FILM

Kristin Scott Thomas has never been one to let anyone tell her she can’t

Photo: Rex Features

And she’s not about to start now. Helen O’Hara meets the woman determined to go her own way in Hollywood

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By Helen O'Hara on

When Kristin Scott Thomas went to drama school, she signed up for a teaching course rather than performance because, she claims, “I wasn’t brave enough.” Her talent quickly shone, so that friends and teachers advised her to transfer to study as an actress. But not everyone agreed. “I got hauled in front of the directors of the teaching course, saying that I would never be an actress,” remembers Scott Thomas. “If I wanted to play Lady M [Macbeth] I would have to join an amateur dramatics society, and if I put one foot inside the acting director's office I would be off the course! I was so disheartened that I left the country, and became an actress in France instead.”

The teachers responsible never apologised, even when Scott Thomas landed a debut film role opposite Prince in Under The Cherry Moon, or when she won a BAFTA for her breakthrough in Four Weddings And A Funeral. Her acting career won her a damehood and France’s Légion d'honneur, and now she returns to screens as Clementine Churchill in Second World War drama Darkest Hour. Over four decades and nearly 70 films later, she’s still proving the doubters wrong. “One maybe functions better in the face of adversity,” she says, drily.

Perhaps that early knockback put steel in her spine, because she has never been afraid to push for better work. After Four Weddings’ success she worked on Hollywood films like The Horse Whisperer and Mission: Impossible, but became disenchanted with big studio filmmaking. “Words didn't seem to be that important. You'd come on to set in the morning and find, actually, there's nothing say-able in there! We had to move that [line] there, and can I say that there? I got a bit fed up.”

The roles too were less than challenging in a town that treated every female-led hit as some bizarre anomaly. “Do you remember Erin Brockovich? Such a wonderful film. And people said, 'oh my god, isn't that an amazing central female character?' Yes, thank you. Women can think! We do things! We need the people making decisions [to be women]. After all, middle-aged women are the ones that go to the movies and they're not catered for. I do not understand that.” Scott Thomas largely stepped away from American films, focusing on smaller, British efforts like The English Patient and Gosford Park, and a second career in France.

There she’s starred in films like I’ve Loved You So Long and Tell No One. Are there more opportunities in Paris for women? “Well, there are better roles for Catherine Deneuve,” she laughs. “And Isabelle Huppert! No, but I do think there are. I think the enduring brilliance and beauty of Deneuve is in part responsible. People still want to watch her, and they're not frightened of seeing a face that's been through a few more decades. There are a few like her in Hollywood. Annette Bening is doing very well, and Julianne Moore. But it's always treated as something extraordinary, whereas Catherine Deneuve is making two films a year; the French are used to it.”

Do you remember Erin Brockovich? Such a wonderful film. And people said, 'oh my god, isn't that an amazing central female character?' Yes, thank you. Women can think! We do things!

But even acting in two languages and on both sides of the Channel proved occasionally frustrating, leading Scott Thomas to take a career break in recent years and reassess her priorities. “I was spending more time dressed as someone else, saying someone else's words, than I was being me.” Yet she couldn’t resist the lure of Sally Potter’s brilliant film The Party earlier this year, where she plays a politician whose life falls apart at a family gathering. And then director Joe Wright called, asking her to play Clementine Churchill in Darkest Hour. It’s an account of Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) first week as prime minister in 1940, as the collapse of Europe seemed imminent and the British ruling classes pushed for peace with Germany. Clementine, his confidante and often his conscience, is the only one fully aware of his own doubts about the best course. Yet Scott Thomas was wary of the role.

Kristin Scott Thomas in Darkest Hour
 

“I said no. Because like a lot of other people, I thought she was just a sort of sideline to Winston. Then Joe came to see me and I said, I wonder what it's like to be the wife of the man who has to make all these decisions? You'd have to be a pretty amazing person to share your life with Winston Churchill, because I don't think he was an easy man. She was not an easy woman!”

Though she usually relies on the script rather than research, in this case, “[Clementine] exists. She’s someone’s granny,” so Scott Thomas dove into the extraordinary story of her life. Her subject went from an unstable and impoverished, if aristocratic, background to being given a life peerage in her own right. Both Churchills combated bouts of depression, and would separate for long periods to have their own adventures. “She went off on a boat for six weeks looking for the Komodo dragon. What a fantastic life!”

More importantly for the film, Clemmie serves as a leveller and a balance to what would otherwise be endless scenes of men arguing in smoky rooms. “She doesn't have much screentime, but the screentime she has is useful. And that's what I was worried about at the beginning. If you're going to do it, do it properly. See who this woman is. See how dedicated she is to making things better.”

So Scott Thomas worked with Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten to ensure that Clemmie’s personality would shine through. “There aren't any more scenes [for her] than there were in the beginning, I don't think. But just by moving words around, we made it work.” She remains wary of playing real-life figures, but somewhere along the way the actress fell in love with Clemmie. “When we finished shooting, I got hit by this wave of sadness. I thought, I've got so much more to tell you about this wonderful, difficult, tricky woman, and there's no room in the film. I felt like this is not finished yet.”

Perhaps one day she’ll return to the role. But in the meantime there are more ways to prove her teachers wrong. Scott Thomas is hoping to make her feature directorial debut with an adaptation of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Sea Change, which “was imminent not very long ago and then, as these things do, it sort of hit a wall. I’m still battling away with that one.”

She dipped a toe back into blockbuster filmmaking with a small role opposite Alicia Vikander in the upcoming Tomb Raider too. And if she looks unlikely ever to make Hollywood her base for films again, the outcry over Harvey Weinstein and his fellow predators, and the #MeToo movement, has given her hope that things are finally improving for women in film. “I'm sure it [the outrage and outcry over Weinstein and others] will have an effect. We'll have many more stories that are now braver. I think we've got a bit of wind in our sails.”

If not, one suspects, she’ll find oars and forge ahead anyway. Kristin Scott Thomas has never been one to let anyone tell her she can’t.

Darkest Hour will be released in UK cinemas on 12 January, 2018

@HelenLOHara

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Photo: Rex Features
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