Kristin Scott Thomas: “I find myself frustrated … with the kinds of film scripts you get to do”
PARIS – Elegant, articulate, and radiant, Kristin Scott Thomas has tended to have a mesmerising effect on audiences. Her Oscar-nominated performance in The English Patient set a high standard which the British actress has maintained in films ranging from The Horse Whisperer to Gosford Park to her critically-acclaimed performance as Electra at the Old Vic last Autumn which was described by one London theatre critic as a “tour de force” which placed her among “theatrical titans.” It’s only fitting, then, that earlier this year (2015) she was made a Dame and joined the ranks of so many other great British actors who have been similarly honoured. Ironically, next month Scott Thomas will be playing the Queen when she takes over from Dame Helen Mirren in the London stage production of The Audience. How does Scott Thomas feel about her new noble status?
“It still feels strange,” Scott Thomas said in Paris on the occasion of the French premiere of Suite Française. “Having lunch at the House of Lords and all that. I find myself laughing when I see envelopes arriving at my house addressed to me with the title Dame on them. I have a hard time believing that it’s really me. For me the image of a Dame is someone who has a tweed skirt and walks around with four dogs yelling at everybody. (Smiles)”
With respect to playing Queen Elizabeth II on stage, she added: “Playing someone who’s alive is extraordinary. Of course this is a play, not a documentary or anything like that, but we are trying to recount history. Whether these things were actually said is another matter, but it’s a very clever way of telling the story of the past 60 years.”
Last year, Scott Thomas famously declared that she had grown weary of making movies and wanted to devote herself to the stage, explaining that she felt “bored” and “couldn’t cope” with the film world anymore. After appearing in nearly 70 films over the course of the past 30 years, she felt that it was time to shake things up. Last month, however, she demurred on the subject and revealed that she was “tempted” by a new project.
That’s good news, because Scott Thomas’s performance in Suite Française is further proof that she’s one of the world’s greatest actresses. The film is based on the eponymous novel by the Ukrainian-Jewish writer Irene Nemirovsky which she wrote while living in France during the early stages of WWII before being arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz where she later died. Scott Thomas plays Madame Angellier, a wealthy landowner whose son has gone missing in battle while she is obliged to provide a room in her house to a gentlemanly Nazi officer (Matthias Schoenarts) and then suffer the emotional anguish of watching him and her son’s wife (Michelle Williams), who is also living on the property, fall in love.
The 54-year-old Kristen Scott Thomas moved back to London (she’s renting a home in Little Venice) last year after having spent the past 35 years living in Paris after she moved to the French capital to enroll in drama school while working as an au pair. It was in Paris that she met and married François Olivennes, a French gynaecologist with whom she has three children. The couple was divorced in 2008 and she is currently single although there has been speculation about a relationship with financier Arpad Busson who was previously engaged to American actress Uma Thurman.
Some of Dame Kristin’s recent films include Philippe Claudel’s Before the Winter Chill, Francois Ozon’s In the House, Alain Corneau’s Love Crime (all shot in Paris or in France), and My Old Lady, co-starring Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline, whom she previously worked with in 2001’s Live as a House.
Q: Had you read the novel already before getting involved with the film adaptation of Suite Française?
SCOTT THOMAS: I read the novel when it was first published in 2004 and as soon as I finished it I wanted to be part of the adventure. (Nemirovsky) left a suitcase with her daughters and Denise found the manuscript inside which was an unfinished novel to be written in (five) parts and she only finished the first two. Her observations of people’s behaviour and her humanity is really worth the read.
I felt that this would make the most fantastic film and I was waiting for the offer to come along. Eventually I read the screenplay and it was something I wanted to do.
Q: How would you describe your character, Madame Angellier?
SCOTT THOMAS: She’s desperate to hang onto the idea of status and privilege and this idea of who she is…This young man the same age as her missing son and she’s in agony. Just the thought of not knowing your son’s whereabouts – and as a mother, I can tell you that would be unbearable…
The relationship between the characters is very complicated – the daughter-in-law is the only thing remaining of her son in the house and it all comes crumbling down when she discovers she is having a relationship with this Nazi.
Q: Last year you spoke about wanting to stop making movies. Is that still your intention?
SCOTT THOMAS: I just want to be me for a bit…It’s a long time to be working. I mean I’ve been working since I was 24, which is – and I’m not ashamed to say it – 30 years, and so you do get times when you think, “Oh, I can’t be bothered anymore. It’s all too much.” After a while sometimes you do get fed up with pretending you’re someone else.
Working as a film actor isn’t as satisfying to me as acting in the theatre. I find myself frustrated at times with the kinds of film scripts you get to do….In the theatre I aspire to leave audiences with indelible memories and that’s a rare thing.
Q: You’re quite comfortable working in both French and American films. Do you prefer one kind of film to another?
SCOTT THOMAS: I prefer making films in Paris where I’ve been living up until recently because it’s so much easier to work from home and be able to come back to your own bed at night.
It’s also been the case that the best projects I’ve been offered in recent years have been French films – like Partir. That was one of my favourite roles. I loved playing this woman who was passionate to the point of madness, who drops her husband and children, and saw that as her last chance to do something with her life. The film might have been a bit shocking for some people but I didn’t feel uncomfortable in the role. I played the part very naturally and it felt beautiful in a certain way.
Q: Is it different working in American or English-language films versus French films?
SCOTT THOMAS: French films are very different because film is considered to be an art form and the directors prefer to tell stories which are deeper and more character-driven than American or British films. Film is deeply rooted in French culture and the public tend to be cinephiles who want to see films that explore emotions and relationships between people whereas English-language films tend to be centered around events and where the emphasis is much more on plot rather than character or feelings.
Q: You received outstanding notices and praise for your work in Electra this past Autumn. What was that experience like?
SCOTT THOMAS: Electra is a play that has had a great impact in my life. When I saw a Broadway production in 1998 Zoe Wanamaker in the title role it was like a punch in the stomach. Watching that play was a shock to my system and it made me rediscover the power of theatre, its immediacy. Each performance is distinct and unique. You can see the same play three times and each time it will different.
Q: Was it a special feeling to be performing at the Old Vic?
SCOTT THOMAS: I love the fact that the Old Vic stage is in the centre. The audience becomes a part of show and it’s as if there’s much more direct connection between you and the audience.
What was also interesting is that you’re so close to everyone that you tend to notice very odd things. There’s always at least one person in the front row who falls asleep and wakes up at the beginning of the end of the play.
One night a spectator had his head buried in his programme and never looked up once. I was so angry that I wanted to snatch the programme out of his hands and tear it to pieces. Sometimes an actor like Kevin Spacey will stop the performance and speak to people in the audience and ask, “Is everything OK?” I can’t quite bring myself to do that, I hold my rage inside.
Q: You’re perfectly bilingual in French and in English. Does your personality change when you’re speaking English?
SCOTT THOMAS: They’re different, although I think they’ve converged quite a bit over the last 30 years. Now that my children are older, I’ve been spending more time in England and so I’m very curious to see what life is going to be like for me in London now.