who is emma thompson:

"On a cold, wet day in north London, Emma Thompson greets me in bare feet at the door of her redbrick row house. She takes my coat, asks me to leave my shoes in the hall, and leads me into a simply furnished sitting room on the second floor. Looking very blond and youthful in an oversize gray turtleneck and black slacks, she settles back onto a sofa and vigorously pats a cushion, saying, “Sit right here by me.” Thompson, 54, is currently starring in the terrific new film Saving Mr. Banks, based on Walt Disney’s campaign to convince P. L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, to let him make a musical about her magical governess creation. In 1961, in need of money, Travers (Thompson) agrees to go to Los Angeles to meet with Disney (Tom Hanks) and the film’s creative team, but she’s highly skeptical about almost everything they propose and insists on tape-recording their conversations. Meanwhile, flashbacks to her tumultuous childhood in Australia and the death of her father show how her worldview was shaped. Saving Mr. Banks marks the first onscreen pairing of Oscar winners Hanks and Thompson, though “for a long time we’d looked for something to do together,” says the actress. After reading the script, “I rang Tom and said, ‘This is great, because it’s not a romance. It’s about a battle that they both win and lose. It’s perfect.’ " As we cover a host of topics over the course of the afternoon, both Thompson’s 14-year-old daughter, Gaia (with her actor husband Greg Wise, 47, whom she met while filming Sense and Sensibility), and her 81-year-old actress mother, Phyllida Law, pop in and out; Law, who lives across the road, brings in bottles of milk from the front stoop to the big cluttered kitchen. There is wine and gossip and laughter, and Thompson thoughtfully answers every question:
Why did you want to play P. L. Travers?
Emma Thompson: I found the story wonderful. I thought, “How many roles do 54-year-olds like me get? Please let me do it.” I love the Poppins books, and I love the [1964] film. In Saving Mr. Banks, she comes off as prickly and unglamorous. Travers herself said that women’s lives tend to divide into three parts: nymph, mother, and crone. And that you look forward to [being a] crone because that’s when you’ve acceded to wisdom but still have enough energy to get about. I’m still in the mother bit, but when Travers went to Disneyland, she was in her 60s, in the crone stage. I had to have my hair permed for the movie.
Really? That wasn’t a wig?
No, it was my hair! It was a nightmare. People would bleat in the streets as I went by. I didn’t have sex for six months!
Travers’s personal story is touching. She seems to have been very unhappy.
I don’t think she ever found lasting happiness. She was in pain all her life. It often happens, of course, that people who had traumatized childhoods turn into very good children’s authors.
The love for an absent father is also a theme in the movie.
Absolutely. And it’s so moving. An awful lot of people have experienced absence or abandonment. My father died at 53, which was terribly difficult to accept. It’s a part of our lives, but we don’t have many films about that. Instead we like to make films that celebrate a romantic ideal.
Many of your movies touch on love: love discovered, love lost, love unrequited. Why is that?
Partly because it’s one of the major areas in which women are allowed to take part. It’s not as if I’ve got the same kind of choices as Brad Pitt in filmmaking. But also because love is the only thing that matters. Not just romantic love—the Greeks had at least five words for different kinds of love. There’s affection, Eros, family love … It’s exactly what we’re designed to do.
When you were at Cambridge, you became a feminist. I don’t mean that in a negative sense.
No, it’s not a negative word.
But at the root of it seems to be an examination of the relationship between men and women. What led you to that?
It’s a good question. Taking it back a little, if we assume—correctly, I think—that things like abandonment … For instance, my mother was a child of the Second World War; she was evacuated at the age of 7, after which she didn’t see her parents much. Her father left the family when she was 12, and she assumed it was something to do with her mother and that women were perhaps not as interesting as men. She would say that now. How much of that did I ingest? That sense of having to be as terribly interesting as I could possibly be? My mother did have a wonderful relationship with my father, and I think I idealized that to a degree.
Your first marriage, to Kenneth Branagh, ended in divorce, and you wrote in your published diaries about your depression and anger.
I don’t feel anger or depression about it now. I think we place a lot of pressure on ourselves and our relationships. We have this romantic idealism that we should all really have a little think about. We want things to last forever, and we’re very keen on the notion of betrayal, which is a strong word to use. Yes, it was very painful, but it was also something that happens between people a lot. Sometimes things go wrong and it doesn’t last, and that seems to me perfectly reasonable.
From your diaries, it sounds like that was a very difficult time for you.
I was unhappy. I was not very well, actually. But I wrote Sense and Sensibility, and as we shot, I started to come alive again. And then Greg [Wise] rescued me out of that depression in many ways.
Was it love at first sight with Greg?
No, not at all. You want that, don’t you? Sorry.
It’s wonderful when it happens.
Oh, it does happen. But I wasn’t really up for it. With love at first sight you’ve got to be quite whole in yourself.
When you began making movies, were you pressured to be glamorous?
Not really. I was so fierce. I marched onto the Johnny Carson show [doing publicity for Howards End] wearing a shapeless dress and flat shoes. I looked like a geography teacher. When I was in my 20s, I eschewed everything overtly female. I didn’t have a handbag; I’d carry a plastic bag. I was quite militant, anticonsumerist. I still am, but I’ve got a few more handbags now. [laughs] God forgive me! It’s only recently that I’ve even bothered with glamour because it seemed like a fun idea."
~ Dotson Rader