18 AUGUST 2003
KRISTEN SCOTT THOMAS - SCENE CHANGE
Tired of playing the perennial English rose, Kristin Scott Thomas triumphed in Chekhov on the London stage and is now cherry-picking her roles while enjoying a 'maelstrom of domesticity' in Paris. By Christa D'Souza.
Kristin Scott Thomas, OBE, has a well-established reputation for reserve, but today it looks like I'm going to need an ice pick to penetrate anywhere near the surface. Perhaps she is having a particularly bad day, but judging by the tight smile she issues when we first set eyes on each other, it is clear that there are a million other places she would rather be today than here talking to me. Until, that is, I apologise for keeping my mobile phone switched on because I have an unwell child back home in London, and suddenly the ice, as it were, melts.
'Oh, you do?' she says, her eyebrows suddenly circumflexing in genuine concern. 'Gosh, poor, poor you, I know how horrid that can be,' and then tells me how if I lived in France he would have been sent straight to a pediatrician rather than via an overworked GP. But I shouldn't worry, she reassures me, a friend of hers had a little boy with exactly the same thing and he's fine now.
It is a hot, grey day, and we are sitting in the upstairs tea room of a Paris café overlooking the Jardins du Luxembourg - a place where she likes to meet people, because it is within walking distance of home. Home is an elegant but rather chaotic flat ('because I'm messy and a terrible hoarder') which she shares with her husband, François Olivennes - an owlish but rather attractive gynaecologist and the leading in-vitro expert in France - and her three beloved children, Hannah, 15, Joseph, 12, and George, two. Until recently François's mother, a famous French psychoanalyst whom Scott Thomas archly describes as someone 'who's proud she can't cook', lived in the same beaux-arts building. It's that kind of set-up.
Dismissive of the fashion world, Scott Thomas none the less looks the absolute picture of Parisienne elegance this afternoon, in a fluttery little shirt, the perfect low-rise chinos and rose-tinted sunglasses woven into her auburn, shoulder-length hair. Somewhat shorter and a little less bony than she looks on screen, she is still uncommonly beautiful. She is also one of the few women in the business whom middle-age genuinely suits (something she is obviously aware of, judging by how she once fired an agent for advising her to get an eye job). Motherhood also suits her, although she balks when I ask if she is going to try for a fourth. 'You have to be joking,' she says, shrinking back in mock horror and placing a knuckle in her mouth, 'I do get incredibly broody, though, especially at this time of the year when all these big fat babies are out in their prams with their delicious little toes sticking out at the bottom. Ooooh, I could eat them, but really, I must stop talking about children and babies. My friends say I always spend far too much time talking about them in interviews.'
This is the second time I've seen Kristin Scott Thomas in the flesh. The first was earlier this year when she had her West End stage debut as Masha in Michael Blakemore's triumphantly received The Three Sisters. Having been so used to seeing her play the brittle English rose up there on the silver screen (Four Weddings and a Funeral, The English Patient, Gosford Park), it was quite a revelation to see her being able to do this so competently too, conveying all that repressed Chekhovian passion with just the merest flicker of an eyelid or the tiniest tilt of her chin. As I heard one theatre buff murmur to another during the interval, maybe what we were witnessing here was the next Peggy Ashcroft.
Yah boo sucks, then, to the Central School of Speech and Drama teacher who told her all those years ago that if she wanted to play Lady Macbeth she'd have to join a local amateur dramatics company; a pronouncement that has dogged Scott Thomas for most of her professional life. 'Yeeees, everyone wonders if that's what it's all about, exacting revenge,' she says, twiddling a piece of hair, 'but I'm not sure that exactly did the trick...'
It certainly didn't do anything for her stage-fright. 'People talk about butterflies. Well, I had elephants, that was how deep my dread was for the first few nights. I was sure the whole acting community would hate me because I came from film, because I wasn't a proper actress; I had this long list of why I shouldn't go on. Even when I stopped being nervous, I was nervous because when an actor says they're not nervous then they're crap, right?
'What was also a killer was that I didn't quite figure on it getting so very much under one's skin. Compared with what I'd done before [playing the lead role in Racine's Berenice on the French stage] it sounded like it was going to be comparatively easy and modern. In fact it was one of the most emotionally exhausting things I've ever done, and far harder than doing it in French, because at least in France they make allowances for you being from a different country. Here I didn't even have my foreign accent to hide behind. All of which I thoroughly enjoyed, of course,' she adds brightly, 'but then I suppose I've always been a bit of a masochist.'
Born in Redruth, Cornwall, in May 1960, and brought up for most of her childhood in a sleepy little village in Dorset, Scott Thomas was the eldest daughter of a respected but somewhat impoverished Royal Navy pilot. She is not quite sure how or when the urge to act first hit, but thinks it probably has something to do with her 'young, exceptionally beautiful' mother, Deborah, herself a former drama student who gave it all up to start a family and who also, interestingly, suffered the most appalling stage-fright.
Her first memory of 'performing' as such was when she and her younger sister, Serena (there are five siblings in all), would amble down to the village shop for sweets pretending to be other characters, and staging scenarios with mock deaths in front of their parents, who would both give them hints as to how to make it look more authentic: 'No, you wouldn't lie this way, you'd lie that way.'
But such an Enid Blytonesque childhood came to an abrupt halt when Scott Thomas was five and her father, Simon, was killed in a freak night flying accident. She remembers being surprisingly sanguine about the news. The fact that her mother was pregnant somehow 'softened the blow' and when she went to school the next day she remembers telling everybody 'my dad's been killed' because it made her feel 'special'.
However, when we talk about the fact that she and Serena were packed off to boarding school only three years later, her eyes suddenly well up with tears. 'It was something everybody did,' she explains falteringly, 'so I suppose I was almost pleased to go. But that couple of days before you go back after the holidays and go all quiet? God, I can hardly bear thinking about it sometimes...' The second blow came when she was 11, now a pupil at Cheltenham Ladies' College, and a housemistress called her in to tell her that her mother's second husband, also called Simon and also a pilot, had died in a similar accident. Although admitting that in hindsight it was worse this time because she was that much older and more aware, again, she did not collapse. Instead she remembers feeling sorry for the mistress having to be the one to deliver the news, and worrying about the effect on Serena, who had reacted so badly to the loss of their father.
The one chink of light, she remembers, was that now that there was absolutely no money left they both had to be taken out of Cheltenham Ladies' - which she loathed - and put in a convent near home. 'It was heaven being able to go back to my mother,' says Scott Thomas, 'and I loved being home. Loved that.'
Being the eldest daughter, she says, meant she always felt a huge responsibility to keep the family unit together, a responsibility compounded by the fact that the way her mother chose to deal with the double tragedy was - in true British style - to pretend it hadn't really happened. 'That wasn't really how she was,' says Scott Thomas, her matter-of-fact tone belied by the constant hair twiddling, 'in fact in many ways my mother was quite hippy-dippy, serving macrobiotic food and reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But because she was a navy wife, that was the way she chose to deal and she was absolutely convinced she was doing the right thing. It wasn't the right thing, of course, I mean...' Her voice trails off. 'It takes a long time to appreciate one's parents,' she finally concedes. What has helped immeasurably on this path is the support of her 'rock-like' husband, who sounds her perfect foil with his expansive, people-loving personality, and psychoanalysis, which she initially had to be bullied into by François (through him she is related to no fewer than three shrinks). 'It doesn't always work,' she says, 'but when it does and when it clicks in it's absolutely exhilarating, a bit like aerobics for the mind.'
Had Scott Thomas listened to her mother, of course, she would probably have gone to university after school ('She had high hopes for me, being the eldest daughter'), but she was adamant about going to acting school, even though it proved hard to find one that would accept her (she had done no acting whatsoever at school). Eventually, though, she managed to enrol on a teaching course at the Central School of Speech and Drama, hoping that by the end of the course she'd be able to 'sneak her way in' to the proper theatre arts programme. But in vain.
When Scott Thomas arrived in Paris at the age of 19 as an au pair to a friend of her mother, she weighed 12 stone, was so poor she barely had enough money to pay her fare out there, and was in the middle of recovering from a severe depression - a delayed reaction, perhaps, to the turmoil of her childhood. At times it got so bad that she would find herself either lying in bed for days or wandering around the streets not knowing where she was going.
Being in Paris, however, a place she'd always had romantic visions of as a teenager ('I'd always had a thing for Anouk Aimée') lifted her spirits and soon she was enrolled in a local drama class 'miming instead of talking because I couldn't actually speak the language'. It was here that she met François, at the time a second-year medical student who was there for the sole reason of 'meeting pretty girls'.
From there on her life changed. She fell in love - 'he was my age, he was batty, we became a team' - learnt the language, lost weight and got a part as a schoolteacher in Eric Rochant's film Autobus. Soon after, she bagged the lead role as a topless socialite in Prince's Under the Cherry Moon, a film so abysmal I hardly dare mention it, but one that automatically kick-started her fantastically successful career as Hollywood's quintessential thorny English rose.
There have been times when she and François have vaguely mused over the idea of moving out to LA, where he could make 10 times what he makes now as a gynaecologist, where she could continue to make films like The Horse Whisperer or Random Hearts, but the idea has always rather morally repulsed her. 'I wish it were all about making money,' she says rather wistfully,' but it's so not, I'm afraid.'
Besides, she will never quite forgive Hollywood for how it treated her when she was starting. She still remembers in detail, for example, how an agent she was flown out to meet after her performance in Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon refused to look up when she walked in, discussing Johnny Depp's fee on the telephone while she flicked through Scott Thomas's book and then, when she had finished, told her she 'could go now'.
'Agent?' she spits, 'she was a bloody casting director! But you see the great thing about that was that it suddenly made me realise I don't need to navigate through all this bullshit, I don't need to let people make me feel like such a worm. There are other ways to do it - and I've proved there are other ways to do it.'
Hence her newish production company, KST (or KFC as all her friends insist on calling it), set up in 2000 with her friend and fellow expat, the American short-film producer Eleanor Coleman - partly in order for her to play parts she has never been able to play before. One of their first projects is developing the AL Kennedy novel Original Bliss into a film, in which Scott Thomas will play a wheelchair-bound happy-clappy who becomes drawn 'in quite a nasty, sordid way' to a self-help guru obsessed with internet porn. Not the sort of fare one expects of her but then perhaps she's had enough of playing the aristocratic English rose. 'I mean I've worn the pearls, I've kicked the dog, I've fucking the staff... In 10 years it'll all come back to me and I'll play the dowager, but for the moment it's not as though I can really go much further with it.' There is also her thriving French film career; her latest project is a film called Les Petites Coupures, directed by Pascal Bonitzer. In it she plays Beatrice, the 'completely nuts but totally non-eccentric' mistress of a hapless communist newspaper journalist (played by Daniel Auteuil) in the middle of a mid-life crisis. She is wonderful in it - the quirky, meandering medium a far better repository for her subtle talents than that of the bloated Hollywood weepie.
The fact that she made an eighth of the money she would normally make in Hollywood for doing it, that 'it's very, very Parisian and I'm not sure if it will travel' obviously doesn't bother her at all. She loved Bonitzer, who was far more interested in 'good dialogue' than anyone she'd ever met in Hollywood. Not that she doesn't occasionally feel a little wistful. One can only imagine how hard it was watching Julianne Moore at the Oscars after her triumphant performance in The End of the Affair, a role Scott Thomas had turned down.
'You've got to be brave not wanting that thing,' she murmurs. 'You have to be able to put across the idea that you can say "No, you do not want that". And then, when somebody else gets it, you have to sort of accept that and say, OK, she's there and I'm here. You have to think about whether that Mercedes-Benz you have is actually worth how much it costs to you.'
Perhaps realising she has just elicited a little bit too much information about herself, Scott Thomas steals a look at her watch - we've been sitting here far longer than we were supposed to - and briskly reaches into her orange, croissant-shaped handbag to switch on her mobile.
As we make our way down the stairs and out into the street, I think about the maelstrom of domesticity which awaits her not so very far from here, the wall-to-wall junk-shop furniture all bought by François, who 'loves to do nothing more of a Saturday afternoon'; the fight she's having with her daughter trying to persuade her to read Madame Bovary; and of them all piling into the blue family estate car, driving off to the chaotic but picturesque cottage they own in Burgundy.
As I wait for a taxi to take me back to the Gare du Nord, I watch her walking away, head down, unnoticed by the throngs of passers-by out in their droves now the sun is out. It's an enviable life and one she deserves because she's obviously worked fantastically hard to achieve it. But does she allow herself to enjoy it all? Is she still underneath terrified of letting go in case it's all suddenly taken away from her?
Thinking about this reminds me of something she said, about how 'fantastically sad it is that most people walking around are in a state of constant mild depression.
'A friend of mine asked me the other day whether I thought one had the right to be happy. He said one didn't - one had only the right to be contented. For some reason, I found that incredibly upsetting...'