It’s the clash of white hair you notice first on Emma Thompson, a shade far more chic than anything your average 63-year-old woman would dare to choose, but also not oblivious to her age. It’s accompanied by that big, broad smile and knowing look, suggesting both a wry wit and a willingness to joke around.
And yet, Thompson begins our video call by MacGyvering her computer screen with a piece of paper and tape so she can’t see herself. “The one thing I can’t stand about Zoom is having to look at my face,” she said. “I’m just going to cover myself.”
We’re here on two computer screens to discuss what is arguably his most telling role to date. In the new movie “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” directed by Sophie Hyde, Thompson is emotionally worked up and physically naked, and not in a low key, sexy way.
Thompson plays Nancy, a recently widowed former nun teacher who has never had an orgasm. Both a devoted wife and a devoted mother harboring regrets for 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 new come relative Daryl McCormack (“Peaky Blinders”) – to bring her the pleasure she had long dreamed of. Audiences can follow this very close woman – she could have been your teacher, your mother, you – who, in Thompson’s words, “crossed every boundary she ever recognized in her life”, struggles with this monumental act of rebellion.
“Yes, she made the most extraordinary decision to do something very unusual, brave and revolutionary,” Thompson said from her office in north London. “Then she makes at least two or three decisions not to. But she’s lucky because she’s chosen someone who happens to be quite wise and instinctive, with an unusual level of understanding of the human condition, and he understands her, what she’s going through, and is able to kindly suggest that there might be a reason behind this.
Thompson took on the challenge with what she calls “healthy terror.” She knew this character on a cellular level – same age, same background, same drive to do the right thing. “Just a little piece of paper and chance separates me from her,” she joked.
Yet the role required her to reveal a level of emotional and physical vulnerability that she was not used to. (To prepare for this intimate, sex-positive duet that takes place mostly in a hotel room, Thompson, McCormack and Hyde said they spent one of their rehearsal days working naked.) Despite a career of four decades that was hailed for both its quality and its irreverence and won him two Oscars, one for acting (“Howards End”) and one for writing (“Sense and Sensibility”), Thompson does not appeared naked on camera only once: in the 1990 comedy “The Tall Guy,” opposite Jeff Goldblum.
She said she wasn’t thin enough to command these types of stripped down roles, and though for a while she tried to conquer the dieting industrial complex, starving herself like all the other young women clamoring for roles on the big screen, soon enough she realized it was “absurd”.
“It’s not fair to say, ‘No, I just follow this form naturally.’ It’s dishonest and it gives the impression to other women [expletive],” she said. “So if you want the world to change and the iconography of the female body to change, then you better be part of the change. You better be different.
For “Leo Grande,” the choice to strip down was hers, and though she did so with trepidation, Thompson said she thought “the movie wouldn’t be the same without him.” Still, the moment she had to stand completely naked in front of a mirror with a serene, accepting look on her face, as the scene demanded, was the hardest thing she’s ever done.
“To be really honest, I will never be happy with my body. It will never happen,” she said. “I was brainwashed way too soon. I can’t undo these neural pathways.
She can, however, talk about sex. Both the absurdities and the subtleties of female pleasure. “I can’t just have an orgasm. I need time. I need affection. You can’t rush to the clitoris and beat it and hope for the best. It won’t work, guys. They think if I hit that little button, it’ll explode like a Catherine wheel, and that’ll be wonderful.
There’s a moment in the movie where Nancy and Leo start dancing in the hotel room to “Always Alright” by Alabama Shakes. The two meet for the second time — a meeting that comes with a list of sex acts that Nancy is determined to drill (pun intended). The dance is supposed to relieve all her stress as an organized Type A teacher that threatens to derail the session. Leo has his arms around her neck and he rocks with his eyes closed when a look crosses Nancy’s face, a look of gratitude and melancholy coupled with a hint of concern.
For screenwriter, Katy Brand, who starred opposite Thompson in the second “Nanny McPhee” film and imagined Thompson as Nancy when writing the first project, that gaze is what the whole movie is about.
“That’s just it,” 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’s also a tingling feeling, not just of 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,” attesting 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 wrote her a role in the upcoming movie “What’s Love Got To Do With It? “
“I think the thing that Emma gives to everyone and what she does in person to people, and also via the screen, is that she always feels like she’s on your side.” , said Brand. “And I think people are really reacting 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 watching his short-lived BBC TV show ‘Thompson’ which she wrote and starred in. The two collaborated on the “Nanny McPhee” films and are working on the musical version, with Thompson. manage the book and co-write the songs with Gary Clark (“Sing Street”).
For the producer, the film is the encapsulation of a writer who truly understands his actress.
“I felt like Katy knew the instrument and she knew what the instrument was capable of within seconds,” Doran said. “It’s not fair here, I’m going to be dramatic. And here I’m going to be funny, and here I’m going to be emotional. Everything can pass over his face so quickly, and you can literally tell there’s this feeling, there’s this emotion.
Reviewing “Leo Grande” for The New York Times, Lisa Kennedy called Thompson “terribly nimble with zingers and script reveals,” while Harper’s Bazaar said Thompson was “an urgently needed ageless treasure. for his upcoming Oscar nomination.
The obvious trajectory for a film like this would have to be a jaunt through the awards circuit that would likely land Thompson his fifth Oscar nomination. But the film, which is set to debut on Hulu on Friday, will not have a theatrical release in the United States.
That doesn’t bother Thompson. “It’s a little movie without guns, so I don’t know how many people in America would really want to come see it,” she said with a wink.
It may be true. But no longer therefore, due to a rule change by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that reverts to the pre-pandemic requirement of a seven-day theatrical release, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” isn’t eligible for the Oscar, a reality that director Sophie Hyde isn’t happy about.
“It’s really disappointing,” Hyde said. “I understand the desire to somehow protect cinema, but I also think the world has changed so much. Last year, a streaming movie won best picture. She argued that her film and others on streaming services are not made for TV. They’re cinematic, she said, adding, “It’s what the academy should be protecting, not the screen it’s on.”
Thompson, for his part, seems rather optimistic about the whole thing. “I think, given that you might have a slightly more puritanical undercurrent in life where you are, it might be easier for people to share something as intimate as that at home and then to to be able to turn it off and have a nice cup of really bad tea,” Thompson said with a laugh. “None of you Americans can make good tea.”