It’s the mop of white hair that first catches the eye on Emma Thompson, a shade far chicer than anything the average 63-year-old would dare choose, but one that doesn’t ignore her age either. It’s accompanied by that big, wide smile and that knowing look that suggests both a wry wit and a willingness to joke.
And yet, Thompson begins our video call with MacGyver clamping her computer monitor with a piece of paper and some tape so she can’t see herself. “The only thing I can’t take about Zoom is having to face myself,” she said. “I’ll just cover myself up.”
We’re sitting here at two computer screens to talk about what is arguably her most revealing role to date. In the new film, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, directed by Sophie Hyde, Thompson is emotionally moved and physically nude, rather than in a demure, sexy way.
Thompson plays Nancy, a recently widowed former religious school teacher who has never had an orgasm. At the same time, Nancy is a devoted wife and a dutiful mother who deeply regrets the life she didn’t live and the boring, needy children she raised. Nancy hires a sex worker – a much younger man played by a relative newcomer Daryl McCormack (“Peaky Blinders”) – to give her the pleasure she longed for. Audiences can watch as this very relatable woman — she could have been your teacher, your mother, you — who, in Thompson’s words, has “crossed every line she’s ever known in her life,” confronts this monumental act of rebellion grapples.
“Yes, she made the most extraordinary decision to do something very unusual, bold and revolutionary,” said Thompson, from her north London office. “Then she makes at least two or three decisions not to do it. But she’s lucky because she’s chosen someone who happens to be quite wise and instinctive, with an unusual level of insight into human existence, and he understands what she’s going through and can gently hint that there might be a reason behind it.”
Thompson met the challenge with what she calls “a healthy scare.” She knew this character on a cellular level – same age, same background, same drive to do the right thing. “Only a small piece of paper and coincidence separates me from her,” she quipped.
But the role required her to reveal a level of emotional and physical vulnerability she wasn’t used to. (Thompson, McCormack, and Hyde have said they spent one of their rehearsal days working nude in preparation for this intimate, sex-positive two-hander that takes place mostly in a hotel room.) Despite a four-decade career, both for their quality As well as being praised for her irreverence and earning her two Oscars, one for acting (“Howard’s End”) and one for writing (“Sense and Sensibility”), Thompson appeared nude in front of the camera only once: in the 1990 comedy film The Tall Guy starring Jeff Goldblum.
She said she wasn’t skinny enough to take on those kinds of skinny roles, and though she tried for a while to break into the diet industrial complex and, like all the other young women craving big screen roles, was starving herself , she was soon enough to realize that it was “absurd”.
“It’s not fair to say, ‘No, I only have this shape naturally.’ It’s dishonest and makes other women feel like it [expletive],” she said. “So if you want the world to change, and you want the iconography of the female body to change, then you better be part of the change. You better be different.”
For “Leo Grande,” the decision to strip was hers, and though she did it with trepidation, Thompson said she felt “the movie wouldn’t be the same without him.” Still, that moment when she had to stand stark naked in front of a mirror with a calm, accepting expression on her face, as the scene demanded, was the hardest thing she’d ever done.
“To be honest, I will never be satisfied with my body. That will never happen,” she said. “I was brainwashed too soon. I cannot undo these neural pathways.”
However, she can talk about sex. Both the absurdities and intricacies of female pleasure. “I can’t just have an orgasm. I need time. i need affection You can’t just rush to the clitoris and smack it and hope for the best. This ain’t gonna work guys. They think if I push that little button she’ll go off like a Catherine wheel and it’ll be wonderful.”
There’s a moment in the movie when Nancy and Leo start dancing in the hotel room to “Always Alright” by Alabama Shakes. The two meet for the second time—an encounter that comes with a checklist of sexual acts that Nancy is dying to plow through (pun intended). The dance is designed to alleviate all of her organized teacher stress that threatens to derail the session. Leo has his arms around her neck and is swaying with his eyes closed as Nancy’s face is crossed with an expression of gratitude and wistfulness coupled with a hint of apprehension.
For screenwriter Katy Brand, who starred opposite Thompson in the second Nanny McPhee film and imagined Thompson as Nancy when writing the first draft, that look is the point of the whole film.
“It’s just everything,” Brand said. “She feels her lost youth and the kind of organic, natural sexual development she might have had if she hadn’t met her husband. There is also a tingly feeling of not just what could have been, but what could be from now on.”
Brand isn’t the first young woman to write a screenplay specifically for Thompson. Mindy Kaling did it for her on “Late Night,” confirming that she’s loved Thompson since she was 11. Writer Jemima Khan told Thompson she always wanted the actress to be her mother, so she penned her for a role in the upcoming movie What’s Love Got To Do With It?
“I think what Emma gives to everyone and what she does to people in person and also through the screen is that she always kind of 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.”
Producer Lindsay Doran has known Thompson for decades. Doran hired her to write Sense and Sensibility after seeing her short-lived BBC television show Thompson, which she wrote and starred in. The two worked together on the “Nanny McPhee” films and collaborated with Thompson on the musical version, handling the book and co-writing the songs with Gary Clark (“Sing Street”).
For the producer, the film is the embodiment of an author who really understands her actress.
“To me, it felt like Katie knew the instrument, and she knew what the instrument was capable of in a matter of seconds,” Doran said. “It’s not just, over here I’m going to be dramatic. And over here I’ll be funny, and over here I’ll be emotional. It can all go over her face so quickly, and you can literally say, there’s that feeling, there’s that emotion.”
Reviewing “Leo Grande” for The New York Times, Lisa Kennedy called Thompson “incredibly agile with the script’s verve and revelations,” while Harper’s Bazaar said Thompson is “a timeless sweetheart who desperately needs her next Oscar nomination.” is overdue”.
The obvious path for a film like this should be a trip to the awards show, which would likely result in Thompson snagging her fifth Oscar nomination. But the film, which is set to debut Friday on Hulu, won’t have a theatrical release 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 really want to see it,” she said with a wink.
That could be true. But more consistently, due to a rule change by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences reverting to the pre-pandemic seven-day theatrical release requirement, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is ineligible for Oscar consideration, a fact that Director Sophie Hyde is not happy with that.
“It’s really disappointing,” said Hyde. “I understand the desire to protect cinema in some way, but I also think the world has changed so much. Last year, a streaming film won Best Picture.” She argued that her film and others on streaming services weren’t made for TV. They’re cinematic, she said, adding, “That should protect the academy, not what screen it’s on.”
Thompson, for example, seems pretty confident about the whole thing. “I think given that you might have a slightly more puritanical undercurrent to where you are that it might be easier for people to share something as intimate as this at home and then switch it off and make your own.” nice cup of really bad tea,” Thompson said, laughing. “None of you Americans can make good tea.”