Emma Thompson and the challenge of showing everything on screen at 63

It’s the shock of white hair that you first notice on Emma Thompson, a shade far fancier than anything your average 63-year-old would dare to pick, but a shade that doesn’t ignore her age either. It is accompanied by that big, broad smile and that knowing look, which suggests both a wry humor and a willingness to joke.

And yet Thompson starts our video call through MacGyvering her computer monitor with a piece of paper and some tape so she can’t see herself. “The only thing I can’t bear with Zoom is that I have to look at my face,” she said. “I’m just going to cover myself.”

We’re here on two computer screens to discuss what is arguably her most revealing role yet. In the new movie “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” directed by Sophie Hyde, Thompson is emotionally wrought and physically naked, and not in a lowlight, sexy way.

Thompson plays Nancy, a recently widowed former religious schoolteacher who has never had an orgasm. Nancy, a devoted wife and dutiful mother with deep regrets about the life she didn’t live and the dull, needy children she raised, hires a sex worker – a much younger man played by relative newcomer Daryl McCormack (“Peaky Blinders”) — to give her the pleasure she has longed for. The public can follow you as this highly recognizable woman—she could have been your teacher, your mother, you—who, in Thompson’s words, “has crossed every line she’s ever recognized in her life,” grapples with this monumental act of rebellion.

“Yes, she has made the most extraordinary decision to do something very unusual, courageous and revolutionary,” Thompson said from her office in north London. “Then she makes at least two or three decisions not to do it. But she’s lucky because she’s chosen someone who’s rather wise and instinctive, with an unusual level of understanding of the human condition, and he understands her, what she’s going through, and is able to gently suggest that there could be a reason. are behind this.”

Thompson took on the challenge with what she calls “a healthy terror.” She knew this character on a cellular level – same age, same background, same drive to do the right thing. “Only a little piece of paper and chance separates me from her,” she joked.

But the role required her to reveal an emotional and physical level of vulnerability that she was not used to. (To prepare for this intimate, sex-positive two-hander set primarily in a hotel room, Thompson, McCormack and Hyde have said they spent one of their rehearsal days working naked.) Despite a four-decade career that has spanned Praised for both his quality and his irreverence and having earned her two Academy Awards, one for acting (“Howards End”) and one for writing (“Sense and Sensibility”), Thompson has appeared naked in front of the camera only once: in the 1990’s comedy ‘The Tall Guy’, opposite Jeff Goldblum.

She said she wasn’t thin enough to master those kinds of skin-cloaking roles, and though she tried for a while to conquer the industrial diet complex, starving herself like all the other young women begging for a part on the big screen, she soon had. she realized it was “absurd”.

“It’s not fair to say, ‘No, I’m just this shape by nature.’ It’s unfair and it makes other women feel like [expletive],” she said. “So if you want the world to change, and you want the iconography of the female body to change, you better be part of the change. You better be different.”

For “Leo Grande,” the choice to undress was hers, and though she took it with trepidation, Thompson said she believes “the movie wouldn’t be the same without it.” Still, the moment she had to stand stark naked in front of a mirror with a serene, accepting look on her face, as the scene called for, was the hardest thing she’s ever done.

“Honestly, I will never be happy with my body. It will never happen,” she said. “I was brainwashed too early. I cannot undo those neural pathways.”

She can talk about sex. Both its absurdities and the intricacies of female pleasure. “I can’t just have an orgasm. I need time. I need affection. You can’t just run up to the clitoris and clap it and hope for the best. That’s not going to work, guys. They think if I touch this button, she’ll go off like Catherine’s wheel, and it’ll be great.”

There is a moment in the film when Nancy and Leo start dancing in the hotel room to Alabama Shakes’ “Always Alright”. The two meet for a second time—an encounter that involves a checklist of sex acts Nancy is determined to plow through (pun intended). The dance would relieve all of her type-A, organized teacher stress that threatens to derail the session. Leo has his arms around her neck and he waves his eyes closed when a look appears on Nancy’s face, an expression of gratitude and melancholy with a hint of concern.

For the screenwriter, Katy Brand, who appeared opposite Thompson in the second “Nanny McPhee” movie and who introduced Thompson as Nancy while writing the first draft, that look is the point of the entire movie.

“It’s just everything,” Brand said. “She feels her lost youth and the kind of organic, natural sexual development she could have had if she hadn’t met her husband. There is also a tingling sensation, not just of what could have been, but of what could have been from now on.”

Brand is not the first young woman to write a script especially for Thompson. Mindy Kaling did it for her in “Late Night,” proving she’s loved Thompson since she was 11. Writer Jemima Khan told Thompson that she’s always wanted the actress to be her mother, so she wrote a role for her in the upcoming movie “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”

“I think Emma gives to everyone and what she does with people in person, and also through the screen, is she always somehow feels like she’s on your side,” Brand said. “And I think people are really responding to that. She will meet you on a very human level.”

The producer Lindsay Doran has known Thompson for decades. Doran hired her to write “Sense and Sensibility” after watching her short lived BBC television show “Thompson” which she wrote and starred in. The two worked together on the “Nanny McPhee” movies and are working on the musical version, with Thompson managing the book and co-writing the songs with Gary Clark (“Sing Street”).

For the producer, the film is the encapsulation of a writer who really understands her actress.

“It felt to me like Katy knew the instrument, and she knew within seconds what the instrument was capable of,” Doran said. ‘It’s not just, I’m going to be dramatic here. And here I’m going to be funny, and here I’m going to be emotional. It can all go over her face so quickly, and you can literally say, there’s a feeling, there’s an emotion.”

Lisa Kennedy reviewed “Leo Grande” for The New York Times, calling Thompson “amazingly dexterous with the script’s singers and reveals,” while Harper’s Bazaar said Thompson was “a timeless treasure who was urgently overdue for her next Oscar nomination.” ‘.

The obvious trajectory for a movie like this should be an outing that would likely see Thompson land her fifth Oscar nomination. But the film, which debuts Friday on Hulu, will not hit theaters in the United States.

Thompson doesn’t mind. “It’s a small movie with no guns, so I don’t know how many people in America would really want to watch it,” she said with a wink.

That may be true. But more consistently, because of a rule change by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that reverts to the prepandemic requirement of a seven-day theatrical release, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is ineligible for Oscar consideration, a reality that true director Sophie Hyde is not happy about it.

“It’s really disappointing,” Hyde said. “I understand the desire to protect cinema a little bit, but I also think the world has changed so much. Last year, a streaming movie won the best photo.” She claimed that her movie and other movies on streaming services are not made for TV. They’re cinematic, she said, adding, “That’s what the academy should protect, not what screen it’s on.”

Thompson, for example, seems quite optimistic about the whole thing. “I think given that you might have a little more puritan undertone to life where you are, it might be easier for people to share something as intimate as this at home and then be able to turn it off and have a nice cup of coffee for themselves. really bad tea,” Thompson said with a laugh. “None of you Americans can make good tea.”

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