British actor Emma Thompson (born 1959) has accrued a long and impressive list of film credits to her name, many of them literary adaptations. Early in her career she appeared in Shakespearean classics along with her then-husband, actor-director Kenneth Branagh, and won her first Academy Award for her lead in the film adaptation of an E. M. Forster story from 1910, Howards End . In 1995 she achieved an unusual distinction in Academy Award history when she won her second Oscar, in this case for the screenplay to Sense and Sensibility ; with that win Thompson became the only person ever to have won Academy Awards in both the performing and writing categories.
Thompson was born into a family of actors on April 15, 1959, in London. Her father, Eric Thompson (1929–1982), was a television and stage actor, and during Thompson's childhood served as the narrator for a
As a teen, Thompson attended the Camden School for Girls near her north London home. In the mid-1970s she visited the United States for the first time when her father took a stage directing job in Los Angeles, a city she later described as "the strangest, most alien place I'd ever been to. My sister and I went down to [the] supermarket one time and came back with sliced bacon and ice cream and makeup," she told Robbie Coltrane for Interview magazine. "I couldn't believe you could get them all in the same place."
Though her sister, Sophie, was determined to follow her parents onto the stage from an early age, Thompson had little interest in the performing arts. Instead she majored in English literature at Cambridge University, where her quick wit prompted friends to persuade her to audition for Cambridge Footlights, the school's renowned amateur theater club. The annual Footlights Revue had become a noted showcase for up-and-coming comedians, and had previously helped launch the careers of members of Monty Python. Thompson's stint during the late 1970s and early 1980s was another notable era for the troupe, which included future talents Stephen Fry (born 1957) and Hugh Laurie (born 1959). In the summer of 1981, Thompson and the group took their revue to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it won a festival prize and was offered a London theater run.
In 1983, her degree finished, Thompson became part of a short-lived television comedy sketch series with Fry and Laurie called Alfresco . Over the next few years her career progressed steadily, and she won rave reviews for a 15-month stage run as the lead in a revival of the 1930s musical Me and My Girl alongside Fry. Following that, she was cast in the lead in a 1987 BBC television miniseries, Fortunes of War , as one-half of a pair of British newlyweds who find themselves stranded in Romania at the start of World War II. Her co-star was Kenneth Branagh (born 1960), a native of Northern Ireland who was being hailed as Britain's next great Shakespearean actor. The pair became romantically involved and married in 1989.
Over the next few years, Thompson's union with Branagh resulted in several film projects and an immense amount of press coverage. They were described as the modern-day successors to other notable husband-and-wife teams such as Alfred Lunt (1892–1977) and Lynne Fontanne (1887–1983) and even Richard Burton (1925–1984) and Elizabeth Taylor (born 1932). Their work included an impressive Henry V in 1989, a Hollywood thriller from 1991 called Dead Again in which they played dual roles, and Peter's Friends , about a reunion of English university friends whose re-enactments of their days in a comedy troupe rang quite credibly on screen, for the cast included Fry, Laurie, and several other onetime Footlights members.
Thompson turned in a brilliant comedy bit in a 1992 episode of Cheers , in which she played Frasier Crane's former wife, a children's folk singer named Nanny Gee, the same year that a relatively unknown actor named Sharon Stone became famous for her lead in Basic Instinct , a role that Thompson had turned down. She also declined The Piano , the melodrama that earned Holly Hunter an Academy Award. Instead, Thompson had chosen to work with Ismail Merchant (born 1936) and James Ivory (born 1928), the acclaimed filmmakers who cast her in Howards End . This 1992 period drama, chronicling three separate English families whose lives intersect, paired her with Anthony Hopkins and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Reviewing it in the New York Times , Vincent Canby mentioned her previous films with Branagh but noted that in this one she "comes into her own as the wise, patient Margaret Schlegel. Hers is the film's guiding performance. Ms. Thompson even manages to be beautiful while convincingly acting the role of a woman who is not supposed to be beautiful, being all teeth and solemn expressions."
A year later Thompson appeared in another Merchant-Ivory project alongside Hopkins, The Remains of the Day , and with her husband in Much Ado About Nothing . Despite their respective career successes, the couple were often the target of jibes in the British media, mocked for their dedication to their art and for Thompson's habitual appearances in anything that her husband directed for the screen. Though her career was well on its way by the time she met Branagh, she was often accused of riding on her spouse's coattails to stardom. One well-told comedy skit mocking the pair had Thompson returning home, at which Branagh called out, "I'm in the kitchen," to which her reply was, "Oh, can I be in it too?." Both were sometimes derided as "luvvies," a pejorative British slang term for actors who project an uncomfortable amount of flair while not performing. At some point, Thompson stopped doing press in Britain altogether, but she did display a sense of humor when Entertainment Weekly 's Lisa Schwarzbaum asked her about the ribbing, remarking that "it would perhaps be a little unhealthy if one weren't satirized and lambasted regularly."
When Thompson's marriage began to falter amidst rumors of infidelity on both sides, the press coverage was brutal. Thompson had been slated to take a role in Frankenstein , which Branagh would direct and star in, but the part went to Helena Bonham Carter (born 1966), who played Thompson's sister in Howards End . On the set of Sense and Sensibility , meanwhile, Thompson became involved with actor Greg Wise, who played the handsome rogue John Willoughby in the Jane Austen story that Thompson had adapted for the screen—her first writing project since an ill-fated British sketch-comedy series back in 1988. Her work won her a second Academy Award, which made her the first person ever to win an Oscar statuette for both performance and writing.
Thompson's career slowed down for a few years, partly as a result of her plan to become a mother, which took somewhat longer than she would have liked and was finally done with the help of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). She and Wise became parents in 1999 to a daughter they named Gaia Romilly Wise. During these years she worked on several writing projects, including a telefilm adaptation of a stage play, Wit , that won acclaim when it ran on HBO in 2001 with Thompson in the lead as a cancer-stricken scholar. She made another appearance in another one of the cable channel's much-admired projects, the 2003 miniseries Angels in America . Both of these were directed by Mike Nichols, who knew Thompson from working with her on the 1998 political comedy Primary Colors , in which she played the beleaguered spouse of a randy U.S. presidential candidate.
Nichols was just one among a long list of Thompson's well-connected professional colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic, whose devotion to her as a friend and respect for her as an actor would result in a rich range of parts. Another was the actor Alan Rickman (born 1946), who made his directorial debut with the 1997 drama The Winter Guest starring Thompson and her mother, Phyllida Law; Rickman later played her cold-hearted husband in the 2003 ensemble romantic comedy, Love Actually ; in 2004 she joined him as one of the staff at Hogwarts School in the third Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban , in which she played Professor Sybil Trelawney. A co-star from Love Actually , Colin Firth, was the other lead opposite Thompson in 2005's Nanny McPhee , in which she took the title role as the new caregiver to a brood of monstrous children. Thompson had written the screenplay from a children's book series called Nurse Matilda .
A year later Thompson appeared in a Will Farrell comedy, Stranger than Fiction , as the unlikable, tormented novelist whose most popular character turns out to have a real-life counterpart in Farrell's lead. In 2007 she appeared in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix , the fifth movie of the series and one that teamed her with another old friend, Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane (born 1950). Two other long-term projects were a reworking of a story about the Black Death epidemic in London in the 1660s, tentatively called Harrow Alley , and another about a Chilean dissident folk singer who died in the 1970s. Political causes have long interested Thompson. In 1983, fresh out of Cambridge, she was one of the comedy writers for An Evening for Nicaragua , a benefit for leftist groups in the Central American nation; in 1991, she joined in the London street protests against the first Gulf War; and a 2003 film she appeared in alongside Antonio Banderas, Imagining Argentina , earned a mixed reaction when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival for its mix of torture scenes and magic realism in a tale of missing political dissidents.
Thompson and Wise wed in 2003, and make their home on the same North London street as her mother and sister, and where she had previously lived at two other addresses. Unafraid to take on distinctly non-glamorous parts, such as the gruesome Nanny McPhee, Thompson has avoided the pitfalls that have reduced many female stars to supporting roles as mothers-in-law or the ingenue's boss as they enter their 40s. As far back as 1994, the year she turned 35, Thompson was already appreciative of the fact that her screen career might only last so long, which is why she returned to her original plan to write for a living. "Actresses have a short shelf life," she told New York Times journalist Brenda Maddox. "It stops at about 40, apart from those at the very top, like Anjelica Huston or Glenn Close. An actress has to find a future for herself." She was somewhat surprised a dozen years later, to realize that she was offered "better roles now than when I was younger," she told Entertainment Weekly writer Christine Spines in 2006. "It used to be that if I got a script that said, 'A fabulously beautiful woman walks into the room,' I'd stop reading."
Entertainment Weekly , June 25, 1993; November 24, 2006.
Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), October 8, 2005.
Interview , May 1993.
New York Times , March 13, 1992; November 20, 1994.
Observer (London, England), March 24, 1996.
Sunday Times (London, England), February 8, 2004.
WWD , March 16, 2001.