Emma Thompson on career, marriage and movies

Emma Thompson on career, marriage and movies
Emma-Thompson-family

With one film just out and another classic set to be re-released, actress Emma Thompson chats to Yours about family, films and taking it easy

In 1991 Emma Thompson starred in Howard's End. Twenty-five years later, and with a new, restored version about to be re-released, the award-winning actress is topping the wish list herself for a whole generation of young actors today.

With one Best Actress Oscar for Howard’s End, another for Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility in 1995, and a clutch of other awards for films such as Love Actually and Nanny McPhee, her acting CV is world class. And it’s predicted that more accolades could be coming up for Beauty and the Beast when this year’s awards season rolls around – not to mention a thriving career as a screenwriter and an off-screen reputation for being a fierce and outspoken social and political activist. 

But ask her now what she’s most proud of in her career and she only shrugs. “Life isn’t made up of achievements,” she says.  “It’s made up of moments. There’s a wonderful poem by the Argentinian poet Joe Luis Borges which he wrote when he was an old man called Instantes, in which he says ‘If I had my life before me again I’d ...’ and then he goes into this long list, swim more rivers, go on more carousels, eat more ice-cream and less beans, and so on. I always read it out when I go to speak to young people, because I think it’s so important.  Don’t be too hooked on achieving the next thing. Enjoy this moment.”

 Emma in the 1992 film version of Howard's End

Emma in the 1992 film version of Howard's End

She confesses that she didn’t always get the work/life balance right. Back in the Howard’s End days, she and her then-husband, Kenneth Branagh were the highest profiled young actors in the country, affectionately known as ‘Ken and Em,’ and deluged with offers to work both together and apart on stage and on screen. The consequence was a workload which, she now confesses, she found overwhelming. “Ken was always working,” she says, “and I was always running behind him saying, ‘Come on, let’s have a life, let’s have a life, let’s have a life.’ But he wouldn't stop working. I love working. But I love life, too.” 

These days, she’s taking things at a slower pace. Divorced from Branagh, with whom she remains good friends, she now lives quietly in an unfashionable part of North London with soft-spoken actor Greg Wise, her companion of 22 years and husband of 14, and their daughter, 18-year-old Gaia, with frequent visits from 30-year-old Tindyebwa Agaba, known to the family as ‘Tindy,’ the Rwandan refugee they adopted when he was in his teens. Her mother, actress Phyllida Law, lives across the street; her sister, Sophie Thompson and her own brood, lived in the same street too, until they moved to not very far away. It’s how she likes it, says Emma. “It’s very eccentric and odd these days, but I’ve lived in four different domiciles on the very same street since I was seven years old. So I’ve grown up with the same people all my life.”

 Emma in the 2005 film Nanny McPhee

Emma in the 2005 film Nanny McPhee

Work? She’ll talk about it if you want, but would sooner discuss family holidays in Scotland. “We have a house there, and when we go up there, we just relax. Gaia loves it, and so does Tindy, because he was a rural boy, and he loves the country life. We make hay, we plant things, we swim in the river, we sit in our sauna, and just relax. One of the best times, we were up there for seven weeks, and the whole time I wore my husband’s old shirts – and some pairs of his old underwear which were nice and soft and pull-on-able, and
felt lovely. It was wonderful.  I didn’t wash my hair for six weeks, and Greg grew a beard and, to tell you the truth, I almost grew one too!”

She talks often and fondly of Greg, although she does admit with a sigh that, in terms of emotions, he is a Class A British male. “There are lots of nice things about British men,” she adds hastily. “But when it comes to emotions, they can also be … well, let’s face it, a bit withdrawn. Greg is a wonderful man, but living with him is sort of like living with a clam. I try to open the shell, and, yes, after all these years, I have managed to slightly open it … and then sometimes it shuts again and I have to start all over again. Don’t get me wrong – I’m fine with it, and very happily married. But it is the way it is.”

And if you’re starting to feel a little sorry for Greg, don’t be – Emma says that he can give as good as he gets. “Just before I left to go on location for Saving Mr Banks, he said, ‘Isn’t it interesting that in the Nanny McPhee films you’ve written about a magical nanny and that now you’re playing PL Travers, who was someone who’d written about a magical nanny, too? I wonder if behind every magical nanny there’s a cantankerous, opinionated old bag?’” 

  • The restored version of the original Howard’s End is due for release in UK cinemas on July 28 and Alone in Berlin is out now
  • Words by Gabrielle Donnelly