TRUE WIT

Byline: Julie L. Belcove

NEW YORK — Emma Thompson is lying on her back on the floor of her suite in what may be the least chic hotel in all of Manhattan. From the mirrored lobby to the shiny floral sofa in the suite’s living room, the midtown hotel is so pedestrian that Thompson is registered under her own name. Which is exactly the point, she explains from the floor, her legs propped up on the sofa in a posture that is the least painful for her back, aching from two herniated disks that are souvenirs of too many pratfalls in a London musical years ago. “It’s completely anonymous,” she says. “It’s very unshowbizzy.”
After a three-year absence from movies — a self-imposed exile — Thompson seems to have grown accustomed to such plain surroundings. She is herself unadorned. No makeup, no jewelry, save for a thin band on her left ring finger, a gift from her longtime companion, the actor Greg Wise. Her gray-specked hair is shorn boy-short, setting off her enviable cheekbones and large blue eyes. Just a few months ago, she was shaved bald for her role as a terminal cancer patient in the movie that lured her out of semiretirement: HBO’s “Wit,” which premieres March 24.
She had walked away with two Oscars — a best actress statuette for “Howards End” and a best adapted screenplay award for “Sense and Sensibility” — and a lofty position in the Hollywood casting hierarchy. Thompson was a real talent, not just a fleeting face or a gravity-defying ass. But she was fast approaching 40 and wanted to have a baby. So she begged off parts, gave birth to a daughter, Gaia, in late 1999 and, as she puts it, “just lived.”
Thompson and Wise were enjoying Gaia’s first months of life when HBO’s Colin Callender called and dangled the lead of the movie version of “Wit” in front of her. Thompson had not seen Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about Vivian Bearing, an expert on the metaphysical poetry of John Donne and a woman suffering from stage-four ovarian cancer. (As Bearing notes matter-of-factly in a monolog, “There is no stage five.”) She read the script, loved it and said yes. The project still didn’t have a director. “Actually,” she recalls, “Greg said, ‘Why don’t you ask Mike?”‘ As in Mike Nichols, who had directed Thompson in “Primary Colors.” “And I said, ‘Well, he won’t do it because it’s telly and he’s too grand. But I rang him, and he said, ‘Yeah, why not?”‘
“I’d do pretty much anything with Emma,” Nichols says by phone. Unlike Thompson, he had seen the play in New York and was deeply affected by it. “It scared me to death.”
Nichols held a workshop rehearsal in London several months before shooting. Thompson, he says, came prepared: Like the well-trained stage actor she is, she’d learned the script by heart. Inspired or shamed, her castmates quickly followed suit. Describing what Thompson brought to the role, Nichols ticks off “her fierce intelligence, her beauty, her goodness, her nature, everything.” The fact that the movie was not for theatrical release bothered neither Thompson nor Nichols. “You don’t want to go out to the cinema to see someone dying of cancer, for God’s sake,” says Thompson. “But you might, if you’re able to make a cup of tea in your own kitchen, watch it at home and be on that very intimate journey with someone.”
Some actors might have felt rusty after a three-year sabbatical. Not Thompson. “I felt filled up and ready and firing on all cylinders, instead of tired and jaded and fed up with it all, which is what I was in ’97,” she says.
The job of promoting her last film — Alan Rickman’s quiet “The Winter Guest,” in which Thompson starred with her mother, Phyllida Law — took her on a draining tour of the U.S. and Europe. “We did Finland, Sweden, France, Italy — God, where else?” she says. “We just went everywhere.” Except the U.K. Thompson no longer does magazine or newspaper interviews in her own country. “The interview culture there is ghastly, ghastly,” she says.
For years she endured the barbs of London’s notorious tabloid press (even while the American media fawned). Thompson and her then-husband, Kenneth Branagh — dubbed Ken and Em — were covered like a highbrow version of Brad and Jennifer, but without the breathless adulation. The tabs called her a “luvvy” (a derogatory term for an actor), teased her for protesting the Gulf War and delighted in the couple’s breakup. “I hate the culture media,” she admits. “I think that they’re bilious and contemptuous and cynical and twisted and bitter.”
In the early days of their five-year marriage, it was Branagh who had the spotlight, as both actor and director. After “Henry V,” the comparisons to Laurence Olivier were handed out as freely as the four stars. Despite the respectable acting credentials and awards Thompson had amassed before meeting him on the set of a British TV miniseries, she was frequently dismissed as “his wife,” Branagh’s Mia. “It didn’t bother me at the time,” she says now, “because he was my family, and I was very happy for that to be the case.” Then her own burgeoning career landed her prime parts in other filmmakers’ movies: Merchant Ivory’s “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day,” Jim Sheridan’s “In the Name of the Father.” Branagh was romantically linked to Helena Bonham Carter, who had costarred with Thompson in “Howards End” and who later stepped in to play Elizabeth in “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” a role Branagh had at one time intended for his wife. Thompson subsequently fell for Wise on the set of “Sense and Sensibility,” in which he played the handsome cad who broke Kate Winslet’s heart.
Thompson and Wise now live together in the north London neighborhood where she grew up, on the same street as her mother and sister, Sophie, also an actress. Wise is seven years Thompson’s junior, which she considers inconsequential. “I enjoy the fact that he’s younger than me,” she says. “Keeps you on your toes.”
She is quite adamant that she has no intention of becoming a wife again. “Not the marrying kind,” she says. “It was never a thing for me. And now we have a child. There’s nothing more of a commitment than that.”
Why did she marry the first time around? “Ken was very insistent,” Thompson says. “And I think all women have a curiosity about marriage, but you know, I’m not curious anymore.”
If suspension of disbelief is still the standard by which movies are measured, then one reason Thompson pulls off “Wit” is that it’s easy to believe she herself wrote the words she speaks so wryly. Her intelligence is overt, her ease with language palpable; not a “like” or a “you know” stumble from these lips in the course of a lengthy conversation.
Although she came from a theater family, Thompson actually intended to be a writer long before she took to the stage. But at Cambridge University, she became involved with the Footlights Group, which launched the careers of Stephen Fry and various Monty Python comedians, and discovered a knack for performing. After graduating, she wrote her own material as a comic. “I didn’t want to be at the behest of anyone, very proud like that,” she says. “I was a militant feminist” — she even shaved her head at one point — “and I wasn’t having any man tell me what to do, or how to behave, when I was in my 20s.”
By then, her writing was at the service of her acting. As Martha Graham once claimed that she choreographed only to have something to dance, Thompson writes to have something to perform. At the moment, she is shuffling four different screenplays. First there’s a rewrite of “Harrow Alley,” a story about the Plague in 17th-century London. “It’s one of Hollywood’s famous long-lost scripts,” she explains.
Then there’s a movie based on a children’s book called “Nurse Matilda.” To the question of whether she will play the title character, Thompson trills, “Of course!” in her best nanny voice, “with a lot of prosthetics, because she’s very ugly.” She also sees a role for herself in a romantic comedy she is writing with Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”), “if I’m not too long in the tooth by the time we finish.” As for the fourth script, Thompson calls it “a bugger”; she’s been at work on it for some five years. It’s based on the life of Victor Jara, a Chilean activist killed by Pinochet’s forces. She’d originally intended to play Jara’s English wife but now deems herself “too old” for the part.
There’s no bitterness here, none of that resentment toward Hollywood’s ageist casting practices. “But I’ve always been over 40,” explains Thompson, who turns 42 next month. “I was over 40 when I was under f—ing 30. I’ve never been an ingenue, so in that sense, I have absolutely nothing to lose.” She considers herself the lucky one. “I’m sure it must be hard to have been [a starlet] and to have to let it go. Yes, it must be very hard to have been a beauty.”
Now comes the self-deprecation that Thompson no doubt honed in her stand-up days. “On screen I have an odd face which moves in a sort of odd way,” she insists, her voice growing more theatrical. “My mouth does very strange things, and there’s too many teeth in it, and they all point in different directions.”
Thompson can laugh because she sees herself as a character actress, not a true leading lady. Audra McDonald, the three-time Tony Award winner who plays the nurse in “Wit,” describes Thompson as “a chick’s chick. She’s not a girlie girl. She’s not a movie star concerned with the latest fashion or looking pretty at the latest premiere.”
Not that she doesn’t fantasize a little now and then. “I’ve never really played a romantic lead,” Thompson says, reflecting upon her collection of largely repressed characters, “and I wish that I was able to try that and not feel awfully embarrassed.”
Also on her wish list, though, is another baby. Then maybe she’ll do some more stage work, the way her mother did when she was growing up: Feed the kids dinner, head off to the theater.
Thompson is not one for regrets, neither for movies she turned down, like “The Piano,” nor for ones she made. It’s an attitude best kept, she admits, by not reexamining her past work too closely. “I find it’s very good to absolutely rest on those laurels,” she advises with a laugh. “Just sit on them, and be grateful. Don’t look at them again. Otherwise, they’ll crumble into dust.”