- Thompson, Emma
April 15, 1959 (age 63)
- Actor, Comedian, Screenwriter, Singer, Author, Voice Actor, Film Producer
- Kenneth Branagh (m. 1989; div. 1995) Greg Wise (m. 2003)
- Phyllida Law, Eric Thompson
Emma Thompson (born 15 April 1959) is a British actress, comedienne, screenwriter and author. Cited as one of the greatest British actresses of her generation, she is known for her portrayals of reticent women in period dramas and literary adaptations, often playing haughty or matronly characters with a sense of irony.
Born in Paddington, London to English actor Eric Thompson and Scottish actress Phyllida Law, she was educated at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, where she became a member of the Footlights troupe. After appearing in several comedy programmes, she first came to prominence in 1987 in two BBC TV series, Tutti Frutti and Fortunes of War, winning the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actress for her work in both. Her first film role came in the 1989 romantic comedy The Tall Guy, and in the early 1990s she frequently collaborated with her then husband, actor and director Kenneth Branagh. The pair became popular in the British media, and co-starred in several films including Dead Again (1991) and Much Ado About Nothing (1993).
In 1992, Thompson won multiple acting awards, including an Academy Award and a BAFTA Award for Best Actress, for her work in the British drama Howards End. In 1993, Thompson garnered dual Academy Award nominations for her roles in The Remains of the Day, as a stately housekeeper, and In the Name of the Father, as a lawyer. Thompson scripted and starred in 1995's Sense and Sensibility, which earned her (among other awards) an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and a BAFTA Award for Best Actress. Other notable film and television credits include the Harry Potter film series, Wit (2001), Love Actually (2003), Angels in America (2003), Nanny McPhee (2005), Stranger than Fiction (2006), Last Chance Harvey (2008), Men in Black 3 (2012), and Brave (2012). In 2013, she received acclaim and several award nominations for her portrayal of P. L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks.
Thompson is married to actor Greg Wise, with whom she lives in London and has one daughter. She has been outspoken on issues such as religion, the environment and human rights, and has authored two books adapted from The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
1980s: Breaking through
In 1982, Thompson landed a role touring in a stage version of Not the Nine O'Clock News. She then turned to television, where much of her early work came with her Footlights co-stars Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. The brief comedy series There's Nothing To Worry About! (1982) was their first outing, followed by the one-off show The Crystal Cube (1982). The sketch show Alfresco (1983–84) proved more successful, and ran for two series. In 1985, Thompson was cast in the West End revival of the musical Me and My Girl, co-starring Robert Lindsay. It proved a breakthrough for the actress, as the production earned rave reviews. However, she played the role for 15 months which exhausted the actress who later remarked "I thought if I did the fucking Lambeth Walk one more time I was going to fucking throw up." At the end of 1985, Thompson wrote and starred in her own one-off special for Channel 4, Emma Thompson: Up for Grabs.
Thompson achieved another breakthrough in 1987, when she had leading roles in two television miniseries: Fortunes of War, a World War II drama co-starring Kenneth Branagh, and Tutti Frutti, a dark-comedy about a Scottish rock band with Robbie Coltrane. For these performances, Thompson won the British Academy Television Award for Best Actress. The following year, she wrote and starred in her own sketch comedy series, Thompson, but this was poorly received. In 1989, Thompson and Branagh—who had formed a romantic relationship—starred in a stage revival of Look Back in Anger, directed by Judi Dench and produced by Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company. Later that year, the pair starred in a televised version of the play.
Thompson's first big-screen appearance came in the romantic comedy The Tall Guy (1989), the feature-film debut from screenwriter Richard Curtis. Starring Jeff Goldblum as a West End actor, Thompson played the nurse with whom he falls in love. The film was a box office disappointment, but Thompson's performance was praised in The New York Times, where Caryn James called her "an exceptionally versatile comic actress", noting her "warmly sympathetic" acerbic humour. She next turned to Shakespeare, appearing as Princess Katherine in Branagh's screen adaptation of Henry V (1989). The film was released to great critical acclaim.
1990–93: A leading British actress
Thompson and Branagh are considered by American writer and critic James Monaco to have led the "British cinematic onslaught" in the 1990s. Thompson continued to experiment with Shakespeare in the new decade, appearing with Branagh in his stage productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear. Reviewing the latter, the Chicago Tribune praised her "extraordinary" performance of the "hobbling, stooped hunchback Fool". Thompson returned to cinema in 1991, playing a "frivolous aristocrat" in Impromptu, a period drama about the life of George Sand that starred Judy Davis and Hugh Grant. The film received positive reviews, and Thompson was nominated for Best Supporting Female at the Independent Spirit Awards. Her second release of 1991 was another pairing with Branagh, who also directed, in the Los Angeles-based noir Dead Again. She played a woman who has forgotten her identity, and the thriller was number one at the US box office for two weeks. Early in 1992, Thompson had a guest role in an episode of the American comedy series Cheers as Frasier Crane's first wife.
A turning point in Thompson's career came when she was cast opposite Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave in the Merchant Ivory period drama Howards End (1992), based on the novel by E. M. Forster. The film explored the social class system in Edwardian England, with Thompson playing an idealistic, intellectual, forward-looking woman who comes into association with a privileged and deeply conservative family. According to the critic Vincent Canby, the role allowed Thompson to "[come] into her own", away from Branagh, and he felt that she gave "the film's guiding performance". Roger Ebert wrote that she was "superb in the central role: quiet, ironic, observant, with steel inside." Howards End was widely praised, a "surprise hit", and received nine Academy Award nominations. Among its three wins was the Best Actress trophy for Thompson, who was also awarded a Golden Globe and BAFTA for her performance. Reflecting on the role, The New York Times writes that the actress "found herself an international success almost overnight."
1994–98: Sense and Sensibility and Hollywood acclaim
In 1994, Thompson made her Hollywood debut playing a goofy doctor alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in the blockbuster Junior. Although the male pregnancy storyline and script was poorly received by most critics, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned that Thompson had the opportunity to demonstrate her slapstick skills as a comedian for American audiences by portraying the clumsy scientist in the film. She returned to independent cinema for a lead role in Carrington, which studied the platonic relationship between artist Dora Carrington and writer Lytton Strachey (played by Jonathan Price). Roger Ebert remarked that Thompson had "developed a specialty in unrequited love", and the TV Guide Film & Video Companion commented that her "neurasthenic mannerisms, which usually drive us batty, are appropriate here".
Thompson's Academy success continued with Sense and Sensibility (1995), generally considered to be the most popular and authentic of the numerous film adaptions of Jane Austen's novels made in the 1990s. Thompson—a lifelong lover of the novels of Austen—was hired to write the film based on the period sketches in her series Thompson. She spent five years developing the screenplay, and took the role of the spinster sister Elinor Dashwood despite, at 35, being 16 years older than the literary character. Directed by Ang Lee and co-starring Kate Winslet, Sense and Sensibility received widespread critical praise and is one of the highest-grossing films of Thompson's career. Film critic Graham Fuller of Sight and Sound considered Thompson to be the film's "auteur, its suffragette and heroic 'male' surrogate".
Acting style and reception
Thompson is widely considered to be one of the finest actresses of her generation, and one of Britain's best-known actresses. Timothy Sexton, critic on Yahoo! considers her to be easily the best actress of the 1990s. Mark Kermode commenting in The Observer has cited her as a national treasure and "one of our most extravagantly talented stars", noting her "impeccable comic timing" and "bracing, nanny-like demeanour", possessing an ability to play haughty characters to perfection. Thompson is noted for her portrayal of reticent women which win the empathy of the audience, and has a strong background in comedy which is frequently reflected in her work, delivered with an ironic touch. Ang Lee believes that Thompson's comic touch may be her greatest asset as an actress, remarking that "Emma is an extremely funny lady. Like Austen, she's laughing at her own culture while she's a part of it." Thompson has stated that the "most moving things are often also funny, in life and in art" which is present in her film work.
Thompson, although born in London, has confessed to feeling Scottish, the reason being that "not only because I am half Scottish but also because I've spent half my life here". She frequently returns to Scotland and visits Dunoon in Argyll and Bute when on holiday, owning a home there.
Thompson's first husband was the actor and director Kenneth Branagh, whom she met in 1987 while filming the television series Fortunes of War. The couple married in 1989 and proceeded to appear in several films together, with Branagh often casting Thompson in his own productions. Dubbed a "golden couple" by the British media, the relationship received considerable press interest. The pair attempted to keep their relationship private, refusing to be interviewed or photographed together, and Branagh commented in 1993: "I don't want people buying into some kind of Burton-Taylor double-act thing." In September 1995, Thompson and Branagh announced that they had separated; their statement to the press explained: "Our work has inevitably led to our spending long periods ... away from each other and, as a result, we have drifted apart."
Thompson was living alone as the relationship with Branagh deteriorated, and entered into a depression. In a later interview, she revealed that working on the Sense and Sensibility screenplay was the only thing that stopped her from "going under in a very nasty way." While filming the 1995 movie, Thompson began a relationship with her co-star Greg Wise. Commenting on how she was able to overcome her depression, she told BBC Radio Four, "Work saved me and Greg saved me. He picked up the pieces and put them together again." In 1999, the couple had a daughter, Gaia, born when Thompson was 39. The pregnancy was achieved through IVF treatment; afterwards Wise and Thompson attempted to have another child using the same method. Three years of further IVF treatment were unsuccessful.
In 2003, Thompson and Wise were married in Dunoon. The family's permanent residence is in West Hampstead, London, on the same road where Thompson lived in her youth. Also in 2003, Thompson and her husband informally adopted a Rwandan orphan and former child soldier named Tindyebwa Agaba. They met at a Refugee Council event when he was 16, and invited him to spend Christmas at their home. "Slowly," Thompson has commented, "he became a sort of permanent fixture, came on holiday to Scotland with us, became part of the family." Expanding on this experience, Thompson said, "I couldn't have more children, and that was hard; but perhaps if I had [had more], I'd have missed out on this extra act of mothering that I've had with Tindy." Tindy became a British citizen in 2009, and works as a human rights lawyer.