Emma Thompson Just Wants to Make Us Laugh—and Maybe Get Arrested

11 minute read

Emma Thompson and I are supposed to be shopping for sneakers. I’ve primed her with visions of the kinds of “trainers”–if you’re British, and she is–we’ll see on today’s tour of Los Angeles’ hip streetwear stores, guided by me, a person who knows about neither Los Angeles nor the fresh kicks for which the cool kids will sleep on the sidewalk but never actually wear. Problem is, the first three sneakerhead meccas I’d mapped out had their graffitied gates down. And I don’t have the heart to tell her I’ve lost hope, because I’ve never seen a person greet so many closed doors with such certainty that the next one will be, must be, open.

Thompson, two-time Academy Award winner and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, has been forcing open closed doors for nearly 40 years. We are on the hunt for sensible footwear because she disavows high heels, objecting to what she calls “a torture thing.” At the 2014 Golden Globes, she went onstage barefoot, dramatically tossed her Louboutins over her shoulder “and never looked back.” For her damehood ceremony in November, she sauntered up to Buckingham Palace in Stella McCartney sneakers, prompting sore-footed fans on Twitter to upgrade her, by popular vote, from dame to outright queen.

Her latest character also has a fondness for sneakers. In Late Night, written by and co-starring Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra, she plays Katherine Newbury, a late-night host who has been on the air for three decades but, growing out of touch, is at risk of losing her show. (In the real world, there are no female late-night hosts on major networks.) Her mediocre jokes are pitched in a writers’ room as white and male as the Alabama state legislature. She’s uninterested in trading cerebral guests like Doris Kearns Goodwin for a YouTuber who makes videos about her dog’s butt. Enter Kaling’s Molly, whom Katherine reluctantly brings on as a “diversity hire” to help her recapture her relevance.

Katherine is a dinosaur who needs a woke, youthful guide to illuminate the blind spots that come with her age, race and privilege. Thompson, on the other hand, is doing just fine on her own. She’s been an activist since long before we preferred, or expected, our celebrities that way. She’s protested the Gulf War and the Iraq War, fracking, arctic drilling and Brexit. Recently she’s spoken plainly and fervently about the #MeToo movement, climate change and the refugee crisis. She speaks plainly and fervently–and irreverently and wittily–about pretty much everything. It’s kind of her thing. It’s ruffled some, especially in her home country–one headline a decade ago read: doth the lady protest too much? She’s never seemed to think so.

One week from this early April morning, Thompson will turn 60, and she’s feeling it more than she felt 40 or 50. “Suddenly you’ll be in this place where all the roles that society has so successfully forced upon you–from daughter to wife to mother to professional person–could be questioned. You could take these things away from your face, one after the other, and go, ‘Who actually am I?’ Which I’ve always thought was a terribly boring question, and I now find fascinating.”

But even as she meditates on who she is without the context, one can never truly escape their context. And Thompson, who for so long was ahead of her time, finds herself in a time when women are getting their due, protest is popular and caring is cool. Has the moment finally caught up to Emma Thompson?

Thompson describes co-star Kaling’s script as “darts to the truth of the matter”
Thompson describes co-star Kaling’s script as “darts to the truth of the matter”Emily Aragones—Amazon Studios

If you weren’t watching regional British TV in the 1980s, you might have missed a spiky-haired Thompson playing a hapless slacker who accidentally sat on her roommate’s cat. And if you skipped right to the string of 1990s period dramas that made her the only person ever to win Oscars for both screenwriting and acting, you might have missed the fact that much like her character in Late Night, Emma Thompson wanted to be a comedian.

Thompson grew up between London and Scotland, the child of actors Phyllida Law and Eric Thompson. At Cambridge, she was one of the few women admitted to the Footlights, a sketch-comedy group that counts several members of Monty Python as alumni. Fellow member Stephen Fry, who performed with Thompson throughout the ’80s, told TIME in an email that although the Footlights had been “distressingly male,” it was not her gender but “her frankly radiant presence and range of extraordinary skills as a performer” that stood out. “Like Athena, she seemed to have been born fully armed,” he wrote. Among her weapons were a knack for character and boundless charisma. She dabbled in stand-up; a short clip of her performing at 23 appears in Late Night, though little was usable because the raunchy subject matter (“sexually transmitted diseases and Margaret Thatcher, which were both pretty big at the time”) didn’t fit her character.

Thompson didn’t abandon comedy after that–she just got famous for something a little more corseted. In the early 1990s she appeared in the Merchant Ivory period dramas Howards End and The Remains of the Day, playing women who were pragmatic and witty but restrained by circumstance. She was hired to adapt Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and later to star, based on a parody of Victorian-era manners in her late-’80s sketch show, Thompson. (She married her Sense and Sensibility co-star Greg Wise, with whom she had a daughter, Gaia, in 2000, and informally adopted a teenage Rwandan orphan, Tindyebwa Agaba, in 2003.)

Kaling fell in love with Thompson the comedic performer at age 11, when she saw her in then husband Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing. (The pair split in 1995, amid allegations of an affair between him and Helena Bonham Carter that was heavily covered by the tabloids.) Kaling wrote Late Night in part to tell a funny story based on her experience as an Indian-American woman breaking into a nonmeritocratic Hollywood. But she also wanted to create a vehicle for Thompson. “She has the gravitas and the comedy chops to pull this off,” says Kaling. “And since no one else is going to write a role like this”–one that encourages a postmenopausal woman to devour the scenery–“I thought I should do it myself.” Audiences responded: Amazon bought the movie for $13 million in one of the biggest deals ever at Sundance.

As Katherine, Thompson plays a woman who broke the glass ceiling by leaning away from her femininity. Her wardrobe is all neatly tailored variations on menswear, her hair short and unfussy. She’s witheringly unsentimental, referring to longtime staffers by number instead of name. “Anyone who started in that world will have been very alone. Starting in comedy, I was always the only girl,” says Thompson. “So in a sense you kind of have to be one of the boys.”

When she accepted the Oscar for Best Actress for Howards End in 1993, Thompson said she hoped her award “inspires the creation of more true scene heroines.” Over our pre-shopping breakfast, throughout which Thompson poaches bites of sausage and potato off my plate, I say it feels old hat to ask if things have gotten better since then. She says I’m not the only young woman who’s apologized for asking her that exact question. “The point is that it’s still absolutely a relevant question. These things don’t get solved in 10 years. It takes 100 years.”

Thompson has been characteristically unshy about taking a stand against harassment in Hollywood. “I am constantly amused by blokes going, ‘I mean, we just don’t know how to behave now.’ What the f-ck are you talking about? Just behave like a normal human being. I’m sorry, it just makes me laugh so hard. But also really want to smack them.” Her expression hardens. “Really want to smack them.”

In February she wrote an open letter about her decision to pull out of a Skydance Animation movie, Luck. The company had recently hired John Lasseter, the Disney Animation Studios executive who was ousted following allegations of sexual misconduct. “If a man has made women at his companies feel undervalued and disrespected for decades,” she wrote, “why should the women at his new company think that any respect he shows them is anything other than an act that he’s required to perform by his coach, his therapist and his employment agreement?”

She’s taking it upon herself to introduce practical solutions. After wrapping Last Christmas–a rom-com she wrote and appears in, due in November–she arranged an informal meeting with any women who wished to discuss their experience on set. On future projects, she plans to do something similar before shooting begins. “Because sometimes it’s simply not possible to turn around to someone more powerful than you, whom it would be very expensive to fire, when you are a very cheap person to rehire.”

Between now and the end of the year, audiences will see her not just in Last Christmas and Late Night, which opens wide on the same day, June 14, as her return to Men in Black, but as a controversial politician in Years and Years, an HBO drama that debuts in the U.S. on June 24. Meanwhile, she’s writing and plans to direct a Nanny McPhee musical. She may be getting older, but she’s not slowing down. If anything, her foot is on the gas.


On the subject of feet: I don’t want to tell Thompson I have a blister. With each step it throbs against my shoe. The irony of wearing a 3-in. heel to go sneaker shopping with a hater of heels is not lost on me, but the impulse to impress a dame dies hard. Plus, I’m not the only one who’s made an effort. “I am wearing a bra today in your honor,” she tells me. “One doesn’t want to shock and appall.” Much of Thompson’s appeal comes from her candor–which has a way of telegraphing as relatability. When at her home in Scotland, she says, “I virtually grow a beard.”

Still, in the trigger-happy media culture of 2019, trolls are always waiting in the wings to call out a gaffe, or even “cancel” a person wholesale. Celebrities are held accountable for even the slightest perceived hypocrisy. A few days after her birthday, Thompson participated in a protest against inaction in the face of climate change (three cheers!) but flew on a carbon-spewing airplane to get there (three jeers!) but planted trees to offset the emissions (forgiven?).

It’s all a bit much. So is she anxious? “No,” she says. “I suffer from guilt. But that’s a mental habit, and any habit you can train yourself out of.” A therapist can help–she’s been seeing hers for about 15 years. Her guilt, unlike many people’s, isn’t rooted in religion. “Perhaps it would have been easier if there had been some place to get the guilt from. Catholics can go to confession, get rid of it.” She’s not sure where hers comes from. “It’s just a very overinflated sense of responsibility.”

By this point we are adrift in a sea of Uggs, having long given up on sneakers. She grazes the tufts of sheepskin that beg to be petted like patient Pomeranians. At last she comes upon a glass case displaying miniature booties, and before I know it, despite my objections, I’m holding a box containing tiny black Uggs that Thompson has purchased for my 10-month-old daughter. If our goal was sensible footwear, we’ve ended up instead with winter boots for a person who cannot yet walk.

But Thompson’s undeterred. Call it guilt, call it the aim to please that lives deep within the soul of any performer. She’s entering a new decade, she’s tuning out the peanut gallery, and she wants to make funny movies and get arrested at the next protest and buy ridiculous shoes for a stranger’s child. “I haven’t got very much time, so what do I really want to do?” She thinks for a moment. “Actually what I want to do is be uplifting.”

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com