Emma Thompson Q&A

2010-04-07 13:12
Emma Thompson Q&A

As the writer and star of the Nanny McPhee films, Emma Thompson has shown to be a woman who can tug at her audience's heartstrings as effortlessly as make them laugh. She chats about the trials and tribulations of working with a child cast and playing the ugliest nanny in the world.

Q: Are you pleased with the film?
Emma Thompson:
It’s good isn’t it, we’re really proud of it.

Q: Is it as much fun to play Nanny McPhee as it is to watch her?
Yes, it is, I mean there are times when it’s not fun at all, when it’s raining and you’re muddy and you’re miserable and you can’t believe the weather is like it is - and it’s supposed to be the British summer. And sometimes I get very hot and bothered in that costume. Sometimes it presses down on my ribs and I can’t get enough breath and all of that. So there are moments when it gets very uncomfortable but generally speaking one remembers those shoots with huge enjoyment and joy and pleasure because it’s a very nice atmosphere on set. It’s a family atmosphere and everyone supports everyone else, there aren’t the usual divisions that can exist between departments because it just can’t be that way. If you have five kids on set, or seven as we had on the first film, and animals, animal handlers, me in a fat nose, I mean you just can’t not have a laugh.

Q: How long does it take you to get into make-up for the full Nanny McPhee look?
Upsettingly, it only takes about an hour and a half - which is really tragic! (laughs). But it’s not long for that look when you consider how extraordinarily powerful it is. An hour and a half is not very long.

Q: Acting is about transformation so when you get that Nanny McPhee make up on do you feel ‘right, that’s it, I’m ready to go?’
She’s a very particular person to play. I’ll tell you what’s interesting; I get a lot of the clues from other people’s reactions. I mean, the crew for instance, that’s very funny because if Nanny McPhee is on set in the full gear they are very quiet and a little bit intimidated. Even the sparks (electricians) say ‘good morning Nanny McPhee..’ If I’m in the Nanny McPhee make up they call me ‘Nanny McPhee’ whereas if I’m on set just as the writer it’s ‘hi Em..’ It’s a completely different relationship that I have with them, it’s very interesting.

Q: But what about the children? How do they react to you as Nanny McPhee?
They love it when she is there in person and I’m always helping out with the kids because everyone mucks in really and they get used to it terribly quickly – alarmingly quickly. They stop thinking about it because I’m there saying ‘right now what you have to remember to do this..’ or ‘do this that way..’ or whatever it is I’m doing and they forget it’s me and just get on with it.

Q: The children are crucial to the film aren’t they?
Absolutely and they are marvellous. And as with the first one we auditioned hundreds of children and worked with them so much. And we have a fantastic casting director for children, Pippa Hall, and you know it’s quite demanding for them because they have to come back time and again and work again and again so they have to be OK with that. And OK with the fact that even though they may come back again and again they may not get the part. So they have to be pretty tough but it’s wonderful to see them when they have got the part because they are so happy and so excited and they did have a wonderful time – and the first lot did as well. And you watch them and you can tell because they don’t get spoilt, they don’t get bratty or anything like that, they were all just superb to be with.

Q: How did you get that joyous reaction from the children when the pigs are synchronised swimming? What were they actually watching?
I was watching the kids on the bank and I was thinking ‘oh dear, they’re not really laughing, they don’t look very amused. What can I do?’ So I got the first assistant (director) to drag me into the water, physically, push me in and pretend to drown me and so I did my own bit of synchronised swimming. So what they are laughing at is me being drowned by the first assistant, which just shows you how vicious children are underneath all that sweetness, and light, they are brutal (laughs). Actually, you couldn’t get those reactions any other way – you have to do something real otherwise they are not going to buy it.

Q: How did the story come to you on this one because as I understand it this is all original material and not taken from the books?
Yes, it’s inspired by the three books. We didn’t know on the first film if we would do another one. I mean, making the first one was a small miracle anyway – it was a miracle that it actually got made at all because it’s so touch and go with films. So we didn’t know whether it would be successful. But I was doing the promotion for the first one and I was in the Hotel Adlon in Berlin and I found myself wondering whether it had been bombed during the war and I don’t think it was. And I started thinking about bombs and the Second World War and I thought ‘that would be a good background for another movie..’ Because I’d had this idea about a man who avoided the draft by pretending to be short sighted and I thought if the children manage to get a bomb into his bed then we could repeat that scene from the Godfather where you see the house and the birds are singing and then you go in and it’s the scene where the bloke finds the horse’s head in the bed – only with us it would have been the bomb. So that was where it started and the first three drafts had the bomb in the bed. But you know, things always change and you always think your first idea will stay and it never does because it’s that kind of process.

Q: Telling stories to children is a powerful thing. What do you hope that they get from your Nanny McPhee stories?
For me, my goal with these movies is to tell stories that are for everyone and that can be shared by people of very different ages and that each group can enjoy it as much as the other but on a different level. That’s my goal and I think we are getting there. If you take a film like Toy Story, that’s a wonderful film that can be enjoyed by everyone and that’s what I’m aiming for with this.

Q: Were there films like that when you were a child?
The films that I used to watch that I think have really affected me and have influenced the Nanny McPhee movies are all the westerns that I watched with my Dad. I loved westerns.

Q: That’s interesting. So is Nanny McPhee is inspired by those characters, like the Man With No Name, that you see in the classic westerns?
Yes, it is a western. It is in fact exactly the same form – she comes in and does the job and then rides off into the sunset. And I only realised that quite recently.

Q: What westerns do you remember watching with your father?
All the Clint (Eastwood) ones, all the Sergio Leone ones and TV westerns like High Chaparral and Alias Smith and Jones, we watched those religiously. The Virginian, I loved that, absolutely fantastic. I just loved those forms and they are all about conflict and the resolution of conflict by people using strange and unorthodox methods. And that’s who she is, Nanny McPhee is The Virginian for kids.

Q: You now have this character who can go anywhere in anytime. So will you bring her back again and do another film?
You can go anywhere. You can continue that connection in any way you like. You have the lovely link with Maggie Smith’s character in The Big Bang who was the child in the first film and she’s clearly been nanny to Sergeant Jeffries and also possibly to Admiral Lord Nelson as well, you don’t know. She’s been around a long time, has this one (laughs). So I could do whatever I want and go wherever I want so if this one makes money and they want another one, I would do it.

Q: Are you quite disciplined with the writing process? Or do you get ideas at three in the morning and suddenly put them down on paper?
I have to sit down in the morning with a piece of paper and a pen and start writing. That’s the only way. I don’t have to make myself as such, but I have to discipline myself to do that. Because I don’t believe in inspiration, I think work is the only option. In fact, on my desk I’ve got a little thing that says ‘inspiration is the act of pulling up the chair to the writing desk..’ which is absolutely true. It just won’t happen any other way and most of the ideas I have at three o clock in the morning are crap, I have to tell you. I think they are marvellous at the time but they are rubbish. I get up in the morning, read it and think ‘oh God, you mean I was awake in the middle of the night writing that down thinking it was a good idea and I could have had a decent night’s sleep?’ My advice is, just turn over and go back to sleep.

Q: It seems you concentrated more on writing than acting over the last few year. Why was that?
Yes, I have. It’s much easier if you are Mum and you want to be there for your children. If you write I can see my daughter to school and be there to pick her up from school and it works. Theatre is also very difficult from that point of view and film is ghastly because you are not there at all five days a week. Writing is ideal so if I can earn my living from writing while she is young then I’m very happy to do that.

Q: But have there been roles along the way where you thought ‘I really would have liked to have done that?’
Well one or two, you know, of course I’ve thought ‘I really wish I’d been able to do that..’ Woody Allen asked me to work with him and I wasn’t able to do that. You know, I’ve had some lovely offers and I’m very grateful for those but at the same time, I can act again but I can never have that time with my daughter again, ever. You are never going to get that back so what’s the point of not having it. I don’t see that there is any acting role that I’m going to be lying on my death bed thinking ‘God, I wish I’d had that instead of three months with my daughter..’

Q: So how does it work with Greg your husband? He’s an actor too, so do you try and alternate to make sure that one of you are at home?
Yes, we do try and alternate in the sense that last year while I was shooting Nanny for four months he was at home and that was fantastic because I couldn’t have done it otherwise. And this year we are hoping to make this film about (19th century artist and writer) John Ruskin that he’s in and I won’t act. I might not act this year at all.

Q: When you say 'we’re involved' what does that mean? Have you written it?
Yes, I wrote it. So we’ll see. Greg will be in it and maybe I’ll do a cameo or something but I’ll be at home. So that’s exactly how we try and work it. Gaia had a nanny until she was five but hasn’t had one since so we’ve managed it perfectly well. Once we went to school we were fine really because we would take turns. And once you earn enough to live on…

Q: How to balance your career and being a mother with your activism? You’re involved with a number of campaigns, supporting refugees and the opposition to a third runway at Heathrow Airport..
Well I just try and parcel it out and say ‘what can I manage in this month…’ Like if I’ve got a deadline or I know, for instance, this month I’ll be away a lot because I’m promoting Nanny McPhee and I’m also taking the family on holiday, so I say ‘what can achieve?’ and then cut my cloth accordingly. It’s just a bit of a balancing act really and unfortunately it does mean that I say ‘no’ a lot. But you know, I hit my 50th last year and you think to yourself ‘I have to choose very carefully what I do and make sure that it’s important..’

Q: You mention you reached 50 last year. How was it?

Q: But you look great..
Oh I don’t care about how I look. I’m not talking about it from a looks point of view and it’s interesting that you would assume that’s what I meant. I think that’s what most people assume always about women, that they are always thinking about how they look. But I was really addressing the question of time and death. Mortality is the question because you are more than half way through at 50 and then you suddenly think ‘uh oh, I’d better be careful about what I choose to do..’ That’s the bottom line now – don’t waste any time.

Q: I don’t think anyone could accuse you of doing that..
(laughs) No, I’m certainly not doing that.

Q: You’re not exactly spending three months on vacation in the Caribbean…
No, but I’m planning on doing that, it would be great. That’s exactly what I’m planning, doing nothing for a bit (laughs). Have a sabbatical, stop for a while and let your mind let go and then come back and think OK, now what?'

* Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang is currently at cinemas across the country.

The Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang writer and star on how Westerns shaped her character, turning 50, and playing the world’s ugliest supernanny.

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