'I went to France to work as an au pair and I didn't return... until now'
Kristin Scott Thomas talks to Julia Molony about her latest movie role and being torn between two countries and two careers
At the beginning of last year, Kristin Scott Thomas announced she was parting ways with the movie industry, saying that she just "couldn't cope," with another film.
After more than 65 films, she'd had enough. She hated all the waiting, she hated the cobbled-together feeling of the independent movies she often found herself on. "I'm bored by it," she told The Guardian. "So I'm stopping."
Specifically, what she did, after 30 years of working flat out, was she took about nine months off to relax. "I went to visit a friend in Burma. I went to Bhutan ... And then you know, I just sort of hung out," she says. She is wearing an oversized coat, pulled around her like a blanket, almost imperceptible make-up and bed hair. "I went to New York for a week or so, just for fun! I went to Corsica for a week or so, just for fun! Nothing was for work, it was so nice. Just talking to people without doing events, and without being a famous person."
Since then, true to her word, she's been focussing on theatre exclusively; apart from a brief interlude today to promote Suite Francaise, a lavish historical drama also starring Michelle Williams and Ruth Wilson, which she filmed in 2013, before announcing the moratorium. She's even left Paris, where she's lived since she was 18, and has currently taken up residence in London. Britain has responded warmly, and this year she will become a Dame. She moved partly, she says, because her youngest son is doing a year in school in Britain, but also because it gives her convenient access to job opportunities in the West End.
Obviously, though, the break has done her good. She seems relaxed, open, with none of the austerity she's relentlessly accused of. I think it's the cheekbones. She just doesn't have the bone structure of a pushover. But today, she even sounds as if she might have softened a bit towards film. "Because my son was going to spend this year at school here, I decided to make sure that I was working nearby, and not take a film in outer Mongolia. And we'll see what happens next year."
The last of her three children is almost grown, but she's well used to juggling these kinds of logistical concerns. "We've all sort of muddled through," she says. Thomas divorced her French husband of 17 years in 2008 amid reports that she'd had an affair. "I'm not even sure that working in the theatre is more family-friendly than filmmaking. I think it's slightly less family-friendly," she says, "because of the concentration and the absence in the evening and the Do Not Disturb in the morning. Last time I was here with him, I was doing Old Times, a Pinter play. And I would get up every morning and take him to school - sort of 8 o'clock in the morning like this ... "(she mimes a sort of deflating balloon) "pfffhhh hhh."
At the end of last year, she played Electra at the Old Vic. "When I stopped doing that just before Christmas, when I had a normal life, I was just a moron until about five o'clock in the afternoon. And then I started to perk up, because your body clock adjusts. At five, six, seven, eight, nine - I'd be on. All on and nowhere to go. I was brilliant at dinner parties!"
This slightly at-odds, disorientated way of living seems to be a feature of hers. She's always lived divided between two opposing poles; France and the UK, theatre and film. "I think it's one of my recurrent themes," she agrees. "Oh god, I wish I could just regroup and glue it all together. The conflict between theatre and film, conflict between countries, conflict between the English language and French language. I'm split down the middle and I think I've just got to go with it."
It's something she's had reason to reflect on a good deal. "It is interesting the sort of nomadic lifestyle - why do people choose it, who chooses it, it's worth having a look at that I think. Why am I always on the move?"
Kristin's own childhood in Cornwall was marred by tragedy. Her father was killed in a plane accident. Her mother remarried, and in a freak coincidence her stepfather died a few years later the same way. After leaving school (she went to Cheltenham Ladies College), she moved to France to be an au pair and never came back. Until now.
She's been talking about maybe moving back for some time, but the issue remains far from resolved. "I've only been back to Paris about three or four times since I came in July. And I'm going back next week for work. And when I do go back I just think, 'Oh my god, this place is SO beautiful ... The smell of coffee coming up from the cafés and the bakers and the damp streets. And the light is so beautiful there. There are all sorts of reasons for loving Paris. For years and years and years and years and years I thought, well if you've got to live in a city, you might as well live in this one, because it's so great."
Suite Francaise, if it does turn out to be the last film she releases, will certainly be going out on a high. It's a rich, complex World War II story based on the unfinished novel by Irene Nemirovsky, a Ukranian-Jewish writer based in France who wrote the book in the early days of the war, and later died at Auschwitz. It's a nuanced look at the day-to-day realities of life under German occupation in France, the divided loyalties and complex human relationships that arise when enemies are forced to live cheek-by-jowl with each other.
It's an issue which Thomas has observed to be very much alive in France. "The occupation is still mentioned. Among the older community, there's still a question of who was on which side. Who was a collaborator, who wasn't, and it's still an insult. To be accused of collaboration during the war is still very much in the atmosphere."
Refreshingly, the film avoids taking a simple, black and white moral view of the occupation. Even with Thomas's character, the formidable and remote Mme Angellier, a wealthy land-owner, whose daughter-in-law becomes involved with a German officer while her son is held captive by the Germans.
"People who have read the book will not recognise her really, apart from the name. Because in the book she was described as being a little tiny white-haired, not haughty and cruel but small and secretive - not the way that they've portrayed her in the film. I was worried to try to make her not a sort of cartoon baddie, looking down her nose at everybody. To try and get some sort of humanity into that character.
"Because I think if somebody is absolutely distraught about the love of their life, who is their son who has been captured, and she doesn't know whether he's dead, if he's alive, what the living conditions are, she knows nothing about him. All she knows is that he has been taken away to work in a camp. And then she gets this young man, billeted in her house, too close for comfort. You have to feel some kind of empathy for the woman, and ... I don't want her to be the simplistic evil person. I wanted there to a bit more shading in there."
The action takes place in a fictional town, Bussey, outside of Paris, and provides a fascinating insight into how communities can divide under pressure.
"I grew up in a tiny village of 500 people," says Thomas. "I know gossip. But when I first went to France in the 1970s it was very much like how things are portrayed in the film. Even as recently as in the early Nineties, there were places that didn't have inside bathrooms - and I'm sure there still are ... As an actor you can recreate the implications of something just by focussing on the way of sitting or how you wear your hat, the recreation of the places."
- Suite Francaise is in cinemas now
Thomas's most successful roles
- Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) - the role that brought her to the cinema-going public's attention in earnest was as the waspish Fiona, whose attempts to hide her unrequited love for best pal Charles, played by Hugh Grant, end in failure
- The English Patient (1996) - her role as Ralph Fiennes' love interest in this lavish and beautifully shot wartime tragedy earned her Bafta and Oscar nominations for Best Actress
- I've Loved You So Long (2008 ) - her critically acclaimed turn in the French language film also earned her some notable awards nominations, as well as showcasing her ability to act in fluent French
- Nowhere Boy (2009) - took on the role of Beatles star John Lennon's aunt Mimi, who adopted him after he was separated from his mother as a young child, in this acclaimed biographical drama