Academy Award winner Emma Thompson recently announced that she’ll be taking a year off of acting, a sabbatical of sorts. She’s just plain tired – and for good reason. Not only did she star in the new film Nanny McPhee Returns but she also wrote and produced it. We caught up with the hysterical and sometimes controversial mom (she refers to her daughter’s school as “prison”) to talk about a showdown between Nanny McPhee and Mary Poppins, bringing a beer to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and why she could never be just a mom.
What in Nanny McPhee resonates with you?
As you’re writing, the only things you keep are the things that resonate. Every word has to have the right frequency. As you start writing, you recognize the descriptions and think, “That’s right,” because it settles into your body, not your brain. When you get comments from mothers all over America who say, “I knew my children were enjoying [the movie] because they forgot to eat their popcorn.” I love that.
In the movie, Celia’s mom is very busy. How do mothers get around feeling like a bad person or a bad mom because they’re very busy?
Celia’s mom is not very busy. She’s in London being dysfunctional, shopping in Harrods, and that’s the point. There is no message in the film that busy mothers are bad mothers. I want to make that clear. I couldn’t just be a mother because it would bore me and make me crazy. I have such admiration for moms where [parenting] is their absolute. That’s absolutely fantastic and vital. But for those of us who have fought the agony and imprisonment of what wife-hood and motherhood once was, we’re now finding ourselves in a different kind of frying pan. We’re expected to be able to tackle everything and do everything – and that’s not possible. At moments you have to make sacrifices for your children, and in our case, it would be the sacrifice of work that we want to do. But one thing you’re not going to be thinking on your death bed is, “I wish I made more films” or “I wish I had spent more time at the office” or “I wish I had written more articles.” You’re going to be thinking, hopefully, of all the lovely times you said, “No, I am not going to do that. I’m going to trot off to Spain and learn Spanish with my daughter.” You have to put that life – which is short-lived to say the least – first, and then you see what you can manage. Then, don’t manage more than you can. That’s my big problem. I do too much. That’s the big difference between men and women – that quality of omnipotence is far more available to men than women. It’s a fantasy, and it’s constantly being pummeled and pushed by the feelings that we have about our family and the duty that we have to them and our desire to be with them. We can’t – it’s just not sustainable.
At this point in your career, do you find more satisfaction in writing or acting?
Writing is a wonderful job for a mother. I never write more than four to six hours a day. Actually, I would never write six hours a day, why would I do that to myself? Four is plenty, and that means you can do all your mom stuff: school runs, pick-ups, dinners, everything. So writing’s my favorite, but I love acting. It’s a great passion, just slightly more difficult to fit into the process of being a mom.
Do you find making a film much more exhausting & challenging than just acting?
Because they’re long shoots – four months – there’s always a moment when I finally can’t do any more and have to go somewhere to lie down and sleep for six hours. My husband brilliantly said, “Don’t come home every night. Stay in a hotel near the studio four nights a week and you’ll survive.” And that’s what I did. I have to take my hat off to him because my daughter wasn’t that keen on that. Her school holiday had just started just as she was getting really fed up with me being away four nights a week. But she came and stayed with me in the hotel and [ran round the set].
If Nanny McPhee came to visit your house, what would she help you with?
That’s a very good question. Well, myself, is the answer. (Laughs). I would ask her for an hour of really good therapy. I’d just ask her questions and get her to ask me a few questions and tell me how to live with myself. Everyone else is fine. It’s me that’s the problem.
You’re taking a break from acting. Will you pursue other kinds of projects or just relax with a good book, bon-bons and family?
I’ve decided to take a sabbatical next year and take my daughter out of school – or “prison,” as I like to call it. I know that’s a controversial remark, but we can talk about that some other time. Anyway, [I'm going to go] traveling and see a bit of the world but also just sit and stare into space, which is very valuable too. We don’t do enough of that. [With] acting, I try and do little bits here and there. Alan Rickman and I spent nine days performing a narrative poem for the BBC about a terrible old drunken journalist played by Alan having lunch with an old flame. It was bliss doing that because it was a short shoot – nine days – but it was very interesting to learn and get your teeth into. I’m also writing a few screenplays at the moment for myself, when I’m able to do a bit more.
There are so many elements in this film that make it much more of a challenge. You’ve got kids, you’ve got piglets, you’ve got birds – was it a crazy set with all that going on?
It’s always a crazy set. The first two weeks of this movie, I thought, “We’re not going to survive this.” Because we were working on the farm and the mud was so deep and our thighs just grew from lifting our boots out of this goop. And the crew tried to push the dollies and the wheels were getting utterly clogged. We lost 30% of time every single day. And we had two cows, Marilyn and Barrell, and [one of them] has some kind of weird psychological issue and wouldn’t get into the mud so we had to put down duckboards for the cow! We’re all fine, getting down and dirty, and the cow won’t go into the mud. She’s a cow! A farmyard animal! It was things like that.
What was it like to dress up as Nanny McPhee from the warts to the tooth? How long does the process take and what was your daughter’s opinion?
Well, the process doesn’t take as long as I’d really like, when you consider how ghastly I look. It takes about an hour and 15 minutes to journey into such hideousness – it’s a lot of sticking and painting. It’s a wig and then the nose, lobes, brow and the wart; they all get stuck on. And then my makeup artist plunges hairs into the warts and curls them carefully with a very hot curling iron. So there’s this hot thing near your face and then these hairs start to smolder. It’s quite medieval, the whole process, and so are the results. I’m sure there are a lot of people that look like Nanny McPhee in medieval times. God knows there are quite a few lying around Great Britain as we speak. You know what we’re like with our teeth.
What was your daughter’s reaction?
In the first Nanny McPhee movie, my daughter was only four, and she looked at me and said, “Hi, mom” kind of disapprovingly but kind of, okay, fair enough. This time around she was nine, so she was much more, “God you look disgusting” and went off to get a smoothie. When she saw the first movie when she was four, she started to cry at the end when Nanny McPhee leaves, and she couldn’t stop crying because she thought it was me leaving. I’ll never forget that.
Of the five lessons that Nanny McPhee teaches in this film, is there one that’s closest to your heart?
Being brave is closest to me because I think I’ve always been quite brave. I’ve always been [the type of person who will] have a go at it, whatever it might have been, from stand-up to musical comedy. It’s good to be brave because then you’re also able to cope with failure, which is really your best friend in every regard. Children who are brave are more likely to take risks and more likely to learn really important lessons. We take care of our children very carefully – and that’s absolutely right – but in our culture, they’re being stifled. They’re not climbing trees anymore, they’re not taking physical risks anymore. My daughter lives in Scotland, and she’s already fallen off cliffs and down gullies and she picks herself up and says, “Well, that’s a lesson learned.” And that’s the only way she’s not going to go near the cliff edge again because she’s actually fallen off a small one. [Taking risks] is the only way [kids] learn how to look after [themselves] because just saying, “Don’t go to the cliff edge because you might fall off and hurt yourself” doesn’t cut the mustard. It just doesn’t. “Don’t go out with that boy because he will take your heart out of your mouth, fry it up with bacon and eat it,” won’t work [either], because [your kids] aren’t going to listen. You’ve got to let them get hurt and you’ve got to let them fail. To do that, you have to let them be brave.
You recently received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Congratulations on that. You brought a pig and a pint of beer with you. Tell us about that.
Thank you. Well, I didn’t bring the pig myself. The pint of beer came from a pub, which I’m delighted to report is where my star is. So you stand on my name as you go into the pub to get a drink. What could be more delightful at the end of the day, particularly if you’re a mother? And you trip over [my star] as you’re wheeled out. I couldn’t be in a more beautiful position or a more appropriate one given my proclivity and history. So the pint came from the pub and the pig was hired and it was called Monkey, which is odd because my daughter’s nickname is Monkey. Mind you, she’s got 36 nicknames, but I was very thrilled with that.
Will we see Nanny McPhee return for a third time?
I hope so because she’s got more to be spooled out! I’m trying to work out the third story at the moment, which I want to set in modern-day New York because I think it would be very interesting to see her come to America and deal with a modern family whose problem is that their children only communicate through screens. That’s a very interesting phenomenon.
Has the idea of Nanny McPhee as a Broadway musical ever crossed your mind?
Yes, I was going to write the original film as a musical, but then I thought maybe that’s too Mary Poppins-ey. But if you had really wonderful music, Nanny McPhee would make a lovely musical. Can you imagine seeing that transformation take place in the flesh? It would be a very interesting conundrum for a makeup designer.
Who’s a better nanny: Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee?
Mary Poppins is a lot of fun, but isn’t she a little bit narcissistic – and slightly too good-looking to have in your home? All that prim! If I were to have to choose I’d definitely go McPhee.