Emma Thompson Left Comedy After Being Called A ‘Man Hater.’ But She Never Stopped Making Trouble

By Mary McNamara Los Angeles Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Mary McNamara reports, Thompson has been known to tell female costars to not lose weight and threatened to quit a production ("Brideshead Revisited") if pressure were put on an actress to do so.


If you want to understand why the number of female directors, cinematographers, studio heads and screenwriters remains so maddeningly low, all you have to do is ask the only woman, and the only person, who has won Oscars for acting and screenwriting.

Men, says Emma Thompson, have a huge motorway to power, with lots of lanes in it, which makes it easy for them to aid other men along the same path.

"Women, on the other hand, have a kind of rutted track, on which there are many boulders. You can't even get a bicycle down it; you have to get off the bike and lift it over things."

Before we get into all of that, however, an admission: After more than a decade spent interviewing famous people, my usual response to any friend who expresses envy that I've interviewed [fill in the blank] is, "Yeah, it was cool, but it's not like I'm invited over for Christmas dinner." But if I'm being honest, I have secretly always wanted Emma Thompson to invite me over for Christmas dinner.

She did recently invite me for tea, however, and that's something.

"My husband is in the kitchen with next to nothing on," she says, greeting me at the door of a big, crazy Mulholland-adjacent house she and her husband, Greg Wise, found on Airbnb, "and Hannah's here as well."

Wise is, in fact, wearing swim trunks and "Hannah" is comedian Hannah Gadsby, whom Thompson famously befriended after one of Gadsby's shows in Edinburgh. As Gadsby has told it, she had no idea who Thompson was until she Googled her.

Now she appears to be staying at Thompson's rental. Because, you know, Emma Thompson is the bomb, and that's all there is to that.

After becoming a presence on stage and British TV, Thompson slid into American consciousness almost 30 years ago with the amnesia thriller "Dead Again," in which she co-starred with then-husband Kenneth Branagh and quickly became an awards-season fixture ("Howards End," "The Remains of the Day," "In the Name of the Father," "Sense and Sensibility," "Angels in America").

In those early years, she was part of a power couple, "Ken and Em", and a power crowd that toggled easily between Shakespeare (Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Hopkins) and modern comedy (Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry).

She is still part of a power couple, now married to Wise ("The Crown"), and that power crowd has only grown to include all manner of younger people, including Mindy Kaling, who wrote the movie "Late Night" just for Thompson.

The toggling also continues, she recently starred in Amazon's "King Lear" with Hopkins, and this month, in addition to "Late Night," she reprises Agent O for "Men in Black: International" (which, for the first time in the franchise's history, features a female lead) and plays a populist Trump-like politician in Russell T. Davies' upcoming HBO series "Years and Years."

Yet Thompson has always been very much her own self, outspoken, political, continually present in public conversations about a wide range of topics including urban development, public education, the environment, equal pay (for it), Brexit (against it) and climate change. She has been known to tell female costars to not lose weight and threatened to quit a production ("Brideshead Revisited") if pressure were put on an actress to do so.

Earlier this year, she began her own #MeToo boycott. When Skydance hired John Lasseter, who had left Disney after multiple allegations of sexual harassment were made against him, Thompson pulled out of a Skydance animated film. Then she made the stinging letter in which she explained her decision available to The Times.

Not surprisingly, Thompson is often criticized in a way few American actors who are not Jane Fonda have ever been. In Britain, she is often referred to as a "luvvy," a derogatory term used to describe an actor who talks about issues other than acting (it is often preceded by the word "leftist").

Throughout her career she has been trashed in portions of the British press, most recently for flying first class from L.A., where she was working, to London, where she lives, because she then participated in an Extinction Rebellion demonstration.

Her response? She regrets that she wasn't there in time to be arrested on her 60th birthday.

"I get in trouble all the time," she says, just a few days before the demonstration and that birthday. "If you don't want to get in trouble you're never going to get anything done or changed.

"I know people will say, it's OK for me, I'm established, I'm successful and I'm old. But I've been getting in trouble since I was young. So you can get to where you want to go and be in trouble the whole way through. If nothing else, I am proof of that." Like I said, the bomb.

Thompson, who looks just like she always does except she's in shorts, apologizes for not having "real" tea, motions to the enormous professional stove and announces: "Look at this thing, and there was nothing to cook with when we got here. Greg had to go out and buy pots and pans."

It is very much a catered-entertainment house, with three enormous public rooms on the first floor and a lot of big art clearly chosen to match the color palette. Not quite what Thompson and Wise had expected, but they'd been working apart for six months, she says, and when she came to L.A. for "Late Night," she decided they needed a long visit. And "the backyard is lovely."

We chat briefly about Meghan Markle, Thompson doesn't think much of the royal family but "everyone's making an effort, and she looks like a nice bird", before getting down to business. Which in Thompson's case, means a conversation about her recent projects, yes, but also about global warming, sexual harassment, the power of youth in an age of existential despair and the radical politics of napping.

And of course, the gauntlet she threw down over Lasseter.

The decision to pull out of the Skydance film was, Thompson says, the only option because "I can't speak up about women's rights and then not do it. The same way you can't say 'skinniness doesn't matter, we shouldn't do that' and then kill yourself to be tiny for movies. It doesn't work."

Although Skydance has made no response to her letter, "presumably because there are no sensible answers to those questions",  she has heard from many other people, including Brenda Chapman, who was fired as director of the Pixar film "Brave," for which Thompson voiced the main character's mother.

"It reminded me that she had had a difficult time there; I didn't know exactly why because she had been very discreet about it. She was fired, and when that happened I asked her if she wanted me to walk. She said she didn't because she just wanted the film to be made. But we were much further along in the process."

In this case, Thompson's politics play right into her next big project. In "Late Night," she stars as a late-night host whose show has gone stale in part because its writers room is, as it's ever been, filled with white men.

Thompson's first reaction to discovering Kaling wrote the part with Thompson in mind was anxiety: "If you've written something for someone it's often a mistake." That feeling was quickly assuaged by the actual script. "I just thought it was wonderful," Thompson says. "A lot of politics without being pious or obvious."

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