Sunday Times, 16 December 2012
Kristin Scott Thomas straightens her back, drops her shoulders, raises her chin and stares sadly into the middle distance. I burst out laughing.
“You got it, didn’t you?” she says, dropping the pose.
“Immediately. It was you in one of those films.”
“Exactly. I seem to have cornered the market in dignified, depressed and disappointed [DD&D] women, and I don’t want to do it any more. I can’t bear it. I’m so bored — really, really, really bored — with being miserable on screen.”
It’s funny, but also eerie, seeing an actor become her screen self in a noisy restaurant. It is also a brilliant demonstration of her effortless craft. Having entered Clarke’s, in Kensington, with all her usual authority — people looking round, maître d’ fawning as he had not fawned on me — she became, suddenly, nobody, a defeated woman, sinking into the corner of the room.
Today, however, is not a DD&D day. She is basking in the intense rehearsal process imposed by the director Ian Rickson for his production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times. Rickson, along with the cast of three, had just spent an exhausting, head-clutching week in Norfolk, and they were now in Kensington, acting and brainstorming their way ever deeper into one of Pinter’s most enigmatic plays.
“You don’t think you’re overthinking this, do you?” I suggest. “You’ve got to think it!” she replies, slapping down my mild irony.
This whole process is made even more complicated by the fact that she has to rehearse two parts. At some point, she and Rickson thought that the two female roles — the other is played by Lia Williams — were interchangeable, and the plan was that, each night, they would toss a coin to see who played whom. In the event, that will happen only on one night — on the others, the roles will be rotated. Management thought that leaving everything to chance would be a bit much for the coach parties.
‘The directors run the theatres, and they have their captive audiences. It always seems to me that theatre in France is all about how clever the director is, not about the story that is being communicated.’
She’s basking because she loves “thinking, thinking, thinking”, a process of immersion that is the opposite to film-making, and in which Rickson specialises. “I love it, absolutely love it. It’s so intense. We keep going over the play, reading it a million times. Ian’s very imaginative. He brought in a memory expert, a specialist in dissociative disorders and a psychoanalyst.”
Also, though, she’s basking just because it is theatre. She doesn’t do theatre at home in Paris, because the whole business there is so insular and static and formel, a word that does not quite translate as “formal” and suggests something very rigid. “I have never seen a play in France that made me say, ‘Oh!’ They just like different things — it’s all very formel, all very stylised and very conceptual. The directors run the theatres, and they have their captive audiences. It always seems to me that theatre in France is all about how clever the director is, not about the story that is being communicated.”
Anyway, that is only part one of what seems to be a life-changing disillusionment with France. Her boredom with the DD&D roles she tends to get, especially in French movies, is fierce. In fact, at the moment, it’s a lot more than boredom. She has made three films this year: Ralph Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives and something French that she can’t even bring herself to identify. “I absolutely hated every minute. It really put me off film-making… Moving on… moving on…”
She waves her hand to signal “next topic”. But she does come back to one detail about working in the French film industry. “A director I worked with managed to tell me that Daniel Day-Lewis overacts and that Meryl Streep is rubbish, because she overacts as well. I mean, come on. Really, we mustn’t talk about this, it makes me quite ill.”
She gets shakily upset and sits back in her chair with her hand on her chest. Later, she seems to worry that trashing the movies will make her sound spoilt and ungrateful. “I’m extremely lucky. I’m not biting the hand that feeds me or spitting in the soup — depends which country you are in. I realise that I have been given some wonderful opportunities to portray women in different situations, and it has been interesting. But I find theatre work so much more creative. It’s incredibly hard, and you have to dig around in your brain, your body and your heart. It’s a complete workout. I seem to have just lost faith in my film acting completely.”
One problem here is that she is overworked. She has been driving herself to keep as busy as possible since her separation from her husband in 2006. (She had an affair with a younger actor. She goes all coy when I ask her if she’s single now — coy probably means no.) I count 20 films since the break-up, on top of three plays and, of course, being a mother to three children, the youngest of whom is now 12.
Unsurprisingly, she is deluged with offers in France, Britain and America, but she is modest about this. “I am always a last-minute choice. I’m always available. Most actors know what they’re doing in 2014. I haven’t a clue.” She doesn’t even know when Old Times opens, or how long the run will be. She says she has nothing on next year, which I suspect means she has pulled out of a few projects that seem to have her name on them.
France is also a problem, however, as it so often is, and, say it softly, one of our national treasures, a real artist, may be coming back. “I came out of the front door this morning, and it’s a beautiful day, and I love London suddenly.”
She first moved to Paris, fleeing from an unhappy childhood, when she was 19. Her father, a pilot, had died in a flying accident when she was four and, when she was 10, her stepfather, another pilot, was also killed in an accident. Meanwhile, her longing to be an actress was being crushed, not least when somebody at the Central School of Speech & Drama told her she wasn’t up to it. She became an au pair to a Parisian woman who, after watching her play with her children, told her she most certainly was up to it. “She was incredible. She just said, ‘You can have that if you want.’ She was very sweet and encouraging.”
Everybody knows her, admires her and is stunned by her looks, but nobody can quite label her
She went to acting school in France, started getting work immediately, and, after A Handful of Dust, Bitter Moon and Four Weddings and a Funeral, was established as one of the finest of her generation. And throughout, crucially, she stayed in France. Rickson sees the importance of this. “The whole thing of being in Paris,” he told me from the Norfolk retreat, “is that she plays in films like Partir, where she is the active protagonist. We’re just not making films like that in England, and that allows her to slough off any projections we might make on her. She is, in the best sense, a player — she is always playing, exploring.”
This is astute. Everybody knows her, admires her and is stunned by her looks, but nobody can quite label her. There is, for example, that natural authority she exudes. It is indefinable, even to her. “That authority thing, it’s such a laugh,” she says. “I don’t know how it happens. I have to be careful not to be too authoritative. I can go into a room full of strangers and appear to be number one, but actually I don’t do it. I just look like that. People are frightened of me quite a lot, too.”
Her face is extraordinary. Apart from the DD&D, I saw her do — quite without thinking — feline, wry, ironic and, yes, scary, very, the last involving an unexpectedly oriental reshaping of her eyes. In repose, the face becomes monumental, timeless, somehow Egyptian.
All of which means she is not a brand; she is, rather, an aspiration. Jeremy Clarkson constantly pays homage, and even used her as his goddess of cool on Top Gear. When she appeared on the show, she correctly pointed out that his Lamborghini was definitely not cool, and she had little enthusiasm for driving round the track as “the star in a reasonably priced car”. “It was a lot less exciting than going fast round the Arc de Triomphe.”
The point is that she is not a player in the celeb game, partly because she doesn’t want to be, but also because it is in her nature — and her art — to maintain an opacity that defies the usual easy adjectives. She hates — she smiles apologetically — the whole business of promoting anything, especially films, and the attendant assumption that she must give something of herself. She doesn’t buy into the glamour of it all. “Swanky hotel equals hell. Everything is an event, and nothing is exciting. I don’t get invited to normal parties, I get invited to ‘events’ all the time. I don’t go.”
Paris itself has become a bit of an “event”. People there, I say, complain that it has become a museum. “It’s very à la mode to say that, but it’s true. It’s like a gigantic shopping window, and it can be depressing. Everything is about selling luxury goods. It’s like a theme park, really.”
So, coming home?
“Yes, I am feeling London calling — England, anyway, especially when we went up to Norfolk. I was thinking, ‘What am I doing in Paris? It’s so fabulous here.’ I really feel the pull. But then I suppose that’s because I’m working on an Englishman’s play, in London. They say it brings you back, and it does. I think I will come and live here at some point.”
I expect her 12-year-old boy, George, will keep her in Paris for at least another six years. He seems to be very useful. With some pride, she shows me a little torch. George had seen her trying to find stuff in the gloom of her capacious handbags, and had suggested the torch, so now she peers into her bags like an archeologist peering into a cave.
Wherever she lives, though, she is going to have to sort out her work. “I’ve got to calm down about that,” she says. “I’ve got to stop thinking that, because they want me, I must be there, because it’s not going to last. I’m 52, now come on, let’s have a bit of life, let’s decide to go somewhere and rent a little house on the sea, and not do anything but read books or do macramé, or whatever. Why can’t I do that?”
I don’t know. Like I said, she’s opaque. But I can say that she’s not DD&D — and she probably never will be again.