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All movie actresses are unique, but some movie actresses are more unique than others. For ten years, Kristin Scott Thomas quietly impressed audiences with her wit, style, and feeling. These days, though, she's electrifying them with every glorious performance.


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"My idea of bliss was to be on a TV talent show from somewhere like Blackpool, doing tap or singing. I loved that stuff, but my mother thought it was vulgar."


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"I did all those things you're supposed to do when you're nineteen in Paris. Spent hours talking, redoing the world in the back of a café, and smoking about fifty Gitanes."


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"Certainly there's an extraordinary thrill in having a film that makes money, like Four Weddings and a Funeral, as opposed to being in films that nobody sees. It's not about career ambition, but about my personal work. I want to do better."


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"It's very difficult talking about this without sounding pretentious, because acting is basically a question of pretending to be someone else -- no different from playing cops and robbers when you're eight."


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"I hate what I would call the whorish provoking of tears, and I hate feeling that I've been tricked into crying when I see a film. And I cry at the drop of a hat -- pathetic!"


     

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[Kristin Scott Thomas]

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The Cover Interview: Kristin Scott Thomas
by Graham Fuller

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All movie actresses are unique, but some movie actresses are more unique than others. For ten years, Kristin Scott Thomas quietly impressed audiences with her wit, style, and feeling. These days, though, she's electrifying them with every glorious performance.

Kristin Scott Thomas is the kind of film actress who sorts out the women from the girls. Never one to play charming, friendly, warm, and confident when haughty, brittle, pinched, and neurotic are required, she is a credit to a trade that often blindly encourages soft, easy likability. And yet, for the discerning, there's heaps to admire about Scott Thomas: her Gielgud-like spareness, her needle-sharp wit, her disdainfully drooping eyelids, her beautifully weighed wryness, her scolding British Empire accent, and -- potently revealed in this month's The English Patient -- her tigery sexiness. Abandoning herself to sensuality in the arms of Ralph Fiennes's explorer, she is more emotionally naked in this desert epic than she was even in Bitter Moon (1992), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), or An Unforgettable Summer (1994). Her hasty dispatch in last summer's Mission: Impossible now seems like profligacy.

Stylishly attired in yellow, blue, and white, Scott Thomas bade me sit down in her New York City hotel room and, barefoot, curled up in an armchair to tell me about her journey. She was languid, droll, and self-effacing. What's not to like?

The reason I wanted to interview you is that not much is known about you.

Thank God.

So I'd like you to tell me everything.

Might. [laughs] It depends what you want to know.

You were brought up in Dorset in southwest England?

Yes. We moved there because my father was a pilot in the Royal Navy, and he was posted to the naval base at Yeoviton. I was born in Redruth, Cornwall. My parents' families were colonials from places like Africa and Hong Kong. I don't know much about them. They've always been mysterious.

What kind of upbringing did you have?

Jittery. People were always dying. My dad was killed when I was five. My mother remarried another pilot when I was eleven, and then he was killed. I'm the eldest of five; I have two brothers and two sisters. We were country kids. We lived in this tiny village in the middle of nowhere, and I went to the village school and then the local convent. I was incredibly shy and unsure of myself, although my sisters complained that I was a terrible bully and was always bossing them around. At school, I always wanted to belong to a gang, and no one would have me. So I'd have make my own gang, but with everybody else's leftovers.

The geek squad?

Exactly. Horrible.

Did you fight with your mother when you were in your teens?

I think I was particularly unpleasant to her. She got a double dose having to be both my mother and father. For a long time she was my main -- I don't know how you say this in English -- interlocutrice. In other words, she was the main person I went through and dealt with and talked to. She was, and is, very important.

When did acting come into the picture?

I'd wanted to do it ever since I could remember, but it felt impossible. My idea of bliss was to be on a TV talent show from somewhere like Blackpool [an English seaside town specializing in variety shows], doing tap or singing. I loved that stuff, but my mother thought it was vulgar. I'd have to rush to the telly and turn to another channel so she wouldn't catch me watching it.

Did you act at school?

Yes, and I was "good" at it. Then I went to drama school in London for a year. It was disastrous becuase I didn't have the guts to go through with it. I never thought I'd be an actress, and my mum didn't want me to do it. She wanted me to got to university and get a degree. I don't know why she had this opposition to me doing it. She had wanted to act herself, but had given it up when she met my dad and had five children instead. That may have been a part of it, but she was also thinking of my best interests.

I decided to do a teaching course because I thought it would suit me better, but it didn't. So I played truant and then got caught trying to transfer to the acting class, which was treason. The school went completely bananas. I got hauled up in front of the woman running the teaching course. She said to me, "You have no talent. If you want to play Lady Macbeth, you ought to stick to the amateur-dramatics society." I was eighteen and was devastated to be told this by a grown-up, because, deep down, I did have this feeling that I could act.

And obviously you had some determination.

But I went about it in a sideways way, which is what I do with everything. [laughs] I never go straight to the point if I can go the most difficult way. Why be simple when you can be complicated?

What did you do next?

I went to stay with a girlfriend in Paris because I was fed up wasting time and getting depressed living in a cold, seedy apartment above a fish-and-chip shop in West Hampstead. I got on the hovercraft for France thinking I was going for two weeks, but I never went back. I got a job as an au pair working for a family that was in the world of opera, and the woman said to me, "Why don't you try to get into drama school here?" which, again, seemed impossible. But I tried -- and I got in. It helped that I was something exotic in France -- a funny little English girl.

It sounds like you'd needed someone to encourage you.

Yes. Somebody to say, "You can not only do that, you're allowed to do it."

At the drama school, did you blossom?

Not to begin with. I was so shy, I didn't dare speak, except to try to convince them to do Shakespeare -- or anything -- in English. [laughs] At the end of the first year, they called me in and said, "If you don't pull your finger out, you're going to have to leave." So I did, and I met a great teacher who opened things up for me. I worked with him for two years, and he gave me my first job in the theater. I needed that person to show me that my tastes and instincts were not completely mad.

And, socially, what was it like being a funny little English girl in Paris?

I did all those things you're supposed to do when you're nineteen in Paris. Spent hours talking, redoing the world in the back of a café, and smoking about fifty Gitanes. Had a great time doing that -- corny, but great.

All that Left Bank stuff.

Yes. I still live on the Left Bank. I wouldn't live anywhere else.

Your first film was Under the Cherry Moon [1986], made, of course, by the director formerly known as Prince. How on earth did you wind up in that?

It was funny. I was doing a play -- a beautiful play about the end of the world -- with two actors, in a field in Burgundy, and camping with them in a school at night. Totally unglamorous. Suddenly, I got called up to Paris to audition for a small part in Cherry Moon. I drove to the hotel where they were holding the auditions and parked my cracked-up old car round the corner, because I didn't want anybody to see it. To test me, they gave me a scene from the leading-lady's part, and afterward they said, "Would you like this part?" I felt like saying, "What do you mena, would I like it? Of course I would." The next day I came back and auditioned for Prince, who was very sweet and charming, and I got the part.

Was it your first time in front of the camera?

In a leading role it was. The other things I'd done were walk-on parts where I'd say, "Your train is at ten o'clock, sir. Come this way please." I'd played the second blonde hairdresser in an episode of L'ami d'enfance de Maigret [a French TV detective series]. I keep getting residuals for it. The other day I got a check for thirty francs. [laughs] Better than a poke in the eye.

How was Prince as a director?

It was just a big game for him, so that made it easy. I don't know what to think of the film, but it was my first job, and I was grateful for that.

When did you feel you got a chance to show what you were capable of?

When I made a Swiss film called La Méridienne [1987], and then as Lady Brenda in A Handful of Dust [1988]. Lady Brenda, like Matty in Angels & Insects [1995] and Katharine in The English Patient, was one of those parts I didn't want anyone else to play. I became very protective toward her, however badly she behaved. It's a very odd feeling -- it's silly. Charles Sturridge [director of A Handful of Dust] used to say that to me because I'd get het up and very emotional about the work. He'd say, "Stop, Kristin -- come back. It's just a film."

Was there a particular point where you started to get ambitious?

Yes. I can't really pinpoint it. But certainly there's an extraordinary thrill in having a film that makes money, like Four Weddings and a Funeral, as opposed to being in films that nobody sees. It's not about career ambition, but about my personal work. I want to do better. Then An Unforgettable Summer, the Romanian film I did, was a real challenge because it was a foreign film in every respect, including language, and because I had to do such dreadful things in it. I know it sounds like actor's bullocks, but it was so difficult, morally, to get paid for playing the woman [Marie-Thérèse Von Debretsy, the wife of a Romanian army captain assigned to a volatile border post in Dobruja, in 1925], who allows these people to be taken off to be shot, saying, "Why don't you come back tomorrow?" when she knows damn well that they won't. It really affected me. I'm not a political person at all, but that made me realize, that, even in my fairly banal career, I have a responsibility when I represent certain characters and ideas. That was something I hadn't ever thought about before. Then, Angels & Insects made me want to do beautiful things, because I was so restrained, so locked in, and so pig ugly for so long in that film. I decided then that I wanted to do something that was generous and sunny.

Is that responsibility you were talking about relevant to your character, Fiona, in Four Weddings, or even to the flirty woman you played in Pompetus of Love [1996]?

I think so, because, generally, when you play characters, you love them and you want to show all their different angles. I knew people were going to hate Lady Brenda, but I found it distressing when interviewers asked me, "What's it like to play the biggest bitch ever?" I didn't think she was the biggest bitch ever. I thought she was a confused person who was terribly sad and mistaken, and that's what I wanted to show. Something I'm learning is to try to be kinder to characters. If you put too much irony into something, it can turn mean. It wouldn't been irresponsible of me to have done that to Fiona in Four Weddings just because she's lonely, unmarried, and smokes a lot.

Why do you think you've played several sexually repressed women?

I don't know. I think people saw me in A Handful of Dust and Four Weddings and nothing in between, and so that's how they see me. But the woman I played in An Unforgettable Summer was irrepressible, and that's what got her into trouble. I love playing characters who make mistakes. That's what it's all about, really.

As Katharine in The English Patient, your'e not so much repressed as forced to keep your desire for Almásy [played by Ralph Fiennes] on ice, and when it erupts, it's intense. Was holding back that passion hard to sustain?

I can't say it was. We just trusted in the text. It would have been very easy on this film to get carried away by the emotion and become melodramatic, but we wanted to keep it sober. That's hard because it's like having to jump halfway down a hill and stop yourself from falling. I had to dig my heels in at times. It got to the point where I was thinking, Why should I have to act this bit? Why should I? Which is completely stupid, because I fought to get the part and that's what I was there for.

The desert scenes reminded me of an old British war movie called Ice Cold in Alex [a.k.a. Desert Attack, 1958] with all its sexual tension between Sylvia Syms and Anthony Quayle.

[laughs] There's something incredibly sexy about sand and sweat and dunes photographed like women's backs.

Did you and Ralph Fiennes and Anthony Minghella [The English Patient's writer/director] discuss the theme of ownership and possession that keeps coming up in the film?

Yes. But I tried to keep all that as light as possible and not labor it. My character's story is about the decision she makes to remain true to herself and stay with her husband [played by Colin Firth] and how she deals with that.

What do you think of that decision?

I'm proud of her. I think it's great.

But suppressing passion isn't, is it, necessarily?

I suppose not. [sighs] But then there's the sense that the passion between Katharine and Almásy goes on, but not in this life. When he lays dying in the old house, he relives everything, and Katharine's spirit is most definitely there.

The English Patient's going to bring you a lot of media attention. What do you think about all that?

To be honest, I find it quite tedious. I don't think I'm very good at articulating what my films are about. I'm not here for that -- I'm an actress and I think actresses should be allowed to give interviews. [laughs] I'd absolutely hate to be a paparazzi-snapped person, and I'd do everything possible to avoid it. This is a funny period for me, actually. What happens if everybody hates me in The English Patient? I was convinced when I did it that it was the most important film I was ever going to make in my life, and when I finished it, I thought, Well, that's it, O.K., I'm done, no one will ever give me a role like that again. but now I'm starting to get excited about other projects.

You and your husband, François [Oliviennes], have two children?

Yes. A girl of eight and a boy of five. I hate going away from them. Talking about them now makes me feel funny. It's like the bathtub question in The English Patient, when Almásy asks Katharine, "What' your happiest moment?" and "What's your saddest moment?" For me, the saddest is when I leave my children.

Your husband's an obstetrician. Did he deliver your babies?

No. [laughs] He stood there shaking, trying to give orders. I suspect it's very difficult when it's your own child that's being born.

Taken together, your films have built up a resonance across an array of different characters. We can see how you bring different qualities to them -- but they're qualitites that can only come from you.

Ian McKellen [who co-starred with Scott Thomas in Richard III (1995)] said a nice thing to me that moved my husband to tears. Ian said that when I'm acting, I go really deep down and do things that he doesn't know how I do, and that it costs me a lot. And it's true -- I do dig around. People accuse me of being Methody, but I'm not at all. The one thing I don't want people to see is me. I don't want them to be able to recognize my faults and failures and qualities, and I won't use those things to spark off emotions or to illustrate. It's very difficult talking about this without sounding pretentious, because acting is basically a question of pretending to be someone else -- no different from playing cops and robbers when you're eight.

The characters you play are seldom sentimental.

I hate what I would call the whorish provoking of tears, and I hate feeling that I've been tricked into crying when I see a film. And I cry at the drop of a hat -- pathetic! I like economy, so I try to avoid sentimentality. [pauses] I find it difficult to explain, but I'm quite ashamed of being an actress.

Do you think it's something a grown woman shouldn't be doing?

A bit. But then the actresses I admire most are really grown-up women like Anjelica Huston and Gena Rowlands. When they're on the screen, they show such strength. I find that very exciting. I want to be that.

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[Originally published in Interview Magazine, November 1996]

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