ACTRESSES don't like talking about their appearance: it's the work that matters, isn't it? So when you are interviewing a serious actress who has just been named one of Elle magazine's British Beauties, it seems best to get the looks question out of the way early on. So, does Kristin Scott Thomas find her beauty a burden? 'Let's get this into proportion, I'm not Miss World. And I've never really felt . . . Oh, God. It's such a dangerous subject, you end up sounding . . . People have told me, but I've always thought they must be mad.' The lady doth protest too much. But modesty, like everything else, becomes her, dammit. She would look blissful in a bin-liner, as you can see on Thursday when she wears the next worst thing - a nun's habit - in Body and Soul, Carlton's six-part serial about a crisis of faith.
It was that face that got her the part. Director Moira Armstrong went through all the big names for Sister Gabriel, the Yorkshire lass who quits her family at 18 to enter a convent only to be woken 16 years later by the alarm on her biological clock. Tara Fitzgerald was too sexy, Amanda Redman (subsequently cast to terrific effect as Gabriel's sister-in-law) too warm. Scott Thomas did not exactly have 'perplexed virgin' high on her CV, although she is a Catholic. She has made her mark as a porcelain filly: well- bred, spirited and with a febrile intelligence that puts her in a thoroughbred British line stretching back to Kay Kendall, Vivian Leigh and Deborah Kerr. Last autumn, she played the spiky advertising director in BBC's Look At It This Way, and the half- defrosted young wife in Polanski's Bitter Moon. Lady Brenda, upper-class bolter and conscience-free zone, whom Scott Thomas brought to life in the 1988 adaptation of A Handful of Dust, would have thought nuns too dreary. But Armstrong was convinced the actress whom the Daily Mail said had 'cornered the market in English roses' could show us what it was to bloom unseen: 'You are 25 per cent there already because of her serenity and stillness.' It was an inspired hunch. With her hair under a wimple, Scott Thomas looks like one of Piero della Francesca's heavenly youths: huge grey eyes gazing out from top-of-the-milk skin. Sisters in a closed order have the same level of common knowledge as a High Court judge, so when Gabriel goes home, Scott Thomas's face has to register the changes in the world. Excitement scuds across it, then sudden apprehension as she sees a poster for female condoms.
I met her in a small hotel, tucked away behind Sloane Square. Colefax and Fowler roses run riot on the soft furnishings, and there is the kind of hallowed hush that, outside of a cathedral, only money can buy. The morning is beautiful and crisp, rather like the interviewee, who is friendly, but when spooked will retreat into a hauteur that can freeze a waiter at 50 paces. Armstrong saw 'a sort of coldness that Kristin puts on to defend herself'. She uses accents in the same way, slipping into aw-mar-gawd Eliza Doolittle, gruff mogul (when I ask her about Hollywood, which she says she hasn't the drive to tackle) and naice Julie Andrews to make you laugh and keep you at an ironic distance. She was worried about broadening her own crisp vowels: 'I didn't want to do all the aye-oop-lass Emmerdale Farm stuff.' I tell her I liked the way she kept tugging at her head-dress, as if not only her mind but her whole being were itching to cut loose: 'Oh, God. Was it too much? You've made me really nervous now.' Well, I read something about you . . . 'Don't believe it,' she snaps. 'The things I've read about myself, it's outrageous.' The outrage turns out to be a tabloid piece which translated a joke she made about pigging-out on biscuits into full-blown bulimia: 'complete rubbish'. She is thin. The malnourished waif look is seen to haunting effect when Sister Gabriel takes her nightie off to look at her adult body for the first time. Not the kind of nudity that some people at Carlton would have liked Armstrong to include. If Scott Thomas was unmoved - 'Nakedness doesn't bother me, it's so English to get worked up about it' - viewers may feel differently. TV boobs usually come pert or pneumatic, not vulnerable and birdlike. The whole scene is painful to watch.
It's not fanciful to trace that vulnerability to her childhood. She was born 33 years ago in Sherborne, Dorset. Father was a naval officer, mother a petite beauty who produced a clutch of dazzling daughters (Kristin's younger sister, Serena, looked a treat under the Shredded Wheat wigs in Diana: Her Own True Story). At convent school, Kristin 'wanted to be a saint, then a nun, then a swimmer'. When she was five, her father was killed in a flying accident. Her mother married another naval officer, but in 1973 he too died, in an identical accident. She once said in an unguarded moment that 'the grieving just didn't happen'. And she told a colleague that she learned not to trust people, probably because of losing two fathers. 'I'm very good at forgetting people.'
Kristin was sent to Cheltenham Ladies College in the early Seventies, a period when 'lady' was a four-letter word. She 'buckled under and complained like mad'. Afterwards, she worked in Selfridges Ladies' Separates, which gave her an introduction to twinsets she's been renewing professionally ever since. Next came a teaching course at Central School of Drama, where her bid to change to acting was rejected. Nineteen and 'absolutely broke', she went to Paris as an au pair. Her employer 'gave me the kick up the arse I needed' to audition for drama school, and the French snapped her up.
At an evening theatre class she met Francois Olivennes, an obstetrics student. So he was interested in acting, too? 'Hmmm,' she says, very Lady Bracknell, 'Claims have been made that he was there for flirting.' It certainly worked. Now married, they have two small children and live round the corner from the Jardins de Luxembourg. Ferociously bilingual, Kristin is offered far more varied parts in France, where there is no Lady Brenda pedigree to dog her. Eric Rochant cast her as a schoolteacher in Autobus, where she played a frump in a cardigan and still held your gaze.
She had a break of sorts in 1986 when Prince picked her for an heiress in his Under The Cherry Moon. Rising effortlessly above the dismal proceedings, she picked up some unlikely tips for Handful of Dust: 'I decided to base Brenda on Prince. He was often very kind-hearted and sweet, but at other times quite dreadful.' Waugh would probably not have made the imaginative leap, but then he never made Brenda as human and complex as Kristin did. Her performance collected the Evening Standard award for Most Promising Newcomer, when she already looked like Best Actress.
There was a careless rapture about her which danced over the monstrosity; she spoke like a Noel Coward heroine, as if an invisible cigarette-holder were clamped between her teeth, hissing you beasssst. Her delivery of 'Thank God', one of the most chilling lines in literature, when she discovers that it is not her lover but her small son who has died, was a revelation - 'unbelievably perceptive and clever, such economy and power', according to director Gavin Millar, who cast her in Look At It This Way on the strength of it.
She has yet to find a leading man who deserves her, Cary Grants being thin on the ground these days. Other people's fearful imaginations have kept her in pearls and aspic until now. She'll never get picked for screwball comedy, though her return of serve is bar none. Or sexy parts, 'unless there was plastic surgery'. She would 'love to do something wicked. I've got so much to give.' With those Cruella De Ville cheekbones, she could cut men dead. Meanwhile, there is that seraphic innocence slowly coming down to sullied earth: if Body and Soul is not the habit-ripper some executives would have liked, it's bound to be habit-forming. The leading lady will make sure of that.
'Body and Soul' is on ITV at 9pm, Thurs.
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