strangers?
Is Thompson uncertain how seriously to take film acting? "It depends who you're with, really. Some people do take film stars seriously, which is of course a tremendous mistake. You take it seriously, but it's like football, you take it seriously on the same level. Of course it's absolutely serious, far too much money's riding on it for it not to be taken seriously, but at the same time you know that it's of no importance really, except that you're telling stories - that's all."
IN THE hotel in Hyde Park, the press of Europe smoked away, waiting their turn in an ante-room decorated with fake Carrington paintings, while Thompson was curled up on a large sofa, pouring mineral water, prodding and tugging at her face as she thought and spoke, distorting it in the way good-looking people sometimes do, knowing they can well afford to take this little holiday from comeliness. She was not, in conversation, a story-teller - but story-telling became the theme of her conversation.
Emma Thompson's background in story-telling includes, famously, her father's venture into television; Eric Thompson, who died in 1982, is celebrated for taking a series of French animations, stripping them of their soundtracks - and with that, their political satire - and inventing The Magic Roundabout. (Apparently, Emma and friends feigned an enthusiasm for The Magic Roundabout's pre-news substitute, Hector's House, to rile Mr Thompson.)
At university in Cambridge, Thompson met Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie and did Foot-lights things ("I'd say as a group at university we were all absolutely appalling"), but also wrote a 10,000-word dissertation on George Eliot, and the way Eliot cheated her heroines, at the last minute, out of the possibility of heroic action.
She left university already equipped with an agent, and became a comedian, then an actress in search of the female heroic ("... a different kind of heroism, but something that's not self-sacrificial, which is what essentially all Eliot heroines turn out to be"). With success, and with her marriage in 1989 - for which press releases were prepared and Cliveden booked - Thompson found herself in a new narrative: that of newspaper celebrity. "It's a separate person. I actually think of the stuff that's going into the media as being entirely separate to me." The combination of Ken and Em was too rich a dish for many. She can now see the joke, and - rather charmingly - can refer to her relationship with Branagh as "very irritating". But there have been times when she was hurt by un-friendly talk. There were times, she said, when she could not get up and would lie in bed, thinking, "I simply cannot fucking face anybody today, because everybody hates me. But then you realise that a) it's not the case, and b) most of the public don't give a fuck."
She described herself to me as a "relentless optimist", but she said that on occasion - "when I get very very bitter and twisted" - she sees a Jungian psychoanalyst. "Jung's very useful. I think he's very clever about opening your mind out a bit and saying, 'There's more room here for manoeuvre.' That's when you go, when your head's full, you can't manoeuvre anywhere, you're stuck somewhere and you just need somebody to shake you up a bit, like those bag things we all sat on in the Seventies."
Does she have a theory about the hostility towards her?
"Not really, except that it's probably jolly good for one."
Does she think it might be simpler just to play the part of a star?
"You mean it would perhaps be better to be a freak? Just to accept..." After a moment, she said: "Yes. But life wouldn't be worth living."
Thompson is having a break now, for the first time in a long while. She will cook and see her husband and her friends in West Hampstead. And have a baby? (It's an ancient tradition in Thompson interviews to ask this question.) "I don't know" she said. Perhaps, I wondered, she will one day do something similar to Hugh Grant or Stephen Fry - and then resign from the role of the semi-ironic star. "You mean, suddenly, and without being able to stop myself, I'll run out and offer my body to a taxi driver?
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