Nanny knows best for Emma Thompson, who endured an unflattering makeover for her new film about the creator of Mary Poppins – and went without sex for months because of it, Siobhan Synnot hears
Spinning around in her high-backed chair, Emma Thompson could be a very chic blonde Bond baddie, if acts of villainy included making victims explain political discourse. Thompson is encouraging me to sketch out the current state of the independence debate, having said that she doesn’t really know enough about it. “My friend Liz Lochhead is very keen on this,” she says. I’m not sure I’m the right person, I protest feebly. “Nonsense,” she says. “It is interesting.” And on we plough.
Thompson greets interviewers as if they were old friends who had dropped in for a cup of tea, with the underlying implication that your time together should be conversational, rather than purely an interrogation of her. She is smart and interested in everything, so at this stage we eventually establish two things. Thompson thinks Scotland could consider using feminist economists to review the social implications of opening up its borders to global interests. And I won’t be troubling Newsnight: after all; this is not the kind of chat you get from Kate Winslet.
With some gratitude, we finally return to the movie world, where Thompson is attracting comeback buzz for Saving Mr Banks. She plays PL Travers, flinty creator of Mary Poppins, who resisted Walt Disney’s attempts to add jollifications to her flying nanny, and looked down her nose at his Tinseltown showmanship and background in animation. Her many conditions and obstructions at the script stage drove everyone to distraction, and almost prevented the film from being made.
Travers died in 1996 at the age of 96, still strenuously objecting to the film, but Thompson has always been a fan of the Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke musical. She was seven when she first saw the picture, and remembers being moved to tears by the plaintiveness of Feed The Birds, then getting gee’d up by Let’s Go Fly A Kite. “We sang it ourselves, umpteen times, for the film,” she says. “And the cleverness of the song is that you never get tired of it even after the millionth time.”
There’s a touch of the “spit spot” to Thompson herself, with her cut glass diction, impeccable grooming, and crisp soundbites, except she’s far friendlier than the pinched and brittle Travers. She also submitted to a makeover to bring her closer to a stylish matron of the 1960s, including a tight unflattering perm. “I went in like a lamb to the slaughter and I came out looking like a poodle,” says Thompson, who tried to sabotage the pin curls with combing and rubbing olive oil into her hair, to no avail. Previously her husband Greg Wise had mocked an experiment with eyelash extensions (“argh, spiders”) but the new hairstyle apparently scored even worse. “No sex for months,” she says, mock-dramatically.
Thompson’s press coverage can be mean-spirited, and in defence she has evolved a slightly contrived theatrical persona. Or to put it another way, she does love schtick. Yet when she’s not projecting a panto version of herself on chat shows, or mugging on the red carpet, she gives subtle, nuanced portraits of other people. It would have been easy to play Travers as a dragon lady, but Thompson saw a wounded creature. Part of her research involved listening to the taped script discussions between the author and the Disneycrats, where she chides them on their knowledge of Englishness, character and then forbids them to use the colour red or animation in a technicolour picture with dancing penguins. “You can hear the distress in her voice, but it comes out as irritability,” says Thompson, who rather relished PL’s blunt rudeness.
“We’re all so polite,” she says. “It’s bliss to actually say what you feel instead like, ‘I don’t want to come out to your birthday party because I got bored of you years ago’.”
In an early scene, she does a monologue of dissatisfaction when she arrives at her Hollywood hotel to find her room stuffed with balloons and toys. Shoving a stuffed Mickey Mouse into a corner, she mutters: “You can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety.” When Thompson arrived for filming Saving Mr Banks last year, she found that Disney had done the same thing to her hotel suite. Modern Disney enjoys irony too.
The paradox of playing the creator of Mary Poppins after writing and starring in Nanny McPhee, where she plays a snaggletoothed, warty, magical childminder, is not lost on her either. Her husband has already pointed out that, behind every magical nanny, “there’s a creator who is a cantankerous, opinionated old bat”.
Thompson has always been good at finding poignancy in women who resist despair. She was Elinor in Sense And Sensibility, vainly distracting herself from her crush on Hugh Grant in a huge collar. In Primary Colors, she was a pained Clinton-esque wife, and for Wit she shaved her head bald to play a lonely, terminally ill academic.
In her personal life, she has also endured and survived. When she was 21, her father died and she experienced the first bout of serious depression in her life, while holding down a lead role in Me And My Girl, doing the Lambeth Walk onstage every night.
An early comedy sketch TV series, Thompson, which she wrote and starred in, was “crucified” by critics, an experience that wounded her so deeply that she set aside any writing ambitions for a long time – and became an Oscar-winning actress instead. Then when her marriage to Sir Kenneth Branagh broke up in 1995, she was bereft – yet managed to complete the Oscar-winning script for Sense And Sensibility, meet her second husband, Wise and give birth to a daughter, Gaia.
Her survival technique lies in versatility: when one aspect of her life isn’t working, she tries to focus on something that can function and distract her. “I’m fortunate in that I didn’t start acting until I was 27, and I didn’t come into any prominence until I was in my thirties so I’d worked all my life in all sorts of different areas,” she says. “I practised an awful lot of different things.”
Above all, she invests in a solid family home life. When growing up, she says, she rarely fought with her sister Sophie. “I was terribly good when I was a child, perhaps because my father was rather ill from when I was young and when that’s the case, children tend not to misbehave.” Nor did she have much firsthand knowledge of nannies, Poppinesque or otherwise. “We had au pairs, because my parents had to work,” she says. “But we didn’t have a proper nanny.’’
In the 1970s, her father become a surrogate presence for many children with his teatime editions of The Magic Roundabout. While talking about her father, I suddenly remember an episode where Dougal the dog decides to move into film directing. “Step aside Ken Russell and Sergei Eisenstein,” he said, circling a clapperboard. “Here comes Dougal.” Thompson lights up at the memory. “He never talked down to children. He would always read to us in his normal voice. The show was subversive in many ways and used a lot of complicated words because my dad loved words. I remember after one episode where Dougal called Brian the Snail a mollusc, he got a letter from a little boy saying, ‘I’ve just called my sister a mollusc. My mum hit me. What does mollusc mean?’”
Eric Thompson died after a stroke when she had just finished studying English Literature at Cambridge. “Now when I write children’s stories, I try to write something in homage to him,” his daughter says, and in Nanny McPhee, the refusal of Colin Firth’s character to grieve openly for his wife, in case he upset his children, reflects how Thompson’s mother, Phyllida Law, handled her bereavement.
Thompson’s current setup includes worrying about the pressures of Facebook on Gaia, now 14, and her peers. Gaia also has an informally adopted older brother, Tindy, a former child soldier from Rwanda whom Thompson met at a Refugee Council party when he was 16. He has now graduated from Exeter University and is working in Cairo as a human rights lawyer. Thompson is also close to her Glasgow-born mother, who published her most recent book, a memoir of her own mother, and collected an honorary doctorate with her daughter from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland this year. “We got teased horribly about the doctorates,” says Thompson. “My son asked ‘how many essays did you have to do to get that?’”
As well as links with the Conservatoire, Thompson also maintains a Scottish bolthole around Loch Eck, where the entire family retreat for two months of the year. She could have moved to Hollywood on several occasions – for work, or to escape scrutiny – but stayed in Hampstead next door to Law, instead. She’s decided that it suits her, and it has helped keep movie neuroses like narcissism at bay.
She works out every day, and since her 40s her public appearances have become increasingly glamorous, yet she baulks at Botox and super-thinness. “I don’t like the body fascism of Hollywood and the expectation that you have to be this shape or that. I’ve got a giant pouch here,” she announces, grabbing a wodge of excess trouser material around her waistline. “It hides the fact that these trousers allow things to live, and nobody can see.”
A handsome 54-year-old with aristocratic cheekbones, and a lightly grooved forehead, she seems to have a bit of a passion for clothes. Early in the interview she homes in on my only bit of fashion posh, a Christopher Kane sweater, and strokes it appreciatively. Her own designer acquisitions have to be smuggled past Wise, who has a horror of needless consumerism, and enjoys hands-on projects like cooking, installing the Wise family bathroom, repairs around Loch Eck and trying to stop Thompson from buying clothes.
Wise’s career, like Thompson’s, has gone through cycles, and lately she seemed content to kick back in supporting roles in duff pictures like Beautiful Creatures, and Men In Black 3. After Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang did disappointing business, that series was halted too. Did she ever consider retiring from acting? “I can’t afford to retire. I do not have vast piles of money I can live off,” she says. “I live from job to job.”
Two years ago, she decided to move things back up a gear, and asked her agent to put the word out that she was keen and available. The three roles that came back were as Bradley Cooper’s mother, a wheelchair-bound old lady, and Mother Teresa.
Thompson did none of them, noting at the time that “there’s this huge thing about there being no parts for women my age”. Saving Mr Banks was originally intended for Meryl Streep, not Thompson, but it seems likely that she will be punted more tailored movie offers from now on. She doesn’t rule out an artistic reunion with Branagh in the future, but thinks that acting roles will be scaled back again to maybe one or two big films a year.
Instead, she will seek out more writing projects. We run through some of the ones she’s been linked to. A few years ago, she penned a version of My Fair Lady, with Keira Knightley potentially playing an overhauled Eliza Doolittle. The script remains unfilmed. The same goes for Fast Forward, a comedy she co-wrote over six years with Nick Hornby. Then there’s Effie, about the Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s unconsummated marriage to young Effie Gray. The film starring Wise as Ruskin, Dakota Fanning as Effie with Thompson as Effie’s supporter, Lady Eastlake, was completed two years ago but was only recently cleared for release after two copyright cases in New York, brought by a US playwright who claimed it was based on his work. Even though the case found in her favour, Thompson thinks “its time has probably passed”. That seems infuriating.
“Not really, it’s how these things work. I wrote Annie and that didn’t happen either.”
Doesn’t she mind, after all that work, having nothing to show for it?
“No, I don’t mind at all.”
I’m not sure I believe that someone as driven as Thompson can relinquish a pet project that easily, but we are at the end of our meeting. I tell her that when time is tight with interviewees like her, the conversation can feel a little like a showgirl’s costume – touching on everything, but covering nothing. She bursts out laughing. “I’m going to steal that for a script,” she says, then shimmers out the door. n
Saving Mr Banks (PG) is in cinemas now