The New Yorker profiled Emma Thompson in a wonderful piece called “Emma Thompson’s Third Act.” Emma is not a self-congratulatory person, and the profile is littered with quotes about how she doesn’t believe it when good things happen, how she struggles with self-doubt, how she tortures herself to make good art. She’s also quite intimate in the piece, speaking honestly about the breakdown of her marriage to Kenneth Branagh, the death of her beloved father, her children (Gaia and Tindy Agaba) and more. It’s long but it’s worth the read for fans of Emma Thompson. Some highlights:
Her extended family of actors, artists & her kids: “We’re terrible gossips, but ‘gossip’ in the sense that Phyllis Rose described it, the first step on the ladder to self-knowledge. Gossip is discussion about life’s detail. And in life’s details are all the little bits of stitching that you need to hold it to-f–king-gether.”
Her father’s death: “That’s when I thought, Everything is upside down.” Eric’s death, in 1982, when Thompson was twenty-three, was a “cataclysmic loss,” she said, adding, “He left no money. We all had to earn our livings from then on.”
Falling for Kenneth Branagh: They met while filming “Fortunes of War.” Thompson remembers the moment on the set of “Fortunes” when she first fell for him. On a break between takes during a night shoot, Branagh tried to amuse her by singing in his slightly falsetto voice. “I burst into tears because he sounded exactly like my father singing on ‘The Magic Roundabout,’ ” she said. Branagh was reminiscent of Eric Thompson in other ways, too. He created the same seclusive climate around himself, wore a carapace of privacy, which Thompson compared to a walnut: “hard to pry open.” “He was incandescent with ambition and performance energy… Like two mating lobsters, we clashed claws,” Thompson said of their volatile two-year courtship.
Marrying Branagh in 1989: “I was embarrassed largely by the press version of our marriage. We didn’t present as glamorous in any way. I don’t think we wanted to be some power couple, and we certainly didn’t feel like it. We were lampooned and ridiculed, too—fair enough if you’re famous and overpaid—but it’s no fun.”
The sobbing scene in Sense & Sensibility: “She was not aware of what was inside her, and it suddenly emerges,” Thompson explained. Edward haltingly admits that “my heart is and always will be yours.” She holds up her hand, stopping him in mid-romantic flow. Words can wait; in the moment, she is crying tears of anger and joy. Thompson’s emotional explosion is at once a great piece of acting and a great piece of comedy. (“I was trying to make it as involuntary as possible. A case of the diaphragm taking over,” she wrote in her diary.) “Hugh Grant was so cross,” Thompson recalled. “He said, ‘You’re gonna cry all the way through my speech?’ I said, ‘Hugh, I’ve got to. That’s the gag. It’s funny.’ And he says, ‘Yeah, but I’m speaking.’ I said, ‘I know.’ ”
Branagh’s affair: Offscreen, in 1995, while the film was being shot, Thompson had to exert a steely control over her own pain. Her marriage to Branagh had collapsed, but they had not gone public with the news. Branagh had started a relationship with one of the stars of his film “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” Helena Bonham Carter. Thompson was humiliated, in part by her own stupidity. “I was utterly, utterly blind to the fact that he had relationships with other women on set,” she said. “What I learned was how easy it is to be blinded by your own desire to deceive yourself.”
Falling for Greg Wise: “I was half alive. Any sense of being a lovable or worthy person had gone completely,” she said. The person “who picked up the pieces and put them back together” was the actor Greg Wise, who played John Willoughby, the doe-eyed heartthrob who sweeps Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet) off her feet in “Sense and Sensibility.” (“Full of beans and looking gorgeous. Ruffled our feathers a bit,” Thompson noted of Wise in her production diary.) Thompson has now been with Wise for twenty-seven years, married for nineteen. “I’ve learned more from my second marriage just by being married,” she said. “As my mother says, ‘the first twenty years are the hardest.’ ”
Her children: In 1999, Thompson had given birth to her daughter, Gaia Wise, who is now an actress. “We tried for another child, but it didn’t work,” she told me. “I often think if it had worked there wouldn’t have been space. So I’m very grateful the I.V.F. didn’t work, because every day I’m grateful for Tindy.” Agaba recalled feeling that he “didn’t have anything to give,” when he met Thompson and Wise. “What hasn’t he given!” Thompson said. “So much joy, so much insight to share in his empathy and his understanding of the world. We laugh—and he helps me to laugh—at the weirdness of people, at the strangeness of life, at its cruelties and absurdities. It’s such a comfort.”
Greg Wise, what a man. There’s part of me that still loves the fact that Elinor ended up with Willoughby in real life, only Willoughby ended up being a great guy and a loving husband and father. It’s incredible that she talks about how, in the end, she’s glad that the IVF didn’t work out because “there wouldn’t have been space.” They have Gaia and Tindy and a family of friends. As for Kenneth Branagh… I feel like throwing hands now. I mean, we knew that he cheated, we knew that he left her for Helena, but Emma rarely talks about it and when she does, I get mad on her behalf all over again. Then again, that devastation and betrayal led to her being open for Greg Wise, so it really did work out.
Photos courtesy of Backgrid, Robin Platzer/Twin Images / Twin Images / Avalon, Ana M. Wiggins / Avalon, Avalon Red.