Mom2Mom: Q & A with Emma Thompson

At 51, Emma Thompson has won two Academy Awards, one Emmy and earlier this month received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She’s also an avid activist and serves as chair of the Helen Bamber Foundation, a London-based philanthropic foundation.

But next year, her plans are to slow down and enjoy life with her husband Greg Wise and her children, Gaia Romilly Wise, 10, and Tindyebwa Agaba, 23, whom Thompson and Wise adopted in 2003 when he was 16 and in the Rwanda army. Thompson recently told The Hollywood Reporter, “Next year, I’m going to take a sabbatical. I’m not going to fundraise or perform or travel, except in pursuit of new vistas with my family. I’ve been meaning to do this for a long, long time, but it’s been like putting the brakes on a large ship because there is so much going on.”

Thompson was in Dallas recently promoting her new film Nanny McPhee Returns, which she not only stars in, but also wrote and produced.

We talked with her about Nanny McPhee, her family and how she juggles her busy life.

The casting in the film is impeccable. The children were refreshing and real. Rhys Ifans was brilliant as the smarmy Uncle Phil and Maggie Smith is amazing as Mrs. Docherty. Did you know immediately that these actors were the characters you had written?

Our director Susanna White wanted him (Rhys Ifans, Notting Hill) and I couldn’t see it. I love him as an actor, but I thought, oh my goodness what an interesting choice. And then he turned up and was jaw droppingly great. And he loved doing it as well, that’s the lovely thing. Maggie Smith is a consummate comedienne. One of the reasons we are so close, is because we started in comedy and then became dramatic actresses. But our roots and love and bones are in comedy. She can make something out of absolutely nothing. I wrote a script that I hoped was good enough to attract her. But she said she wanted to do it because it made her laugh. When casting the children someone may walk in and look right but when they speak it’s all wrong. But then, someone may look wrong and then say something and everything fits. In the end it’s something from inside that works.

I’ve noticed a theme of poo and bodily functions in both films. Do you find that subject is a timeless humor?

I think children always appreciate it. I think it’s across the board; you’ve just got to get it right. I think that Cyril’s (the rude boy cousin) lines about "land of poo" and "poo people" and all of that, it’s just because he’s being so snotty, that not only is it a poo joke, it’s also a poo joke coming from someone who is really unpleasant. And that’s nice because you know he’s going to get his comeuppance.

What are some of your favorite childhood movies and why?

I’m very old, so I didn’t see many when I was little (she’s only 51), but I loved Fantasia and of course I loved Mary Poppins. I loved The Sound of Music and Disney cartoons and Buster Keaton. I loved the silent ones, obviously I wasn’t a child when those we’re around (laughing). I’m just trying to think, really it was those big ones, because I suppose I was taken to the theatre more because my parents were theatre actors. And I watched things on the television like Dr. Who.

For this movie, you’ve also written a novel (Nanny McPhee Returns, Bloomsbury, $7.99) that will be released at the same time. How does that process differ from writing a screenplay, and how closely does it follow the film?

What happened was I was writing a diary on set every day, and as I was writing the diary thinking, “Oh, I’m going to write a book as well,” I thought I’d start writing the story at the same time. So then I started reading back the notes that I’d made, and I read the diary and thought that was a very interesting way of telling the story. So I wrote the diary and then I wrote a bit of the story and then [I went back to writing the] diary. So you’ve got the story interwoven with the story of the making of the story into a film. I thought that’s quite a new thing.

How did it feel to get your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, especially across from a pub called the “Pig ’n’ Whistle”?

It literally was the best place ever. Because, you know you step on my star as you walk into the pub. I mean how great is that? Plus, I very rarely went on family holidays abroad, because my parents were not rich. But one time my dad was working in America.... We got to go out to L.A., me and my sister, and I was about 14 and the only thing he could take us to see, ‘cause he was working, was Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And so I dedicated the star to him. He died when he was pretty much my [current] age. So it was very touching for me, the fact that it connected to my beloved father and that Hugh Laurie (House), who is one of my oldest friends, and knew my father and spoke at his funeral was there, and that made it very meaningful to me.

In a Good Housekeeping interview, Maggie Gyllenhaal quoted advice you gave her while shooting Nanny McPhee Returns. You said, “Mags, you have got to allow yourself to drop the ball, because nobody can keep all those balls in the air.” How do you prioritize when juggling your career, family and charity work?

I think, as I would say to my husband, our relationship has to come first. Because if your relationship with your husband isn’t good, nothing else is gonna follow. So I say we’ve got to make sure that we’re communicating. And then the children, you know, make sure we have plenty of time with them, they’re dealt with, and they’ve got their time with us, they’re not being farmed out. Then after that, you try and fit in what you can, I mean writing is great for me, because I can see everyone at home, do some work and then school’s over, cook a meal, I can fit all that in. Filming, for instance, filming this (Nanny McPhee Returns), my husband was brilliant because he just said, “Look, I understand what you need to do this movie, so you should stay in a hotel three or four nights a week, near the studio so you don’t have to make the hour and a half journey, there and back every day.” And that saved my life, it absolutely saved my life. And my daughter, just at the moment she was really fed up with me not being there for three nights a week, came and stayed with me. It was her school holiday, so she just came and worked on set. Then if it doesn’t all fit you have to ditch something and say I’m sorry I can’t do that. And you ditch the work, if you can afford to, certainly ditch anything voluntary. Because if you haven’t got a little bit of solitude, you’ll go absolutely [bleeping] crazy.

With children it’s all about being with them when you’re not doing anything. You have to turn your mobile phone and your computer off and sit, even if you’re just reading a book. They don’t need you to be on them all the time or stimulating them, they just want you to be there. And they know fine well when your not “really” there. They’ve got the most extraordinary instincts from that point of view. So, I learned that one early on, being there and not saying anything is bliss for a child. That’s all they want, all they want is your time.

I’ve read that you are against women altering their weight and appearance due to pressure on a film set. What advice do you give your own daughter Gaia when it comes to body image and instilling self confidence?

I never, ever, talk about dieting or I won’t allow it. If anyone says "Oh, I’m getting fat" I say we don’t talk about that here because that’s not appropriate. I don’t diet myself. So she hasn’t got a super skinny mum. I tell her and explain to her that all of the photographs of me and other actors have been altered to look better. That they don’t represent the real person and that’s just a fantasy thing.

I’ve talked to her class at school, about different body shapes and the fact that we live in a time when this body shape is supposed to be the best but it isn’t. And that they have to learn not to believe in all of that. And I tell her that she’s beautiful all the time, which she is. And I’m very happy to say that at 10, she’s got a nice little plump girl’s body and she’s not fat and she’s not thin. She’s healthy and she’s happy and she doesn’t stress out and she doesn’t ever say “oh, I need to lose weight." Some kids are starting to say these things at six and seven. And it’s up to all of us to rebel and refuse, and refute and continue to fight.