TORONTO—Though Emma Thompson had flown to Canada only the night before meeting the press at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, she looks as if she walked off a Paris runway as opposed to the airport version. She is wearing what she cheerfully describes as a “puffy skirt,” and while it is marshmallow puffy and courts silliness, Thompson pulls it off.
“Is it too much? I thought it was fun,” says Thompson, who treats every stranger she encounters as an old friend she had forgotten she had invited to tea. “I’m an anomaly in my generation and profession, I suppose, but I rather enjoy dressing up. I remember my parents (the late Eric Thompson and Phyllida Law, with whom she has acted in several films) getting dressed up to meet journalists, and I think it was less about making an appearance than showing respect.”
Thompson, 47, is one of the few actors, British or otherwise, who can casually drop a word like “anomaly” in a sentence without sounding the least bit snobby or showy. In the same sentence, she could allow a vulgarity to trip off her tongue. She is the only person who has ever won an Oscar for her acting (“Howards End”) and her writing (her screenplay for “Sense and Sensibility”) and in both capacities, reveres language.
This may be one reason that when Zach Helm was writing “Stranger Than Fiction,” he wrote the role—a desperate novelist who literally gets inside the head of her fictional subject, a real-life tax auditor—with Thompson in mind.
“I didn’t know that when the script came over the transom,” says Thompson, who shows little concern for the state of her skirt or propriety when stretching out on her hotel sofa. “All I knew is that after I had read five pages, I called my agent and told him to sign me up. It was so clever and fresh I couldn’t wait to see the movie, which is how I judge just about everything I get sent—which, mind you, isn’t as much as most actors I know.
“I fear I’ve become a type. Which is why getting something this different is so refreshing. I don’t want to be playing a worrying wife.”
“Stranger Than Fiction” is the story of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), a solitary tax auditor who counts every stroke in his morning tooth-brushing, a ritual he one day hears being described in his head. When the voice refuses to go away, describing his every move and mood, he seeks help from a shrink, then a literary detective, a contemporary literature professor played by Dustin Hoffman. While the professor is trying to identify the voice of the author (Thompson’s character), blocked author Kay Eiffel is struggling with a new way to kill her tragic protagonist that will not echo of the way she has dispensed with others in previous books.
“It is a kind of meta-fiction, I guess,” says Marc Forster, who directed Halle Berry to an Oscar in “Monster’s Ball” and regards Thompson as one of the “smartest collaborators I’ve gotten to work with.”
“It bears a surface resemblance to films I’ve liked a lot, including `Being John Malkovich,’ but it’s actually more novelistic, and pared down. Closer to the bone.”
“I’m most interested in human behavior,” says Thompson, “which is probably why I’m such a pushover for Jane Austen and Dickens. But I also love comedy. I started out doing skit comedy, you know, but when I began getting work in England, it was mostly in period dramas, which I obviously love, no complaints. But it feels good to go back occasionally to the things where you can walk away from the mark and invent things, like I do with Kay spitting on her cigarettes to put them out and then putting them away in her pockets.
“We all go off the skids occasionally, don’t we, and I loved being able to have the cuffs on again.”
Thompson says she also appreciated the opportunity to spend time with grownups, while admitting she has loved working with kids in recent films.
She lavishes praise on Ferrell, “so wonderfully innocent and sincere; Dustin Hoffman, a proper actor and a perfect companion,” and Queen Latifah, who plays Kay’s wise assistant (“she projects this sort of serene, confident authority”).
Thompson is currently finishing up the writing of a sequel to “Nanny McPhee,” the story of a magical governess for which she wrote the screenplay , and has reprised her role as Hogwarts professor Sybil Trelawney in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” to be released in July.
“I think after you become a mum”—Gaia, her daughter with “Sense and Sensibility” co-star and husband Greg Wise was born in 1999—the lines between adult and child begin to blur a bit. Plus, you grow up pretty fast in this business, or at least I did. In my case, it turned out just fine, I imagine.”