Emma Thompson was snorting with laughter.
At something I said.
It happened at the beginning of a phone interview with the Oscar-winning actress (“Howards End”) and screenwriter (“Sense and Sensibility”). I told Thompson how much I admired her work (absolutely true) and that after 30-some years of interviewing actors I’d pegged her as a genuinely down-to-earth member of the thespian fraternity.
The other explanation, I said, was that I’d fallen for her “illusion of normalcy.”
That’s when Thompson started chortling.
“‘Illusion of normalcy,’” she said with a sigh after quieting down. “I may have to borrow that as the title of my autobiography. Am I normal? Well, we have to define our terms.”
Most actors are perfectly normal people, said Thompson, whose new romantic comedy is “Last Chance Harvey.” But because of their profession they operate in an abnormal environment, an environment made even weirder by the demands of fame.
“Fame and celebrity, that’s what makes people crazy,” she said. “The great swamp of projections from other people that actors have to walk through. It’s hard to hang on to their reality when the public’s reality conflicts with it.”
Thompson acknowledged that, yes, she does consider herself quite normal. She credits her upbringing. Her late father, Eric Thompson, was a familiar face on British television in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and her mother (Phyllida Law) and sister (Sophie Thompson) are stage and film performers.
“I’ve been kept fairly grounded by having been brought up in a theatrical family,” she said. “From an early age I realized that the fortunes of our profession run up and down. What happens to people is that sometimes when the first wave of publicity rushes at you, they get lifted up on it and feel that buoyancy. It’s quite a wonderful feeling. And when it leaches away they feel bereft and lost.
“It’s quite a heavy mix. I understand that very, very well. The only answer to keeping it from becoming corrosive is to have a very solid real life that you’re connected to in as profound a way as possible.”
For Thompson that means her husband, actor Greg Wise, and their 9-year-old daughter, Gaia.
Also, she said, she had a life before she started acting.
“I consider myself fortunate in that I didn’t start acting until I was 27, and I didn’t come into any prominence until I was 32 or so. I’d worked all my life in all sorts of different areas. I’d been allowed to fail on my own terms. I practiced an awful lot of different things.”
While she loves acting, Thompson said, she doesn’t obsess about it. She has never dealt with the actor’s recurring nightmare of thinking that each job will be her last.
“I do worry about some things. But not about work. Not about acting,” she said. “I think it’s because I know I can do other things. I write as well, which means I can make a living doing two things. Which is very, very useful.
“O K, there have been times when I’ve wondered, ‘Oh, gosh, is there anything out there for me now?’ But I’ve been incredibly lucky when I compare myself even to my parents’ life in the theater. How unreliable it was for them.
“Even my sister Sophie, who I think is a better actress than I am, has had to deal with the variable fortunes of an actor’s life. So I feel terribly fortunate. I’ve had such enormous opportunities that if I would even think about complaining, Sophie would literally take a vase and hit me with it.
“And rightly so.”
In “Last Chance Harvey” Thompson plays a middle-aged English woman who falls for a Yank (Dustin Hoffman) who has come to London for his daughter’s wedding. These two lonely people may be each other’s last chance for happiness.
Thompson said she was quite comfortable with her character, Kate Walker.
“I suppose I relate to her stoicism. She’s living a quite ordinary, mildly stale life as best she can. She’s trying to improve herself by taking classes. She’s earning a living, looking after an aging mom, doing her best. But it’s not great.
“I wouldn’t say she s unhappy ... but like a lot of us she’s in a bit of a rut.”
For increasing numbers of women, marriage and mothering is no longer “the straight road it used to be,” Thompson said.
“I understand that. I know a lot of women like Kate, women in their 40s thinking, ‘How am I ever going to meet someone?’ And actually Kate isn’t even thinking that. She’s put that part of herself on hold.”
What softens up Kate, the actress said, was the honesty of Hoffman’s character.
“Again, that’s something I share with the character. I’m a fan of brash honestly. I like that, yes. I don’t like idiotic brashness. Brashness without intelligence is boring. So give me a brash, smart fellow.”