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Not-So-Cheery Disposition: Emma Thompson On Poppins' Cranky Creator
Originally published on Thu January 9, 2014 6:13 pm
Emma Thompson grew up in London, the daughter of two actors. She went to Cambridge University, then began performing in sketch comedy on stage and television before getting into dramatic roles.
Today, she's an accomplished actress; she won a Best Actress Oscar when she was just 33 for the film Howards End, and has made many memorable films since, including The Remains Of The Day, In The Name Of The Father, Sense And Sensibility, Primary Colors, Love Actually and three of the Harry Potter movies. She's also a talented screenwriter — she won another Oscar for her screenplay for Sense And Sensibility.
Thompson latest film is Saving Mr. Banks, in which she plays P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, opposite Tom Hanks. The film tells the story of Walt Disney's efforts to convince the reluctant author to let him to make a Mary Poppins movie.
Thompson tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that she was herself reluctant to take on the role.
"I had never really played anyone so contradictory or difficult before," she says.
On P.L. Travers' resistance to having her book made into a movie
Crucially, there are the tapes of the meetings that she had with [Mary Poppins songwriting duo Robert and Richard Sherman] and [Disney screenwriter] Don DaGradi. She insisted that all of the time that they spent together was tape-recorded, so there are 67 hours of those tapes and they're ... just so torturous to listen to because she was awful to those young men.
She hated the whole idea [of having her book made into a film]. She didn't want to give it up. ... She just interfered; she patronized; she demeaned their efforts. She was rude about everything and everyone. She didn't eat with them; she would sit on her own in the commissary. She was vile about America and Americans to people's faces. She was so resistant.
She slightly reminded me of Margaret Thatcher — who I always wanted to punch, from the moment that she came into power to the moment she left — partially because of that voice and the very, very patronizing way in which she would talk to people who she clearly felt were idiots.
[Travers] didn't like the movie, and never came around to it, and never gave permission for any of the other books to be made into another one.
On how Thompson's sketch-comedy work led to writing the screenplay for Sense And Sensibility
The [sketch] that inspired [producer Lindsay Doran] to ask me to write Sense was based, in fact, on an Edith Wharton short story about a young woman who comes back after her honeymoon to confront her mother, who has not given her any information about sexual behavior.
I wrote a sketch about a young woman coming back to her mom and telling her about the small hairless mouse that her husband had attached in his lap. ... Clearly the husband has been trying to show this woman his genitalia and explain sex to her, and she doesn't get it and she's gone to describe this scene to her mother. And her mother doesn't understand at first, and then slowly starts to get the picture that this woman is so ignorant and knows nothing. And I guess Lindsay thought it was pretty funny and she also thought it was Austenian in some way, about misinformation and the mother-daughter bond.
On the Sense And Sensibility scene in which she cries hysterically
I remember Hugh Grant looking at me and saying, "Are you going to do that?"
I said, "What?"
He said, "Cry like that, all the way through my last speech."
And I said, "Yeah, what's the problem?"
And he said, "Well, it's my last speech! You can't."
And I said, "Yeah, but Hugh, it's funny." Which is the point: It's funny. Of course it's moving, but it's that, I think, very difficult ... but vital balance between something having humor, having wit, but also being moving that I always strain to reach and achieve.
It's difficult. Alexander Payne is one of the people who achieve that so often in his movies, that you're laughing and you're also very moved at the same time. That's my favorite thing in a movie, actually.
On her writing process
I tend to take on each character as I'm writing it and become — as far as I can — that character, so that whatever comes out is say-able and real. ... Writing is so solitary and mysterious. It's a mysterious process, because I've had the experience of writing something and then leaving it, as I always do in the afternoons and for a night, and then coming back to it the following day and not remembering writing it. Not really knowing who wrote it.
I think that when you do give yourself over to the creative process of writing and acting — it's the same, I think, in any art form — something is passing through you in an odd way. You just have to make sure you're open to it.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Emma Thompson, stars in the new movie "Saving Mr. Banks." She won a Best Actress Oscar when she was just 33 for her performance in "Howard's End" and has made many memorable films since, including "Remains of the Day," "In the Name of the Father," "Sense and Sensibility," "Primary Colors," "Love Actually," "Stranger than Fiction" and three Harry Potter movies.
Thompson is also a screenwriter and won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for "Sense and Sensibility." Emma Thompson grew up in London, the daughter of two actors. She went to Cambridge and then began performing in sketch comedy on stage and television before getting into dramatic roles.
In "Saving Mr. Banks," Thompson plays P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books. The film tells the story of how Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, managed to convince the reluctant author to let him make a Mary Poppins movie. Thompson spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, and they began with a clip from "Saving Mr. Banks." Travers has just arrived at the Disney studios, where she's greeted by composers Richard and Robert Sherman, played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak; and screenwriter Don DaGradi, played by Bradley Whitford.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SAVING MR. BANKS")
BRADLEY WHITFORD: (As Don DaGradi) Good morning, Pamela.
EMMA THOMPSON: (As P.L. Travers) It is so discomfiting to hear a perfect stranger use my first name. Mrs. Travers, please.
WHITFORD: (As DaGradi) I do apologize, Mrs. Travers. I'm Don DaGradi, the script writer.
THOMPSON: (As Travers) Co-script writer. I shall certainly be having my say, Mr. DaGradi.
WHITFORD: (As DaGradi) DaGradi. Wonderful. I welcome your input.
THOMPSON: (As Travers) If indeed we ever sign off on a script.
WHITFORD: (As DaGradi) Right. This is the rest of your team. This is Dick and Bob Sherman, music and lyrics. Boys, the one and only Mrs. P.L. Travers, the creator of our beloved Mary.
THOMPSON: (As Travers) Poppins.
WHITFORD: (As DaGradi) Who else?
THOMPSON: (As Travers) Mary Poppins, never ever just Mary. It's a pleasure to meet you. I fear we shan't be acquainted for very long.
WHITFORD: (As DaGradi) Why is that?
THOMPSON: (As Travers) Because these books simply do not lend themselves to chirping and prancing. No, certainly not a musical. Now where is Mr. Disney? I should so much like to get this started and finished as briskly as is humanly possible. Perhaps someone can point me in his direction, I'd be so grateful, thank you.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
That's our guest, Emma Thompson, as a very tough customer, P.L. Travers, as she arrives at the Disney studios to consider having them adapt her book "Mary Poppins" to a movie. Emma Thompson, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you.
THOMPSON: Thank you, it's great to be here.
DAVIES: Tell us about getting her voice, getting that character.
THOMPSON: Well, I got the script quite early on, and I was very frightened by it because she was such a complicated character. I've never really played anyone quite so contradictory or difficult before. And so I started to investigate her. And she's written an awful lot of interesting things, and not only the Mary Poppins books but great series of pieces on myth, of essays and other fictions, as well.
And she was really a very fascinating woman. There's one very good biography of her by a woman called Valerie Lawson, and there's lots of interviews. But crucially, there are the tapes of the meetings that she had with the Sherman brothers and Don DaGradi. She insisted that all of the time that they spent together was tape-recorded.
So there are 67 hours of those tapes, and they're just killingly just so torturous to listen to because she was awful to those young men. She hated the whole idea. She didn't want to give it up. But she at the same time, having come over overtly to cooperate but somehow inside her wanting to subvert everything about the process, she just interfered, she patronized, she demeaned their efforts. She was rude about everything and everyone.
She didn't eat with them. She would sit on her own in the commissary. She was vile about America and Americans to people's faces. She announced to the boys that Americans just don't - they don't know how to learn poetry, or they don't know how to recite anything. So one day they all turned up at her table in the commissary and recited the Gettysburg Address, all standing in front of her.
And she just listened to them, and not even that charmed her. She just made a hmmpf(ph) noise and went back to her meal. So she was determined and in such a state of - what's the word - she was so defended, I suppose, she was so resistant to handing over this person who I suppose to her was a great deal more than a fictional character that she had written.
In fact she used to say I didn't create her, she just flew in through the window one day.
DAVIES: Finding those tapes, those many, many hours of tapes with P.L. Travers speaking with the writers, must have been a treasure for someone trying to develop a character. Did you imitate the voice, or how did it help you get the voice?
THOMPSON: It was hugely helpful, I can't tell you, because, well, one of the interesting things about listening to those tapes is, you know, hearing the relaxed kind of American thing of the guys going OK, well, we're going to do this, we're going to start this, we're, kind of, California and all that's going on. And suddenly there's this voice that comes in and there's a tremendous distress in it because you can hear that the breathing is - and she can't get the words out of course. And no, no, no, no, no, these sounds coming out, just no stopping them.
And we can't do that. No we cannot do that. And then suddenly she'd go into a dreadfully sort of patronizing thing because that would not British. It would not be terribly British. In fact she slightly reminded me of Margaret Thatcher, who I always wanted to punch from the moment that she came into power to the moment she left.
THOMPSON: But partly because of that voice and the very, very patronizing way in which she would talk to people who she clearly felt were idiots.
DAVIES: And of course the film deals with her past in Australia, I mean the hard life she had with her father, who she adored and died young, and then she took his name. You know, you have adapted a book to a screenplay, "Sense and Sensibility," and you're aware of sort of how tricky and difficult that all is, and things inevitably are compressed and omitted and changed.
And in the film here, in "Saving Mr. Banks," we see P.L. Travers at the premiere. It seems like she likes it. I mean, she's weeping with emotion at how effectively it's all done. Did the real P.L. Travers come around?
THOMPSON: No to both of those things. I don't - certainly wasn't acting that she was weeping because she was enjoying the film. I think she was weeping because the film opened up the floodgates for her about the loss of her father and the emotional tension inside her throughout that period.
And indeed what we were trying to convey in that moment was that the film, being a different kind of piece of work, opens up a door inside her that she's kept very firmly shut for so long that crying, weeping in the way that she does uncontrollably, takes her very much by surprise and was probably something she deeply resented. But at the end of that sequence, you can see that she's not the film that she's thinking about but about her father.
DAVIES: Her life, yeah.
THOMPSON: And the fact that what Walt Disney suggests to her during a wonderfully written scene between me and Tom Hanks, who plays Walt Disney and plays this scene so beautifully about his own difficult beginnings, and there's a catharsis that is invented, absolutely invented by Kelly Marcel but is to do with yes, her work, and yes to do with the way in which her father or the father figure has been presented.
And so it brings something out of her. I think it's very clear when she says I just can't bear cartoons and - that at the end it's not about the film at all. It's about her. It's about her. And then when she...
DAVIES: That's the reaction we see, yeah.
THOMPSON: Yeah, and she goes to - well, she went to Walt Disney in true life after the movie. She went to the big party and said, well, we're going to have to do - there's a lot to be done. There's a lot of work to be done. And he just said Pam, that ship has sailed. So he got what he wanted, and they never saw one another again.
So no, and she didn't like the movie and never came around to it and never gave permission for any of the other books to be made into another one.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Emma Thompson. She stars with Tom Hanks in the new film "Saving Mr. Banks." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is actress Emma Thompson. She stars with Tom hanks in the new film "Saving Mr. Banks." You grew up in a family of actors. Your parents were actors. Your sister's an actor. Did you always think that's what you'd want to do?
THOMPSON: No, au contraire. I didn't want to do it at all. My sister knew from very early on and showed all her skill and talent quite early on and left school, went and worked professionally at the age of 16 and was brilliant and then went to drama school and then carried on and has been and is the most extraordinary actress, quite, quite brilliant.
And so she was always that person who was going to do that and knew from the start, whereas I was very unsure. I liked reading more than anything, and I think at one point there was a hospital administrator who came to talk about her work at our school, and I thought that that sounded like an interesting job.
And I remember she had very nice shoes. Maybe I could get shoes like that if I became a hospital administrator. Then I suppose I went to university. I went to Cambridge, and I read English, and I joined the Footlights, and that's when I started to figure that I might be able to be a comedian, and I wanted to be a Lily Tomlin.
DAVIES: Lily Tomlin, the American comedian, yeah.
THOMPSON: The American comedian, yes, whose work with Jane Wagner, notably "Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," I greatly, greatly admired. And I loved all the female comedians of that ilk.
DAVIES: I find this fascinating. I read that you had thought of yourself as becoming a comedian, and, you know, I think American audiences especially think of you as, you know, this sophisticated, you know, a self-assured woman from all these period dramas. You were in a BBC series called "Thompson," right.
DAVIES: Which lasted six episodes, I gather did not do well critically. But out of that, Lindsay Duran asked you to adapt the Jane Austen novel "Sense and Sensibility" to screen.
THOMPSON: Yes, that's right.
DAVIES: How does that connect, I mean the sort of wacky sketch comedies to adapting a Jane Austen novel?
THOMPSON: I had been working constantly in comedy until I was 26 or 27, and then I got some sort of straight acting, which terrified me. But it was interesting because I was successful as an actor before anyone knew that I had, in fact, been a comedian for many years and just on that, exclusively done that.
And so the television series, which was odd, I mean, there was no laugh track, it was quite - well, some of the critics said, well, it's very man-hating because there were sketches about things like (unintelligible) and, well, dieting and how men behaved in relation to women that were taken, well, very personally, shall we say, by the largely male critical body in television reporting at that time. So I got it in the neck from all over the job.
DAVIES: Can you remember a sketch? Can you remember a sketch from the show that you want to tell us about?
THOMPSON: Yeah, well, there's so many. Well, the one that inspired Lindsay to ask me to write "Sense" was based, in fact, on an Edith Wharton short story about a young woman who comes back after her honeymoon to confront her mother, who has not given her any information about sexual behavior and who knows that when she saw her daughter getting married that the man she was marrying was pretty brutal and that it would not be pleasant and who gave her no information about it.
And she's coming back to say thanks a lot, mum. So I wrote a sketch about a young woman coming back to her mum and telling her about the small hairless mouse that her husband had attached - in his lap and was clearly a part of his lap work, and clearly the husband has been trying to show this woman his genitalia and explain sex to her, and she doesn't get it. And she's gone to describe this scene to her mother.
And her mother doesn't understand at first, and then slowly starts to get the picture that this woman is so ignorant, has nothing - knows nothing. And I guess Lindsay thought it was pretty funny, and she also thought it was well - I guess Austenian(ph) in some way, about misinformation and the mother-daughter bond.
So she said would you be interested in writing a screenplay. I said, well, I don't know. I've never done it. I'll give it a go.
DAVIES: You worked on adapting the screenplay of "Sense and Sensibility" for, what, like five years.
THOMPSON: Yeah, five years.
DAVIES: Did you always picture yourself in the role of Elinor?
THOMPSON: Well, I did when I was writing it, but I didn't take it for granted that I would necessarily play her because in our world you understand that it's always the director who gets to choose who's playing that. But luckily when we found Ang Lee, who had just produced this extraordinary film called "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman," which had a scene between two sisters that contained exactly the same line as the scene in "Sense" between to the two sisters, which is where one turns to the other and says what do you know of my heart.
It's about sisters who know each but of course don't really know each other, don't know what's going on deep, deep down.
DAVIES: I want to ask you about a scene at the end of this film. And this is a film in which one of the things we notice is that the relationships all follow the conventions of the day, and people are very polite, and the conversation is sort of indirect and restrained.
And the man Edward, who you've had great affection for, mutual affection throughout the film, you've come to recognize that you will never have him because the family has learned that he has married another woman he had made a promise to.
And then there's a scene where you and your sister-in-law are there. He arrives, and it's revealed that in fact you were misinformed. His brother had married. Edward is in fact unattached and available to you. And your reaction is to begin weeping uncontrollably. And this is so interesting because the entire film you've been so proper and so restrained in what you say, to see this raw emotion come pouring forth, it was enormously effective.
It doesn't make a particularly good radio clip because we hear Emma Thompson weeping, but...
DAVIES: But could you talk about that moment?
THOMPSON: I remember Hugh Grant looking at me and saying are you going to do that. I said what. He said, you know, cry like that, all the way through my last speech. And I said yeah. What's the problem? He said, well, it's my last speech. You can't - and I said yeah, but Hugh, it's funny. It's funny, which is the point. It's funny. It's also - of course it's moving, but it's that I think very difficult balance but vital balance between something having humor, having wit but also being moving that I always strain to reach and achieve.
You know, it's difficult. Alexander Payne's one of the people I think achieves that so often in his movies that you're laughing, and you're also very moved at the same time. That's my favorite thing in a movie, actually.
DAVIES: We should note that you won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for that. I believe you're the only person ever to win Oscars for both acting and writing. You won the Oscar for Best Actress for "Howard's End." Since you write screenplays and have spent years writing them, worked really hard on them, how does being a screenwriter kind of affect the acting process to you? What do you think it gives you?
THOMPSON: That's an interesting question to which obviously I don't have an immediate response. But I think it might be the other way round in the sense that I think that I know when I'm writing what is sayable, I think. I tend to take on each character as I'm writing and become, as far as I can, that character so that whatever comes out is sayable and real.
So I think it's more that way round. Writing's so solitary and mysterious. It's a mysterious process because I have had the experience of writing something and then leaving it, as I always do in the afternoons and for a night, and then coming back to it the following day and not knowing - not remembering writing it, not really knowing who wrote it. It's much like what Travers says about Mary Poppins just flying in through the window.
And I think that when you do give yourself over to the creative process of writing and acting, it's the same I think in any art form. Something is passing through you in an odd way, and you just have to make sure you're open to it.
DAVIES: There may be no easy answer to this, but, you know, you've described how when you - sometimes you've picked up a screenplay and known immediately this is something I want to do. What makes a screenplay right for you?
THOMPSON: I know what makes me throw it with an expression of horror from me across the room, and it's when the characters all speak in the same voice. This happens a lot in screenplays. People aren't different enough. There's - the scenes don't come - they just don't have any emotion. They don't have - it's difficult to describe it.
It's a bit like anything that you would pick up, any book or any film. You'll watch five minutes and think oh, God, I know what this is going to be like. Please don't make me give up the next two hours of my life. Or a book, indeed, you read the first couple of chapters and go no, I'm so sorry, but this just isn't good enough.
It's what my parents used to call top in actors. They would say, we're watching somebody onstage, oh he or she has got top. And it's something to do with the last ingredient in any piece of writing or any piece of acting or any piece of music where something extra has managed to worm its way in past your ego or, you know, the obstacles that we all put up in front of it and makes it, makes it sing, makes it fly, makes it more than you somehow.
GROSS: Emma Thompson will continue her conversation with Dave Davies in the second half of the show. She stars in the new movie "Saving Mr. Banks" as P.L. Travers, the author of "Mary Poppins." Here's Louis Armstrong's version of a song from the film "Mary Poppins." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with actress Emma Thompson. She stars in the new movie, "Saving Mr. Banks," as P.L. Travers, the author of "Mary Poppins." The movie is about how Walt Disney convinced her to allow his studio to adapt "Mary Poppins" into a film.
Thompson's other films include "Howards End," for which she won an Oscar, "Remains of the Day," "In the Name of the Father," "Sense and Sensibility," "Primary Colors," "Love Actually" and three Harry Potter movies.
DAVIES: One of my favorite films of yours is "Remains of the Day," of the 1993 film, directed by James Ivory, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. It's, of course, the story of this English butler, Stevens, set in the 1930s, working at the manor house of Lord Darlington. And you play the housekeeper, Miss Kenton. Mr. Stevens, of course, played by Anthony Hopkins.
And you have this important supervisory position. And this is the story of how you become acquainted and develop a great affection for each other which is never really expressed. You know, it's - there are a lot of films about any required and love; this is sort of unexpressed. The closest he gets to declaring his affection is saying that this house means very much to you.
DAVIES: Talk a little bit about kind of hitting that balance between showing affection and yet not showing it?
THOMPSON: Well, I was fascinated by that because my grandmother was in service as a young girl and she was tested on all sorts of strange levels. She had a housekeeper who was quite cruel I think, and would leave money on the stairs to test her honesty, and who really hit her and hurt her when she'd left a broom with the bristles to the floor, you know, because that flattened the bristles and that was something that you shouldn't ever do. So my grandmother was a tweenie, which is sort of short for the in between maid. That's a very young person who does all the really dirty work like the blacking of the fireplaces and so forth.
And so I was peculiarly in the position in society of someone who is required to suppress their natural feelings - not only for other people but also about themselves, their own, I suppose their own rights to be alive. I mean that caste system that we have in our country for so long which is still being, as it were, presented in an entirely different way, but still presented in things like "Downton Abbey," was a very deforming system. It was, it was so full of injustice and so full of the necessity for people to, well, not allow themselves to feel. And actually, that rule, that repression, of course, existed on both - in both areas of the system. You know, nobody more repressed than the upper class Englishman with the classic Etonian/Oxford education required constantly to battle with his own feelings and not show them, and that's what the British Empire was based and built on.
THOMPSON: You know, well, no, no, let's not have sex and a good time. Or let's use all that energy to take over the world because I think that would be more - it's more proper. And we could just get out there and suppress everyone else.
DAVIES: Duty above all.
THOMPSON: You know?
THOMPSON: Duty, indeed, above all.
DAVIES: I want to play a scene. And this is a moment when you, as Miss Kenton, enter Mr. Stevens' study - again, played by Anthony Hopkins - and he's reading a book. And she wants to know what he's reading and kind of persists. Let's listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "REMAINS OF THE DAY")
THOMPSON: (As Miss Kenton) What you're reading?
ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As James Stevens) A book.
THOMPSON: (As Miss Kenton) It's what sort of book?
HOPKINS: As James Stevens) It's a book, Miss Kenton. A book.
THOMPSON: (As Miss Kenton) What is the book? Are you shy about your book?
HOPKINS: (As James Stevens) No.
THOMPSON: (As Miss Kenton) Is it - is it racy?
HOPKINS: (As James Stevens) Racy?
THOMPSON: (As Miss Kenton) Are you reading a racy book?
HOPKINS: (As James Stevens) Do you think racy books are to be found in his lordship's shelves?
THOMPSON: (As Miss Kenton) How would I know? What is it? Let me see it. Let me see your book.
HOPKINS: As James Stevens) Please leave me alone, Miss Kenton.
THOMPSON: (As Miss Kenton) Why won't you show me your book?
HOPKINS: (As James Stevens) This is my private time. You're invading it.
THOMPSON: (As Miss Kenton) Oh, is that so?
HOPKINS: (As James Stevens) Yes.
THOMPSON: (As Miss Kenton) I'm invading your private time, am I?
HOPKINS: (As James Stevens) Yes.
THOMPSON: (As Miss Kenton)What's in that book? Come on, let me see.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
THOMPSON: (As Miss Kenton) Or are you protecting me? Is that what you're doing? Would I be shocked? Would it ruin my character?
DAVIES: And that's our guest Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in "Remains of the Day." You know, listen to your voice in that scene. It may be the most erotic scene in film and no one addresses each other by their first name.
THOMPSON: Yeah. It was an extraordinary scene to film, actually. I remember we weren't quite sure how to do it - or at least I wasn't sure how to do it, and I came in a bit too brisk and kind of no-nonsensey on it. And Tony, who taught me so much - and I worked with him twice on "Howards End" and "Remains...
DAVIES: That's Anthony Hopkins, for those who aren't on a first name basis. Yes.
THOMPSON: Anthony Hopkins. Yes. I'm sorry. He said listen, think of it as one of those lazy afternoons. There's nothing much to do. There's a fly dying busily in the window ledge. And it's a bit warm. And just take out all of that busyness and all of the briskness Miss Kenton always has, and she's quietly suppressing all her emotions and all her sexual feelings and everything that really doesn't do to be shown when you're a housekeeper of a huge house. And that kind of solved it for me and then it did become immensely erotic. And Tony is very good, he's like a little sort of human volcano, quietly ready to go off, pop at any moment, but held in. And so he's got this extraordinary internal heat and power. And so I remember we shot it maybe only two, three times. But I remember at the end of it I was - I hadn't really breathed much and I got quite think at the end of each take. And I said that's interesting, you're just stopping me from breathing.
DAVIES: Wow. In 1998, you starred in "Primary Colors," the film kind of loosely based on Bill and Hillary Clinton, as they go through the 1992 presidential campaign. It's a, I think it's a great film, very faithful to the novel by Joe Klein.
DAVIES: And I thought we'd listen to a scene. This is very early in the film. You play the character which was again, somewhat based on Hillary Clinton. Maybe we can talk about that. But she's meeting her husband, Governor Jack Stanton, who is there campaigning in the New Hampshire primary. He's played by John Travolta. He's getting off a plane where, and he had failed to show at a meeting, I guess, with some party officials. And you, as his wife, Susan Stanton, are about to give him a piece of your mind about his not getting there. And it begins when he introduces you to a new campaign aide played by Adrian Lester. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PRIMARY COLORS")
JOHN TRAVOLTA: (As Governor Jack Stanton) This is Henry Burton. My wife, Susan.
ADRIAN LESTER: (As Henry Burton) Hello.
THOMPSON: (As Susan Stanton) I met you 25 years ago at your grandfather's (unintelligible). You were running under the sprinkler in wet underpants.
THOMPSON: (As Susan Stanton) Your grandfather was a great man.
LESTER: (As Henry Burton) Oh, thank you.
THOMPSON: (As Susan Stanton) Jack Stanton could also be a great man, if he weren't such a faithless, thoughtless, disorganized, undisciplined (bleep).
TRAVOLTA: (As Governor Jack Stanton) Honey, why are you making such a big deal about it?
THOMPSON: (As Susan Stanton) Because it is big. First impressions count (bleep). Oh, hello, this is New Hampshire. These people don't know you. They probably don't even remember your state. They're waiting to be swept off their feet by Orlando Ozio, who's the governor of a real state. But they came to meet you and you didn't show.
TRAVOLTA: (as Governor Jack Stanton) Mm-hmm.
THOMPSON: (As Susan Stanton) You know, I talked to the head of the Portsmouth Democratic Party about fly-fishing for an hour and minutes. Do you realize how indescribably boring fly-fishing is? Do you realize....
TRAVOLTA: (As Governor Jack Stanton) Yes.
THOMPSON: (As Susan Stanton) ...I'm now committed to doing this.
TRAVOLTA: (As Governor Jack Stanton) I'm sorry.
THOMPSON: (As Susan Stanton) This thing with him I'm going fly-fishing because of you (bleep). It's not funny. You can do this to me, Jack, you can't. You know, we've only been at this a month and already you're (bleep) in your own (bleep) way.
TRAVOLTA: (As Governor Jack Stanton) OK.
THOMPSON: (As Susan Stanton) You know, the only shot we have here - the only shot - is to be perfect. Barely adequate won't swing it. No, Jack, you can't blow off...
TRAVOLTA: (As Governor Jack Stanton) (Singing) Primrose Lane.
THOMPSON: (As Susan Stanton) Jack.
TRAVOLTA: (As Governor Jack Stanton) (Singing) Life's a holiday on Primrose Lane, when I'm walking down Promise Lane with you.
THOMPSON: (As Susan Stanton) You're not funny.
DAVIES: And that's our guest Emma Thompson with John Travolta. She's - at the end of that scene Travolta is hugging his wife, Susan Stanton, to get her to calm down. This is a great role. Do you want to tell us how you got the part, what interested you about it?
THOMPSON: Yes, it was a wonderful role. The screenplay by Elaine May was just superb. And I had met Mike Nichols, the director, and loved him and very much connected with him and how his mind works. And he asked me to do it. And I read it and I'm loathe to play characters that I think American actresses who are so brilliant can play better than me. But for some reason or other, Susan Stanton made so much sense to me that I thought I could give it a go and not feel too ashamed. I remember that scene very clearly actually, because I had flu at the time. I had a temperature, a fever. And I remember thinking at the end of each take when I would collapse just covered in sweat, how much more energy one needs to be an American.
THOMPSON: Yes. You have, the way in which you speak, the way in which you use - she spoke anyway, and the way in which she used words and it was so full on and it's a very - the Chicago accent's very chewy, very energized and I remember feeling amazed. And it was a great insight actually, into that kind of American woman.
DAVIES: One more thing I wanted to ask you, you know, I read that you lived across the street from your mom and in the same neighborhood as your relatives for many years. Is that the case?
THOMPSON: Yes, indeed, it is the case. I've lived in the same road all my life. It's quite odd. Mom lives opposite, so if we opened her front door and my front door you can see into each other's kitchens. So that little stretch of road in between is a kind of corridor where we'll often be seen passing wearing dressing gowns and carrying mugs of tea. And I think that's the only way to live. And my sister-in-law lives just down the road and luckily, Jim Carter, who plays Carson in "Downton Abbey" lives three doors down, so one can always call upon him for butlery services at any time of the day or night.
THOMPSON: But my sister used to live just up the road in my uncle's old flat, but now lives 10 minutes away, so it's a very close knit community.
DAVIES: Right. I mean it's wonderfully appealing, but given your success, you don't want to have a place with an ocean view or, you know, enormous room and all of that stuff.
THOMPSON: No. I appear to have resisted the fantasy film star lifestyle that I feel an awful lot of people assume that I live. It's very odd when I'm on the Tube at home or on a bump. You say what are you doing here? I said this is, I use the underground. Its London, I've always lived here. And so there is I think a strange assumption.
DAVIES: And I'm told your two Oscar statuettes occupy the downstairs bathroom?
THOMPSON: Yes, they do. They've made various journeys. They've been in my office. They've - but they seemed, I don't know, unhappy there. I think they prefer to be, you know, at the seat of all guests to be available to be picked up and handled and in the privacy of that small room, which also contains a lot of my daughter's art, so it's rather a special place.
DAVIES: Well, Emma Thompson, it's been fun. Thank you so much for spending some time with us.
THOMPSON: Thank you very much, Dave. I've loved it.
GROSS: Emma Thompson spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. She stars in the new movie "Saving Mr. Banks."
One of the founders of bebop, drummer Kenny Clarke, was born 100 years ago today. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead has an appreciation.
This is FRESH AIR.
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