Profile: Is that the world at her feet?: Emma Thompson, British actress par excellence

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A FEW weeks ago, Emma Thompson agreed to a cover shoot for the Christmas issue of British Esquire, the men's magazine. She was, according to the editor, Rosie Boycott, to strip off and be spray-painted gold in front of a photographer of her choice. 'It was a bit of fun,' says Boycott. 'And, you know - Emma's golden year.'

It has been a glittering 12 months. She dazzled in James Ivory's Howards End, impressing the Hollywood establishment enough to win the Oscar for Best Actress. She sparkled in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, and wowed audiences at Cannes. And now, with the release of her new film, James Ivory's Remains of the Day, the critics are talking gold-leafed statuettes again.

The Esquire cover would have been exactly the sort of stunt to lift Thompson out of the sensible bluestocking furrow she has ploughed so successfully. To enjoy a rich range of film roles, to be rather more than a latter-day Maggie Smith, she has to market herself to American audiences as a glamour queen. After all, the trick worked for Daniel Day-Lewis, her co-star in the forthcoming film about the Guildford Four, In the Name of the Father.

Well-respected by arthouse audiences, Day-Lewis broke into the big league with such films as The Last of the Mohicans and The Age of Innocence after posing, bare-chested, on the cover of Premiere, the American movie magazine. Thompson had dabbled a little as part of her Oscar campaign, posing nude - but very tastefully, exquisitely airbrushed, no breasts never mind beaver, in homage to The Rokeby Venus by Velazquez - for Snowdon and the readers of Vanity Fair.

Discussions about photographers were underway; Esquire agreed to donate a fee to the Labour Party. At the last minute, however, the would-be cover girl changed her mind. At 34 Emma Thompson, it seems, wants it both ways: respect from the establishment and good old-fashioned stardom. Can she have it all?

Emma Thompson was born to be in showbiz. Her mother is the actress Phyllida Law; her father, who died in 1982, was Eric Thompson, actor, director and creator of the British version of The Magic Roundabout. She was also clever: after Camden Girls' School, London's liberal academic hothouse, she went to Newnham College, Cambridge, to read English.

Choosing the comedy road, like her father, she joined the Cambridge Footlights, part of a vintage year that included Hugh Laurie (with whom she had a brief affair), Stephen Fry and Tony Slattery. But according to university contemporaries, she was always extremely serious about acting. 'At the end of her first term,' says an acquaintance from her London schooldays, 'she waltzed in, all flowing scarves and fantastically theatrical - and this was way before she met Ken.'

After graduating in 1982, she became a funny singing-and-dancing girl-most-likely. She wrote and starred in her own Channel 4 comedy show, Up for Grabs, and hoofed her way to the headlines in 1984 in the revived West End musical Me and My Girl. In 1986 she starred in John Byrne's award-winning television series Tutti Frutti, which was a drama, but one with laughs.

It was not until later that year, when she starred in the BBC costume drama Fortunes of War, that she started Serious Acting. Her co-star was Kenneth Branagh, the working- class boy from Belfast who, by way of Rada, had already styled himself as the young Olivier. Pausing to get married - rather grandly - in 1989, they have been Serious Acting together ever since.

The transition from hoofer to the new Redgrave has not been seamless. In 1987 her one-woman television series, Thompson, her final attempt at common-or-garden variety, was savaged by the critics. 'Sluggish, self-indulgent, one of the almost totally unfunny things on television,' wrote one. Thompson subsequently described the experience as 'vile and deeply wounding'.

In general, Thompson is highly sensitive about criticism of which, in Britain, there has been a fair bit. Her brilliance as an actress has never been in doubt. Randomly questioned men seem to find her a great British beauty (an American would have got rid of some of those teeth). 'Sexy?' says Peter Broughan, who script-edited Tutti Frutti. 'Oooh, yeah. She has the attraction of an intelligent woman.'

Film crews adore her. Her friends and acquaintances all praised her qualities as a human being. 'Friendly, sincere, lively, likeable, intelligent, warm, good conversationalist,' reels off Oscar Moore, editor of Screen International, who shared a house with her in Cambridge and is well known for his waspish wit. And yet, there is a persistent British antipathy towards the unit 'Ken and Em'. They are disliked for their success, considered insufficiently self-deprecating, felt to be conning Americans about highbrow Anglo culture. In Britain, the noirish thriller Dead Again (1990) was declared a farce; in the US it was hailed as a brilliant homage to Hitchcock. Here, Peter's Friends (1992) was thought to be a smug, self-indulgent celebration of the Cambridge Footlights; over there it was a moving update of The Big Chill.

Even though she is now working far more as Ms Thompson than as Leigh to her husband's Olivier, she now prefers delivering soundbites on American television to talking to the British press. The last interview she gave appeared in the Guardian last August; she took offence at the tone and, shortly afterwards, advertisements for Much Ado About Nothing were pulled from its pages.

Yet bad press is the meat and potatoes of female stardom in America: Madonna is supposed to be a control freak; Demi Moore is supposed to have too many assistants; Sharon Stone is supposed to be a prima donna . . . So what? It comes with the territory. So Thompson better mellow out.

When it comes to politics, Thompson also wants it both ways. She is a lefty through and through, as principled as Vanessa Redgrave - though with Thompson we are definitely speaking of the respectable left. As respectable as you get. She is a Labour Party member, a CND supporter; she is pro-choice and anti-apartheid. During the Gulf war - bravely disregarding any possible harm to the American box office - she declared that 'there's no such thing as strategic bombing'. More recently, she has been busy organising a benefit for Bosnia. A friend from Cambridge, the writer Greg Snow, says he wouldn't be surprised if she eventually stood as a Labour MP, in the style of Glenda Jackson.

Yet Ken and Em (them again]) are extremely chummy with the Royal Family. Ken consulted the Prince of Wales on playing a king in Henry V, and the Branaghs have been pals of his ever since. So much so that at the premiere of Howards End in 1992, Thompson committed the grand faux-pas of talking to Princess Margaret before being spoken to. (I'm so used to talking to Charles, she later explained.) Liberal though the Prince seems on certain issues, one does not necessarily see him as a bastion of the alternative establishment of thirtysomethings. And how does the leading showbiz feminist ('The women are coming]' she declared at the Academy Awards) deal with the politics of Princess Di?

Emma Thompson is in danger of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. In the US she is prepared to play the fame-game up to a point: she is currently playing hide and seek with the press about the if and when of motherhood. (Demi Moore talks exclusively to Vanity Fair about her pregnancies every year.) They love her class, her accent, her funny, dizzy schtick. (Never mind Keanu Reeves: at the Cannes press conference for Much Ado About Nothing, she hogged the show with a routine about periods.) But then if she wants to hop to- and-fro across the Atlantic like Anthony Hopkins, who transmuted from Hannibal the cannibal to repressed Englishman in Howards End and Remains of the Day, she's going to have to do some razzle-dazzle.

In Britain, meanwhile, we prefer our stars to be American, or terribly gracious and demure, women who might talk about starving children but never ever about periods. And there is a persistent snobbery about costume drama.

In the short term, everything looks rosy. She is likely to be nominated for another Oscar (though it wouldn't do to have her win two years in a row). She is writing her first screenplay, an adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Her marriage is evidently a very happy one, despite suggestions that she is eclipsing Branagh's star. ('Rubbish,' says Oscar Moore. 'Ken is the one directing Robert De Niro in Frankenstein.') Her no-nonsense Scottish mother, who lives in the same Hampstead street as the Branaghs and accompanied her daughter to the Oscars, should help her to keep her feet on the ground.

The only problem is her darn image. She is in danger of going the way of Julie Andrews. She might like to consider doing a Daniel Day-Lewis, who had a nervous breakdown halfway through Hamlet at the National Theatre and is now, officially, tortured and brilliant. Otherwise, for the taking of Tinseltown, she may need that pot of gold paint.

(Photograph omitted)