Emma Thompson is cleaning her house. "That film-star lifestyle I’ve managed to avoid all these years? I really want it now!" she says on the phone from her home in London over the sound of running water. "I’m entirely alone in a messy house, and I want that bloody army of servants to come and look after me!"
She laughs merrily at the notion, as if she would really let anyone wait on her hand and foot. Thompson wouldn’t think for a minute that her two Academy Awards (one for acting, one for screenwriting) should justify the royal treatment.
On-screen, Thompson is equally unpretentious. Her exquisite portraits of reticent women, such as the lonely housekeeper in The Remains of the Day, the plain-Jane sister in Sense and Sensibility, and the midlife lonely heart in her new movie, Last Chance Harvey, are bathed in her natural humanity. Her next project is a script for My Fair Lady.
In 2003, Thompson married actor Greg Wise, with whom she has a young daughter, Gaia (her first husband was actor-director Kenneth Branagh). Is falling in love harder in middle age? "Yes," says Thompson, 49. "It’s ten million times more scary for my character in Last Chance Harvey because around the corner could be another heartbreak you think you’ll never survive. What scares her is the possibility for real anguish."
Thompson, of course, has her own antidote for angst.
Q: What attribute do you most admire in a person?
A: The ability to laugh in the face of disaster. Every joke is a form of rebellion. Mark Twain said that only laughter can blow nonsense "to rags and atoms at a blast".
Q: And despite the melancholy women you often portray, you consider yourself a comedian.
A: Oh, I am. I arrived at a premiere in London dressed to the nines. There was a press line of photographers, and in order to walk the line, I had to pass a lamppost, a bicycle and a dustbin. So I posed beside every single one of them in a stupid way – because they were comedy props. See, this is what has prevented me from achieving my goal as an icon of glamour and sex.
Q: Is there anything that was once fun for you but now isn’t?
A: Scuba diving. I loved it. Then I had to have a prosthetic nose made for me in Nanny McPhee, and while I was inside the mask as it was hardening, I had a panic attack. And interestingly, the next time I went scuba diving, I couldn’t do it. I could not breathe through my nose.
Q: You grew up in a family of performers. What was it like at dinner?
A: Good fun. A lot of talk about the theatre. My father was a director. My mum [actress Phyllida Law] was very firmly into reading. There was a large extended family, which was good because they weren’t in the theatre. My grandmother had been a servant since she was about 13, which is one of the reasons I wanted so much to do Remains of the Day. She’d wanted to marry the butcher’s boy, but they didn’t have any money.
Q: What did she teach you?
A: The importance of thrift. The importance of knowing how to make a very good rice pudding just at the right moment, when people need a lift. The regularity of the cleaning routine, which was clockwork for her. You know: brass, the floors and beds. The running of a house.
Q: And now your mother lives across the street.
A: She takes dinner with us almost nightly, and it’s great. She’s a hands-off mum.
Q: Five years ago, you took in a former child soldier from Rwanda. He’s now not only attending an English university, but this year will become a British citizen. You must be excited.
A: Oh, we wept. We were in shock because we had not expected it. He’s taking his citizenship exams, which has made us laugh because the questions they ask are so ridiculous.
Q: Like what?
A: Things like "What’s the second title that the queen holds as the head of the Church of England?" Who knows that? I’ll bet even the queen’s forgotten.
Q: What else irks you?
A: The big answer is bigotry. The small one is tea leaves in the sink.
Q: Wow – you really are into clean. So you’re turning 50 in April. Any plans?
A: We’re shooting the second Nanny McPhee, which is a very good way of celebrating because those movies are such heaven to make. There’s a baby elephant in it, which I wrote in for myself. For the actual birthday, we’re going to Scotland, where Greg and I dig in like a pair of old potatoes, and I basically grow a beard. We’re going to make a really stupid film with our friends that I can show to everyone on my birthday. I’m going to celebrate for a year.