Actress, activist and feminist

Emma Thompson has been a long-time champion of equal rights and pay

Oscar winner Emma Thompson's film performances include star roles in Sense And Sensibility (1995) and Love Actually (2003).
Oscar winner Emma Thompson's film performances include star roles in Sense And Sensibility (1995) and Love Actually (2003).PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • Emma Thompson is suddenly feeling her age.

The change sweeping Hollywood in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement has left the British actress and director musing on the "primitive model" males that women her age have had to grapple with.

"I feel like I was still part of a really backward generation, which was binary in its views on males and females," said the double Oscar winner, whose film performances include star roles in Sense And Sensibility (1995), Love Actually (2003), Nanny McPhee (2005) and the Harry Potter series.

"I feel like I grew up surrounded by quite primitive, raw models," she said.

But the Weinstein scandal has been a massive catalyst for change.

"We've got a long way to go. But it is interesting at the moment. There is a lot of changes occurring," said Thompson, who has long campaigned for equal rights and pay.

"I think the generation below mine and with my daughter's generation (her daughter Gaia is 18), you are going to see quite a lot of changes soon because they are writing new stories," she added.

That said, Thompson, who plays a judge struggling to fight her corner in the male-dominated higher courts in her new film, The Children Act, insisted that women are still excluded from large parts of the movie industry.

"I think I've seen (only) one woman electrician. You try to be an electrician as a woman - impossible," she said.

A human-rights activist as well as a feminist, Thompson, 59, made her name playing strong and enigmatic women in the 1990s, when she and former husband Kenneth Branagh were the golden couple of British cinema.

But the feminism of that time, "that dreadful period of 'Women can have it all'", appalled her.

"I screamed loudly at the top of my voice in public, 'No we can't!' The whole point is there's an imbalance. When men were going out to work, they didn't do the domestic work as well. When women go out to work, they still have to do all of that," she added.

"It's not about everybody having everything. It's about us understanding what our priorities are, how we are going to change the world of work."

For Thompson, that means first of all not falling in the trap "about us being like men. Forget men. We've been talking about men for centuries. They need to come to us. It's for us to bring the feminine into the world and to rebalance all this".

"Those old men - they're all going now. They're all dinosaurs. Thank god."

Thompson - daughter of The Magic Roundabout (1965 to 1977) creator Eric Thompson and renowned actress Phyllida Law - is well aware of her privilege.

"I had access to a drama career, to some great feminist literary critics and all of that. So you know, I was lucky, much luckier that my mother's generation."

Outside her "small bubble of privileged, white, highly educated women", she said there "is a long way to go for many. For the women of colour, it is hard".

And the problems women face go deeper than gender discrimination, Thompson said.

"People don't want to work all the time. They want to do a job that they can live on. It would be nice if the word 'job' meant what it used to mean.

"It used to mean that you could also have time for yourself and you would earn enough to live.

"Now, people have to do two or three jobs to survive. Both parents. It's impossible, but it suits our political structures at the moment. And it's not working."

Her character, Fiona Maye, in The Children Act - which is adapted by novelist Ian McEwan of Atonement fame from his own novel - is "not someone who went into a posh school or a posh university. She has had to be better than a man. She has had to be twice as brilliant, just to get where she is".

Directed by Richard Eyre, former director of Britain's National Theatre, it turns on a legal dilemma over whether she has the right to force a teenage boy in the Jehovah's Witnesses to have a blood transfusion that would save his life.

Thompson said that decision comes as the judge's life is falling apart, with her husband asking her permission to have an affair with a younger woman.

"In her private life, she has developed a kind of blindness because in the family court in which she works every day, you witness some terrible suffering, cruelties, stupidities, brutalities, really awful things. And you have to create a barrier between you and this suffering."

The film will be released in Britain and much of Europe next month and in the United States and South Africa in September.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2018, with the headline 'Actress, activist and feminist'. Subscribe