Why So Serious?

14th September 2018

Throughout her illustrious career she has portrayed the immensely joyous, the utterly tragic and everything in between, but Emma Thompson believes the one emotion that we all need a little more of is pure unadulterated silliness. Simone Lee tells us more…

“As a child, it was always Sherlock Holmes with whom I was deeply in love, and whom I wanted really to be,” explains a wistful Emma Thompson on the character that has most fascinated her. “That’s the problem, isn’t it? If you’re a female, a lot of the heroic models are, in fact, male. So, one of my first questions to everybody as I was getting older seemed to be, ‘Who’s the female hero? Who is she? What does she do? What does she actually do?’”

As one of Britain’s finest actors, Thompson has garnered a reputation for being quirky, intellectually inquisitive and fearlessly outspoken, so it comes as no surprise that she would turn the magnifying glass on the greatest detective himself. Within her career she has wowed for over two decades in a breadth of starry roles, from her Oscar-winning performance in Howard’s End to two terrifying turns as the magical Nanny McPhee, and many a comedy, drama and breath-taking blockbuster in between (including three Harry Potter films and the recent live-action flick Beauty and the Beast in which she voiced Mrs. Potts). Yet despite a raft of impressive accolades and evident devotion to her craft, Thompson maintains a flippant attitude to her industry.

“Acting is so respectable now; it’s taken so seriously,” she scoffs. “It used to be that actors were like criminals. The women were regarded with grave suspicion and the men, well, they couldn’t be trusted! And in a sense, that’s a much safer way to be, because as women, we are supposed to be the ones who go, ‘Well look at this, that’s not so good, is it?’, or ‘Look how stupid we are being here’. That’s our job, to point all of this out, so when we start getting taken seriously, I worry,” she laughs.

There are, however, many things the erudite Londoner is deadly serious about. When she’s not larking about on film sets or voicing beloved teapots, Thompson is a prominent member of the Labour Party, devoted philanthropist and an active environmentalist, even embarking on a Greenpeace ‘Save the Arctic’ expedition in 2014 to raise awareness of the dangers of drilling for oil. She’s also a passionate advocate for the rights of refugees, and, as a result of her connection with the Refugee Council, she and husband Greg Wise took a teenage boy from Rwanda into their home in 2003, informally adopting him as their son; they already had a daughter, Gaia, born in 1999. The family live primarily in West Hampstead on the same road she lived as a child, and have a second home in Scotland – where Thompson’s family hail from – as she defiantly resists the pull of Hollywood.

Set to turn 60 next April, Thompson is fully aware of the notion that work becomes scarcer with age in her fickle trade. “One always assumes it’s going to be harder, though I think it’s helpful that I am already established. I love young filmmakers and their freedom, and I know, as an actor, you don’t have to work with established people all the time. As long as you are really open, I think you can work quite consistently – likewise you don’t need to be earning vast sums to feel fulfilled in the industry. And if push comes to shove and there was nothing coming, I would write something for myself.”

Of course, the elegant actress still maintains the vibrancy of youth, and if the body is a temple, Thompson’s is certainly no ruin. “It’s a temple of which many, many libations have taken place,” she laughs. “But I maintain it by doing aerobic exercise, which I love. I also eat well, I sleep a lot… oh I love sleeping! Knowing what your limits are, that’s really helpful too. And thinking, you know what, I am 59, I am not 29, I can’t knock about anymore!”

So does she do any exercise in particular? “I do a little bit of everything. I do kickboxing, I do Pilates, I do yoga, I walk, I walk all around London and everywhere. And plenty of sex,” she adds wryly.

But the thing that really keeps one of our finest female acting exports young is that silliness she is renowned for. “Oh, who cares about being straight and trying to maintain some sort of image all the time? Silliness is so important and we should all be free to clown around and make ourselves laugh.”

There are plenty more laughs to come for Thompson. Although her current film, The Children Act, deals with some serious, ethically complex issues, next month she plays the Prime Minister in the return of Rowan Atkinson’s hilarious Johnny English Strikes Again, while no fewer than four releases will bear her name in 2019, from family comedy The Voyage of Dr Doolittle to American flick Late Night, animated adventure Missing Link and an as yet untitled Men in Black spin-off which, again, has humour at its heart.

“The industry does feel more serious these days because there have been some seismic events in recent years, particularly those involving women,” she says. “But let’s not lose the ability to have fun – it’s from there that every actor originated anyway, so let’s do absolutely everything we can to retain and celebrate that.”

Find Your Local