Christmas and Emma Thompson seem to go together. The celebrated two-time Oscar-winning actress costarred not only in 2019’s Last Christmas, but in what become a certified holiday classic, 2003’s Love Actually, a yuletide-set romantic comedy that has become so beloved, returning year after year, that ABC News recently devoted an entire Diane Sawyer hour to examining it.
On top of that, Thompson takes on the choice role of Agatha Trunchbull in the new film version of the Tony Award-winning musical, Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical, which is in theaters internationally and starts streaming on Netflix — when else? — Christmas Day.
This season has also brought good news on another front to Thompson. She has been nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes, and at the AARP Movies For Grownups Awards as Best Actress for her Sundance hit, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande. That debuted in June on Hulu, but has also been given special qualification, making it eligible for the Oscars, even though it didn’t play theaters before streaming.
In a tight Best Actress race this year, Thompson — also just nominated this week for a London Film Critics Circle Award — is in the conversation for a role that no doubt is one of her finest. Maggie Gyllenhaal recently hosted a special screening of the film for Academy members in NYC, followed by a conversation with Thompson.
The movie is essentially a two-hander, with Thompson playing Nancy, a 60ish retired school teacher, in a nice if dull marriage who looks for a chance to liven up her life for some adventure and a little sex by hiring a sex worker Leo ,Grande (Daryl McCormack). Shot during the pandemic, it is actually the perfect vehicle for the situation. Essentially it is two actors in one hotel room. When I spoke to Dame Emma recently, I suggested it could have been a play. Katy Brand wrote it, and Sophie Hyde directed. Thompson actually believes cinema is the right venue for this highly intimate story that says much about the human condition and the way we see ourselves.
“I know lots of people say, well, it’s like a play because it’s two people talking. But actually, it wouldn’t work as a play in the same way at all, because you wouldn’t have access to the landscape of the soul in the same way as you do on film and the way in which Sophie Hyde used our faces and our bodies as the landscape so you could really feel these seismic shifts going on inside these two people. That’s what made it work for me, because it could have gone so wrong if it had been treated in almost any other way.” she said over zoom from New York, where Matilda was premiering.
“And I think that Katy wasn’t even aware of quite how deep she’d gone, actually, and I wasn’t aware until we started to read it through and to rehearse it, of quite how deep it had gone into Nancy, this loss, this sense of not having lived fully, not because necessarily of an orgasm or sex, per se, but something much deeper than that. That is to say, a relationship with herself that had been missing, you know, with her own body, and I think that that’s true of an awful lot of women, because they’re just not asked what they want.”
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is fiercely independent, but with its focus on a woman over 60, her sexual needs, her longing to go to places she hasn’t been before, it is probably not a movie Hollywood studios clamor to make these days, yet here it is being released by Searchlight, a company owned by Disney, no less.
“You won’t see it in movies at all. Sometimes you see it in European films, and actually, if you take an old Italian director like Vittorio De Sica, and you take his film The Holiday (aka A Brief Vacation), you know, where he takes an ordinary factory worker, a woman who gets ill and goes to a sanatorium, and it’s all about her. That’s the closest thing I can think of. Of course it’s tragic, because it’s De Sica. But him, Fellini, they were interested in ordinary women because they’re Italian, and there’s something about Italians that sort of knows that about women,” she said.
“I’ve said before this is the person who’s next to the person who’s doing the interesting thing, and suddenly the perspective has shifted and you see this very ordinary woman who’s lived and there’s nothing tragic about her. Absolutely nothing. She’s had a life that people would say she’s been a pillar of society. She’s done exactly what we need to keep everything going. A woman who behaves well, supports her husband, brings up her children, and shuts up. Well done. Big fat tick.”
I point out to her that 2022, starting with Leo Grande at Sundance in January, has been a very strong year for women’s roles in movies, and even behind the camera. It is something Thompson knows a lot about, since one of her two Oscars came for writing (Sense & Sensibility), while the other was for Lead Actress in Howard’s End. She knows both sides of the business and what it takes to make change happen. She isn’t so sure this is the beginning of a new era for women in film.
“Who knows? I mean, the industry doesn’t suddenly awaken to anything, does it? It’s very slow moving, glacial pace that changes come. I think it’s probably one of those years, and it could easily be that next year. I don’t think there’s been a proper shift into an interest in particularly middle-aged women. And it will change. Of course it will change. But it’s just going to be very slow. We’re still making an awful lot of hero pictures, you know. So yeah. I don’t think it’s a kind of sea change, and it’s all sort of going to be marvelous now. No. I don’t think that,” she said.
Thompson doesn’t do social media and says she would probably lose her mind if she did have access to strangers’ response to the film, or any film of hers. But she has learned a lot travelling the world doing Q&As for the movie, and has been heartened by the reaction. There was an 82- year-old Black American man who started to talk to his wife about their sex life after seeing the movie, a gay couple in Melbourne who said it made them feel much better about their bodies, a 23-year-old London woman who saw the film and shortly thereafter managed her first orgasm.
“There’s a huge percentage of women who don’t or can’t orgasm, so it’s a really good and interesting discussion to have. But of course it’s not just about that. It’s about self-acceptance and it’s not easily achieved. It’s not easily achievable in consumer society. It’s different in other parts of the world. If you’re going to talk about the whole world, you’re talking a very different response to this film. For instance, in Liberia or Myanmar, I can imagine what it would be. But they would never show it, ” she said.
“It’s absolutely fascinating. It’s been fascinating, and I think it’s probably one of the most satisfying and fulfilling things I’ve ever had the opportunity to do, and I do think of it as some of the best work I’ve ever done, because I don’t think I could have done it 10 yea,rs ago. I think it hit me at just the right moment in my life. My age, everything about it just hit at the right moment in the same way as I think it hit Daryl at just the right moment in his life and his development.”
As for the large number of nude scenes it required, much of the movie shot with the light of daylight hitting the room, and she said they got the awkward part out of the way quickly when she suggested that she, McCormack, and even the director Hyde should all get naked for a rehearsal. She was kidding, but Hyde took her up on it. “That morning that we spent just talking about our bodies and indicating the bits that we liked, the bits that we had problems with, the bits that felt scarred, the scars, internal and external, and it was a very helpful, comforting thing to do, because actually after a very short time, you really get used to it terribly quickly. Honestly. It becomes normal quite swiftly,” she said about the half-day of rehearsal they took out of the shoot, which was done in only 19 days.
Before our interview ended, I had to ask her about the phenomenon of Love Actually. Did she have any idea she would still be talking about it nearly 20 years later? As we speak, there are people all over the globe watching it this week.
“No. None of us did. None of us had any idea. I saw Richard Curtis the other day and Dia,ne (Sawyer) had been over, and she’d interviewed us both, you know, and we were just talking about it and saying, isn’t it just the strangest thing? And I suppose in some ways it isn’t strange, because in the same way as It’s A Wonderful Life, it says everything that you do matters,” she said.
“You know, it’s the sum of every kind act that creates a tapestry that is a net that saves people. It’s such a beautiful thing, and Love Actually, which says in the end this thing that we treat I don’t think with nearly enough respect, we don’t make it part of our institutions or our government or our civil society, and it should be. Because love is what keeps us healthy, what keeps us going, those connections, those bonds are the most essential things that we will ever have, and that’s what it says. People like to be reminded of that.”