Thompson faces midlife crisis at 60

Actress Emma Thompson says movies have failed to explore and bring to the screen what being a woman is.
Actress Emma Thompson says movies have failed to explore and bring to the screen what being a woman is.PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEVERLY HILLS • If anyone did not expect to have a midlife crisis, it was Emma Thompson.

Being quite sure about things has been a central organising principle of her life. It has informed most every character she has played.

The kindly aristocrat in Howards End (1992). The lovelorn housekeeper in The Remains Of The Day (1993). The bonneted sister of Sense And Sensibility. The batty Hogwarts professor, the fusspot creator of Mary Poppins and the caustic television host in her new film, Late Night, due out on June 7.

Time has not softened the actress' resolve, or so it seemed.

This year, after learning that John Lasseter, who lost his top job at Pixar and Disney for alleged sexual misconduct, was named head of the studio producing a film she was working on, Thompson quit and flamed the studio, and Lasseter, in a scathing open letter.

It came as a great surprise then, to suddenly find herself on uncertain ground occasioned by her 60th birthday last month. It was not that she baulked at her age.

But she was flooded by discomfiting questions of her own about roles she had enthusiastically embraced in her life, as daughter, wife, mother, performer. She was still all of those things, but now, she is on the verge of being an empty nester.

"There's lots of these roles that are in fact imposed on you by society, for years and years and years, then you suddenly go - am I any of those things? And if I'm not, who am I?" she said. "I was always so sure. As it turns out, I have no idea."

She was in Las Vegas recently to promote two new movies: Late Night (2019), which Mindy Kaling wrote for her, and Last Christmas (2019), which Thompson wrote with English artist Bryony Kimmings.

Thompson grew up in an acting family, went to Cambridge and, in the late 1980s, fell in love with and married Kenneth Branagh, whom she met while working on a World War II-era TV drama.

A few years later, director James Ivory cast her in her breakthrough role in the British class drama Howards End as the well-heeled, earnest Margaret Schlegel, who gets involved with Anthony Hopkins' upper-crust widower.

She won an Oscar for her performance and landed two more nominations (lead and supporting actress) the following year, for The Remains Of The Day and In The Name Of The Father (1993).

Branagh, meanwhile, had taken a shine to Thompson's Howards End co-star, Helena Bonham Carter, and they ended up in a relationship. He and Thompson divorced in 1995.

Producer Lindsay Doran had caught a TV broadcast of Thompson's comedy sketches and asked her to adapt Jane Austen's Sense And Sensibility (1995).

Directed by Lee Ang and starring Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant, the film was a global hit.

Thompson went on to win an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, making her the only person to win Oscars for both acting and writing.

The film also starred Greg Wise as the dashing, dastardly John Willoughby. She and Wise, seven years her junior, hit it off splendidly. They married in 2003 and have a daughter and an adopted son.

Thompson had shot to international stardom in her 30s but she said that by the time she hit her 40s, she was being offered the dullest of roles. But once she got into her 50s and past all that, the parts that came her way were far more interesting.

Her big beef with most roles written for women is that they have gone from one extreme to the other, from the hopelessly support-or-pine-for-a-man characters she felt swamped with early in her career to, these days, those who call the shots.

She said: "Women now invent and shoot the weapons, and are tough and not allowed to cry. We skipped from being in the kitchen to being in the tank and there's nothing in between. We still have failed to explore and bring to the screen what being a woman is."

An exception, she said, is Late Night. In it, Thompson plays sharp-tongued, late-night host Katherine Newbury, who reluctantly hires a token woman for her all-male writing staff in an effort to keep her show on the air.

Kaling wrote the part for Thompson because she needed someone who could get away with saying almost anything. "I knew Katherine would be cruel at times, but always needed to be funny," Kaling said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2019, with the headline 'Thompson faces midlife crisis at 60'. Print Edition | Subscribe