Even Kristin Scott Thomas fans familiar with her dual screen careers - the English-language projects, and the French - will be startled when they come to “I’ve Loved You So Long.” No one’s seen her like this: so tough, so indrawn, so alone.
A first film from the popular French novelist Philippe Claudel, “I’ve Loved You So Long” follows a woman, Juliette, just released from prison after serving a long sentence for a terrible crime. The film was a surprise hit in France and the United Kingdom when it opened earlier this year - a surprise because its emotions are raw, and its central performance, from Scott Thomas, is brutally sad.
Already, the British actress, a longtime resident of France, is being touted for an Oscar nomination.
“It really pushes those emotional buttons,” says Scott Thomas, explaining the film’s popularity overseas. “Everyone’s so bottled up at the moment with all these anxieties ... and people really are longing for a place to let it out. This film certainly is very affecting, and I think people need that. They need a safe place to go and shed a tear. And that safe place is a movie theater.”
Scott Thomas is on the phone from New York. It’s a Monday, ostensibly her day off - she stars as Arkadina, Chekhov’s aging, aristocratic actress and mother, in the Broadway production of “The Seagull,” which runs through December. But today she’s doing interviews for “I’ve Loved You So Long.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever made a film which has had this much emotional impact on people,” says the actress, best known for her work in “The English Patient,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Gosford Park.” (She also had a small but plummy part in this summer’s sleeper-hit French thriller, “Tell No One.”)
“Part of that, I suppose, is because it’s a French film. In English I have to be - I’m asked to be - more brittle, and more tough. Well, actually, Juliette is pretty tough. But the film penetrates her outer shell ... you can actually almost see inside her.”
Scott Thomas, 48, did not dive deep into the histories of women behind bars to prepare for the part. She did not visit prisons, did not interview former inmates. She wanted this character to come from somewhere inside.
“The film wasn’t about the prison, it’s about the aftermath,” she explains. “Obviously I had to discover a little bit about what she’s been through, but I was very afraid of going to prison because I was afraid of my own pity, or my own disgust, or my own anger or my own shock. ... And I was afraid that that then would make me sand off some of the edges, and make me judgmental, or make me have pity on this character. Where the last thing she wants is pity.”
Scott Thomas also asked Claudel to let her do the first take of every scene without direction. If he wasn’t happy with her interpretation, she’d do it again, per his instructions. But she wanted to have the liberty to explore.
“It’s called acting,” she says, when asked how she created this fully formed being, who, for long stretches of the movie, says little.
“I don’t mean to sound flip, but it is intuitive. And I did want to play this character from my own imagination and my own instincts. I think we all have horrible dreams about doing something really terrible and irreparable, or dreams where people don’t recognize you, or you’re abandoned. ...
“Those fears are within all of us. And I think that’s what I was able to explore in accepting this role. And it just sort of happened. It didn’t require much plotting or planning or thinking.”