BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — If anyone did not expect to have a midlife crisis, it was Emma Thompson. Being quite sure about things has been a central organizing principle of her life. It has informed most every character she has played.
The kindly aristocrat in “Howards End.” The lovelorn housekeeper in “The Remains of the Day.” The bonneted sister of “Sense and Sensibility.” The batty Hogwarts professor, the warty Nanny McPhee, the fusspot creator of Mary Poppins, and the caustic television host in her new film, “Late Night,” due June 7. Even when they are tearfully coming apart, the characters share with Thompson an ironclad sense of self and of how things ought to be.
Time did not soften this Thompsonian resolve, or so it seemed. This year, after learning that John Lasseter, who lost his top job at Pixar and Disney for unwanted touching, was named head of the studio producing a film she was working on, Thompson publicly quit and flamed the studio, and Lasseter, in a scathing open letter. A few months before that, she showed up in white sneakers to her knighthood ceremony, which was led by Prince William. When the English press affected shock, Thompson shot back that the shoes were designed by Stella McCartney, thank you very much, and actually quite posh.
It came as a great surprise to Thompson, then, to suddenly find herself on uncertain ground occasioned by her 60th birthday in April. It was not that she balked at her age. Suggestions of “60 is the new 40!” make her eyes roll. “The denial of aging is unhealthy,” she sniffed in a recent chat. “It’s always been bollocks.” But she was flooded by discomfiting questions of her own about roles she had enthusiastically embraced throughout her life: as daughter, wife, mother, performer. She was still all of those things, but now she’s on the verge of being an empty nester.
“There’s lots of these roles that are in fact imposed on you by society, for years and years and years, then you suddenly go — am I any of those things? And if I’m not, who am I?” Thompson said.
“The eternal question, which I never thought I’d ask, is who am I?” she continued. “I was always so sure. As it turns out, I have no idea.”
Thompson had scheduled our interview between her first ever trip to Las Vegas, which she found “eye-watering,” and an appearance at the Extinction Rebellion environmental protest in London, where she was filmed speechifying into a microphone in a pink boat surrounded by police.
She had gone to Vegas to promote two new movies at a convention of theater owners: “Late Night,” which Mindy Kaling wrote for her, and “Last Christmas,” which Thompson wrote with English artist Bryony Kimmings, and which is loosely based, somehow, on the song of the same name by the ’80s group Wham!
In Vegas, Thompson had an 11-hour break between presentations, during which time she gambled, napped, ate and drank. By the end of the day, she felt like she had been there for 50 years, wondered if that was what everybody in Vegas felt, and was seized by the need to escape lest she suffocate and die.
The Extinction Rebellion protesters, by contrast, exhilarated her, so much so she made a short film in their support. Thompson is a lifelong environmentalist and tries to stay optimistic, having read that optimists live longer, yet, like so many earthlings these days, has trouble warding off ecodespair. “Cara,” she said, “we are in a race, as you know, against consciousness and catastrophe.”
We were sitting in a suite at a swanky Beverly Hills hotel that was all genteel charcoals and dove grays. Against it, Thompson was a kinetic pop. Her platinum plume of hair was in a state of floppy disarray suggestive of multiple rakings by harried fingers, and she had on her famous Stella McCartney sneakers along with an ensemble the color of lime sorbet, which I murmured appreciation for; it was a palate cleanser, just like her! “It’s pistachio, darling,” she corrected.
Americans tend to view Thompson the way they do many of her fellow dames — Dench, Mirren, Smith — as a beloved no-nonsense Mary Poppins type highly adept at setting people straight. But back home in England, Thompson’s outspokenness and environmentalism have at times put her in the cross hairs of the country’s outrage-industrial complex. The press pilloried her for describing England, in the run-up to the Brexit vote, as a “cake-filled, misery-laden gray old island,” and gloated when an irate farmer came close to drenching her with manure during an anti-fracking protest in 2016.
Thompson professes to not care a bit. “The Murdochian press are a law unto themselves,” she said. She is far more concerned not just with the fate of the planet but also with the minor matter of figuring out who exactly she is. “I have some questions that I hope to answer in the next 10 years,” she said.
Thompson grew up in an acting family. Her father, Eric Thompson, created and performed the English version of “The Magic Roundabout” children’s show, and her mother is Scottish actress Phyllida Law. Thompson went to Cambridge, joined the Cambridge Footlights comedy sketch revue, befriended Stephen Fry, dated Hugh Laurie and, in the late ’80s, fell in love with and married Kenneth Branagh, whom she met while working on a World War II-era television drama.
A few years later, director James Ivory cast her in her breakthrough role in the British class drama “Howards End” as the well-heeled, earnest Margaret Schlegel, who gets involved with Anthony Hopkins’ upper-crust widower. She won an Oscar for her performance and landed two more Oscar nominations (lead and supporting actress) the following year, for “The Remains of the Day” and “In the Name of the Father.”
Branagh, meanwhile, had taken a shine to Thompson’s “Howards End” co-star, Helena Bonham Carter, whom he’d worked with on his 1994 film, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Branagh and Carter ended up in a relationship, and he and Thompson divorced in 1995, a year that would prove a major inflection point in Thompson’s life.
Producer Lindsay Doran had caught a television broadcast of Thompson’s comedy sketches and asked her to adapt Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.” Directed by Ang Lee and starring Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant, the 1995 film was a global hit. Thompson went on to win an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, making her the only person to win Academy Awards for both acting and writing.
The film also starred Greg Wise as the dashing, dastardly John Willoughby. She and Wise, seven years her junior, ended up hitting it off splendidly. They married in 2003 and have a daughter, Gaia, who is 19, and an adopted son, Tindyebwa Agaba, a former refugee and child soldier. Wise’s recent gigs include appearing as Lord Mountbatten on “The Crown” and a winning turn on “The Great Celebrity Bake Off.” Thompson said that after she was knighted, Wise asked her if he could be known as Lady Greg. No, alas, per Order of the British Empire rules.
Thompson had shot to international stardom in her 30s, but she said that by the time she hit her 40s, she was being offered the dullest of roles — she guesses because she could still be thought of, “in a pinch,” as sexual. But once she got into her 50s and past all that, the parts that came her way were far more interesting.
They included the finicky “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers in “Saving Mr. Banks” (“Such a wonderful role. I even managed to live with the perm”); the harridan chain-smoker of a mother in “Barney Thomson,” about a Scottish serial killer; and, in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” the drunken wife of Dustin Hoffman’s narcissistic washed-up artist.
Thompson adored working with Hoffman and said it was only afterward that she learned of accusations of impropriety made against him — Hoffman responded to one allegation with an apology, and when others surfaced, denied wrongdoing — and that she would have to talk to him before considering working with him again.
On the Lasseter matter, she was far more clear. Although he apologized for his behavior, Thompson admonished the studio, Skydance Animation, for potentially forcing employees into deciding between uncomfortably working with Lasseter or not working at all. After her letter went public, Thompson said, thanks came in from others who walked away from Skydance jobs for the same reason. “They’re the ones who are brave,” she said. “I can go onto another project and get paid. For other people, it’s not so easy.”
I asked her about how men like Lasseter who have been #Me Too-ed might come back.
“I don’t want to be thinking about men’s problems at the moment, thanks so much,” Thompson said. She said she had given the issue some thought and acknowledged it was thorny, but added, speaking of the men, “I’m sure they’ll grow up and sort it out. Because it’s their problem, not mine.” She would far rather talk about women. “If you get born into this body, it’s a different journey,” she said. “Whether you like it or not.”
Thompson’s big beef with most roles written for women is that they have gone from one extreme to the other, from the hopelessly domestic support-or-pine-for-a-man characters she felt swamped with early in her career to, these days, women being straight-out badasses.
“Women now invent the weapons and shoot the weapons and are tough and not allowed to cry,” Thompson said. “We skipped from being in the kitchen to being in the tank, and there’s nothing in between. So we still have failed to explore and bring to the screen what being a woman is.”
An exception, she said, was “Late Night,” which Thompson described as one of the best scripts she’d read.
In it, Thompson plays a sharp-tongued late-night host, Katherine Newbury, who reluctantly hires a token woman (Kaling) for her all-male writing staff in an effort to keep her show relevant and on the air. Kaling wrote the part for Thompson (Vanity Fair called it her “best role in years”) because she needed someone who could get away with saying almost anything. “I knew Katherine would be cruel at times but always needed to be funny,” Kaling said.
Thompson and Kaling crafted Newbury as a composite of hard-driving people they knew. Like Thompson, Newbury is tough and complex. Unlike her, she is an anti-feminist who does nothing to pull other women up, at least until she feels she has to. “She’s very single-minded, shall we say, which is generally thought of as a male trait,” Thompson said. “And men are allowed to be single-minded, aren’t they?”
Circling back to Thompson’s earlier years, I asked James Ivory what it was about Thompson that prompted him to cast her in “Howards End.” He replied that he was struck by her groundedness and brights. She was simply, he said, so very sane.
“A lot of actors and actresses are very fearful and timid and cover that up with all kinds of strange behavior you could call crazy, forever thinking they’re not good, that they’re failing,” Ivory told me. “There was none of that with her.” She also smoothed out some on-set tensions he had with Hopkins, becoming the go-between both men trusted. By the time filming ended, Ivory said, he felt he had a great friend in Thompson. He was also a bit forlorn: “There was really a sense of loss that this delightful person wasn’t going to be around every day.”
Thompson has this effect on people. That includes me — even though I spent just 90 minutes with her — and Nisha Ganatra, who directed “Late Night.”
During production, Ganatra said, she studied Thompson closely, trying to figure out how the actress seemed to live her life with such brilliance and grace. She concluded it had a lot to do with Thompson being present and humble. Ganatra watched as Thompson passed out Italian chocolates late one night to the crew and reached up to absent-mindedly stroke the leaves of a tree she walked under one rainy day.
Ganatra said she found herself wanting Thompson to be her confidante and her life coach. “I wanted to be her,” Ganatra said.
Indeed, Thompson may profess to not know who she is anymore, but to the rest of the world, it is, as always, crystal clear.
“I asked her, ‘What’s it like to have all the answers?’” Ganatra said. “She just laughed and said, ‘I don’t.’ But she does.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.