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Emma Thompson Talks Oscars, Herpes, 'Saving Mr. Banks,' and Talking Back to Ang Lee in 'A Life in Pictures' BAFTA Q&A

Photo of Matt Mueller By Matt Mueller | Thompson on Hollywood November 25, 2013 at 12:03PM

With her role as "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers in "Saving Mr. Banks" injecting fresh impetus into a career that’s already blessed with two Oscars (Best Actress for "Howard's End" and Best Adapted Screenplay for "Sense And Sensibility"), Emma Thompson made the ideal candid subject for BAFTA’s latest installment of their “A Life In Pictures” series.
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Emma Thompson at BAFTA's "Life in Pictures" talk
Emma Thompson at BAFTA's "Life in Pictures" talk

With her role as "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers in "Saving Mr. Banks" injecting fresh impetus into a career that’s already blessed with two Oscars (Best Actress for "Howard's End" and Best Adapted Screenplay for "Sense And Sensibility"), Emma Thompson made the ideal subject for BAFTA’s latest installment of their “A Life In Pictures” series. During a breezy 90-minute interview, Thompson covered the gamut of a career that began in sketch comedy; soared in the 1990s on both sides of the Atlantic with leading roles in "The Remains Of The Day," "Sense And Sensibility" and "Primary Colors" before seguing into supporting roles in the following decade; took detours into script doctoring and her family franchise "Nanny McPhee," which she wrote and headlined; and is back on a fast track with "Saving Mr. Banks."

Thompson was her usual breezy self, keeping it light, banter-y and self-deprecating. Upon watching a video montage of her career highlights at the start, she quipped that possessing a good set of upper teeth “has accounted for an awful lot” of her success and went on to reminisce about working with the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ang Lee and Richard Curtis, as well as sharing that comedy will always be where her heart is: “Comedy to me was the noblest of all the aspirational arts, and it still is.”

Highlights from the "Life in Pictures" talk, below. Thompson also stopped the show with her witty asides at the recent Hollywood Reporter's Actress round table. 

On her brief stab at stand-up comedy:

“I was of course and still am very feminist so a lot of my act was about that. I did a whole set, I remember, on Nelson’s Column in front of 60,000 people at a nuclear disarmerment rally and I used to do a lot on herpes, which was big at the time. It seems to have gone away now. Everyone had it in those days and you were meant to have it forever. But now nobody seems to have it all. I find myself wondering where it has gone. Where is herpes? Herpes: Where Is It? -- that’s going to be the name of my autobiography.”

On her Oscar-winning turn in "Howard's End":

“It’s the only time I’ve ever written to somebody to say, ‘I really do know who this woman is and I can play her. Please let me.’ I loved E.M. Forster’s book and I was a fan of an era when women thought that, because of the vote, because of suffrage, because of education, things would change for women… I felt very connected to her fighting this fight against morals and mores in society that made no sense whatsoever, and still don’t to be honest. I felt I could inhabit her in a very powerful way.”

On adapting "Sense & Sensibility":

“I went to Ruth [Prawer Jhabvala, "Howards End"’s screenwriter] and said, ‘What do I do? I’ve got no idea where to start.’ She said, ‘Adapt the whole book and then see what works.’ My first script was about 500 pages long. It’s very peculiar because in books, there will be moments that you remember. For instance, in 'Howards End', there’s a famous scene where they talk about “only connecting” and James Ivory was just desperate to get that scene in. We shot it but it got cut. You watched Margaret connecting all the way through the film so what I realized in the process of adaptation is that the powerful things in a book that you need to release onto films are sometimes found not in the book.”

On winning her first Oscar:

“The Oscars now is very big but when I was a girl it was a faraway thing. It was an iconic object that belonged to people like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, even to another age. I didn’t really take it in [because] I wasn’t in that world. I went with my mum and we had to dress up and everything. Mum was wearing a dress which had a long train, I remember, and everyone who trod on it was choking her. So she would just sort of sound like a bulldog being dragged on a chain every time and I would turn around and there would be Placido Domingo or Al Pacino and they would be apologizing to my mother and then we would all have a chat. I got to meet an awful lot of people because of that sartorial decision.”

On what the Oscar meant to her:

“The odd thing was not so much getting up and standing on stage and looking at the front row and everyone who was sitting there was famous, it was going backstage that made me realize the truly iconic quality of the Oscar. I had to haul up my tights and I handed it to a security guard and I’ve never seen a face like that on anyone: I could have been handing him the Ark of the Covenant. I thought, ‘Oh! I had no idea!’ I looked at it in a different way after that… When I had to take it home, I wrapped it in a pair of socks and stuck it in my hand luggage. And it went through the security camera at LAX, clearly looking like some sort of nuclear warhead, so they took it out and again it was a Spielbergian moment because this thing came out, they took the sock off it and just went, [Thompson sings in an operatic voice] ‘It’s an Oscar!!!!!!’”

On working with Ang Lee on "Sense & Sensibility":

“He didn’t speak English very well and this was his first movie in the English language. On the first day of shooting, Hugh [Grant] and I had a scene together, which we shot outside, and we finished doing it and then we had a little chat between us and we went up to Ang and said, ‘Would you mind if we did that again over here?’ And he went very quiet. In fact, everything went very quiet. We got through the day but it was a bit sticky and I found out that not once in his entire life had anyone asked him for anything, because actors are absolutely slave to the director [in Taiwan]. They do not speak unless spoken to and they certainly do not make suggestions. I was up at 2am writing an apology note and he was doing the same thing. But from then on, we had the most wonderful time because his notes were so brutal and funny. One of his first notes to me was just, ‘Don’t look so old.’ My favorite was to Hugh: ‘Now do one like bad actor.’ And Hugh said, ‘That was the one I just did.’”

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Emma Thompson, BAFTA


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.