INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY MAGAZINE
Hugh Grant said she needed ‘warming up’, Anthony Minghella described her as ‘unknowable’ and one critic dismissed her as ‘foul-mouthed and bad-tempered’. Lucie Young meets the woman shaping up to be one of the greatest actors of her generation.
After the usual round of interviews for her last film Up at the Villa, one writer concluded that Kristin Scott Thomas was “foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, lewd and decidedly scruffy”, more Liam Gallagher than Katherine Clifton (her character in The English Patient). To another, who met her around the same time, she was the embodiment of aloof beauty; the kind that “makes her an ideal object of brooding obsession, even of mild depravity.”
Trying to pin her down is like fishing for minnows barehanded. Film director Anthony Minghella spent months with Scott Thomas on the set of The English Patient and is still flummoxed. “She is great fun to be around, but she is quite unknowable.” “Cool”, “aristocratic”, “icy”, “languid” are the usual epithets attached to Scott Thomas and they could just as easily be applied to her more memorable film characters – Katherine in The English Patient, Fiona in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Lady Brenda in A Handful of Dust.
Her latest role in Robert Altman’s excellent murder mystery Gosford Park is unfortunately more type-casting. Scott Thomas plays yet another briskly intelligent, lascivious lady of leisure. “She is a terrible snob who goes around spitting on people,” explains Scott Thomas. Actually Lady Sylvia’s main occupations are kicking her husband’s dog, making droll remarks about her weekend guests and bedding the servants (she propositions one while wearing half a pot of cold cream). According to Scott Thomas, she was ideally suited for this part, not because she is a habitue of country houses, outré behavior and lounging around in backless evening gowns, but because she has often been on the receiving end of awful snobbishness. “It was fun getting revenge on all the people who have snubbed me, by imitating them,” she says. “I had a list and I ticked them off.”
I have met Scott Thomas three times over the past two years and it is an understatement to say she is not your typical Hollywood movie star. She has never bothered to perfect the kind of blithering patter that most stars trade in, the kind of PR talk that acquiesces to everything while saying nothing. She will happily sit for five minutes in awkward silence rather than answer questions that she thinks are stupid. This can make her an interviewer’s nightmare.
At our first meeting in Paris (where she lives with husband Francois Olivennes and their three children, Hannah 13, Joseph 10 and George one), the experience felt, at first, like being slowly roasted over hot coals. She emerged after two hours from the make-up van where she was primped and prodded by a team of assistants for a US magazine shoot, looking and behaving like a skittish race-horse, her eyes wild and her nerves frayed. “I do tend to react badly when frightened or under pressure,” she explained later. “I can get quite grumpy and cold.”
Any personal questions I proffered were stone-walled and Scott Thomas would gaze off into the distance leaving me to ponder the purply half moons under her eyes. The ones which one foolish publicist recommended she have surgically removed – instead Scott Thomas had the publicist removed.
Hugh Grant has said that Scott Thomas needs to be warmed up. While shooting the Roman Polanski film Bitter Moon, he said it became an almost religious practice to shake her out of her morning funk. “It takes not more than five or 10 minutes. But you’d have to do it everyday like yoga. You know, you arrive in the morning, shake Kristin up a bit, then everything’s lovely.”
An hour into our interview, despairing that she might up and leave at any moment, I mention that I saw her perform in her first stage play Yes, Peut-etre in 1983. The transformation is breathtaking – her deep-set blue-green eyes shoot out sparks of intensity, her face swims with light and you can see immediately the sort of metamorphosis that must occur in front of a camera. She snaps from cryogenically frozen to rapt in a nanosecond. “I got my best reviews for that play,” she says. ‘It’s been down hill ever since.”
Whether freezing you out or talking passionately about a subject like her favorite authors (Marguerite Duras, Ian McKewan, Saki, Julian Barnes and Jane Austen), Scott Thomas brings to everything a level of intensity which is quite startling. Once she has decided to trust you and you become the subject of her attention, it feels as if you have bonded with most daring girl in class.
Over the next two days, we go from my not being able to mention her husband’s name, to hearing how this famous French fertility expert told his pregnant wife that only stupid women got morning sickness and how she thinks the sexiest bone in a woman’s body is not the clavicle (as Ralph Fiennes character says in The English Patient), but the small bony protrusions on either side of your pelvis.
For someone so grown up on screen, Scott Thomas turns out to be wonderfully screw ball and batty in person. Before long, we are messing about in her favorite perfume store making up names for scents – “God this one’s just like old armpits,” she wails, humming along to her favorite Macy Gray song and swapping beauty tips like using nipple cream as lip balm. “I’ve tried surgical spirit too,” she says nonchalantly. “It hurts a bit, but it’s great for removing the rough bits.” Then she wants to know if I’ve ever tried haemorrhoid cream for getting rid of eye bags.
Her dress sense is wonderfully idiosyncratic too. At our first meeting, she turned up in Calvin Klein trousers wide enough to shoplift a week’s worth of groceries, a little black cardi’ that looked like it was knitted from carpet underlay on two broom handles, a pixie green pony-skin handbag and matching boots from Tods, and a raincoat that looked as if it belonged to French comedian Jacques Tati.
“Most people who know me say I’m fairly adolescent,” Scott Thomas says with a shrug. Harrison Ford who co-starred with her in Random Hearts said she has a bawdy sense of humour and is a bit of a lad. It is a quote she seems rather proud of. She certainly swears like a trouper “fuck, bollocks, balls” tumble out with a blasé bluntness. And she demonstrates an amusing knowledge of obscure and vulgar French slang.
When she has come to trust you, Scott Thomas is skinless, bare, raw. You get to watch from moment to moment how she reacts to things. It is what makes her fascinating to hang out with and mesmerising on screen. “When you watch her perform,” says Minghella. “You realise that you are witnessing a hot line to her inner being. There is this fabulous transparency to her even when she’s totally still.”
It’s a transparency, which probably costs her an enormous emotional price to achieve. Belinda Haas, who co-directed and wrote Up at the Villa and Angels and Insects has said that while shooting the final scene of Angels, when Scott Thomas’s character shakes down her hair and implores “look at me”, the actress broke out in a rash from the strain. To Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, “Kristin is one of greatest actresses of her generation.” And Philip Haas (Belinda’s partner) has raved that the 41-year-old actress can do anything: “She is without rival.” It is a far cry from her student days in London, when her shortsighted acting coach consigned her to the scrap heap of amateur dramatics.
In the past, Scott Thomas has talked at length about her tragic childhood growing up in Dorset. How her father died when she was five and her stepfather was killed six years later in a similar flying accident and how this operates as a sort of emotional battery for some of her work. But there is another element that fuels her best performances and contributes to her oft-noted aloofness. She clearly thinks of herself as an outsider, a misfit. “I love not looking like I belong to one country or the other. In France they say, ‘Oh, you look so English’. In England they say, ‘You look so French.’”
The character she most identifies with on screen is Fiona, the sexy chain-smoking wallflower in Four Weddings and a Funeral. “I love that character. I am very like her in a lot of ways. She is always slightly distant, watching everything from far away.”
Scott Thomas has lived in Paris for the past 21 years, moving there after that unrewarding stint at drama school. She arrived in the city as an au pair. “I was 19. I did it because it was the nearest, cheapest foreign place and I knew French, so it was the obvious thing to do,” she says. The French family she lived with took a shine to her and encouraged her to take up acting again. It was while attending college that she met her husband.
Today, Scott Thomas lives in a beaux-art building near the Jardins du Luxembourg and she has no intention of ever returning to Britain. “I don’t miss it,” she snaps. Well she admits to missing PG Tips, Marmite, oatcakes, Guinness and pickles, but nothing else. “Here I can go the movies. In London people stop in their tracks and stare.”
Our two days in Paris are almost over. But before we part, Scott Thomas insists we visit the converted train station Musee d’Orsay, a treasure house of Impressionist paintings. “I know you’ve seen them hundreds of times before, in a million suburban households, but they are still so beautiful,” she says steaming off through the galleries in pursuit of her favorite picture. The pale gray Calvin Klein trouser suit the magazine stylist eventually shoehorned her into is unraveling around the ankles, but Scott Thomas is unfazed. She is staring raptly at Bonnard’s Au lit (a picture of a girl lying in bed, hair tousled, covers pulled up to her chin). She sighs and says thoughtfully, “Sometimes I think I fucked up. If only I had stayed on at school, I might have ended up working somewhere like this.”
Fast-forward two years, to December 2001, and Scott Thomas is lounging on a couch in a swanky Manhattan hotel eating humus and pitta bread. She is relaxed and chummy, no trace of attitude or nervousness. She is in town to promote Gosford Park and now there is obviously no doubt in her mind that she is doing the right job. It has been an incredible year. For the past eight months, she has been on stage somewhere in France playing the lead in Berenice, a stripped-down classical tragedy by Racine. Her director, Lambert Wilson, told the French press, “We are witnessing the birth of a great tragedienne” and British theatre director Jonathan Kent reported, “She has every possibility of being a really remarkable actress on stage.”
Scott Thomas’s two new films Gosford Park and Life as a House are both riding high at the US box office. The latter is best described as a male menopause movie (“My husband loved it,” she chuckles). In it, Kevin Klein metamorphoses from a beleaguered loser to a super dad and virtuoso architect in the space of one brief summer. And then there is her new production company, KST Productions. Scott Thomas winces, “What a terrible lack of imagination. Every name we wanted was bought up – even Mad Cow Productions.”
She has purchased the film rights to two books; one is by Elisabeth Jane Howard and the other A L Kennedy’s Original Bliss about a battered housewife who teams up with a gregarious self-help guru. “It is about two people who are really not meant to go together,” Scott Thomas smirks, her crescent moon smile stretching from ear to ear. She loves stories about things that you don’t expect. In particular, people who turn out to be other than they seem.
Playing a battered housewife will be a huge departure from her usual film roles. She is evidently feeling stymied by the parts on offer. “Basically it all boils down to the fact that if you want an aristocratic beauty who can deliver a line in a cutting way then you hire KST,” she says. “But if you want a loud-mouthed shop assistant then you don’t call KST, because even if KST could do it, no-one is going to want to see her like that.”
After a moment’s pause, I see she is laughing. “Did you notice I was talking about myself in the third person? Things have changed since we last met. My head has gone like this [she gestures to indicate a giant balloon]. I play the Queen of Judea in Berenice, so I am getting used to The Royal ‘We’.”
On the way out, Scott Thomas collars me to test out another of her mad beauty finds. “You have to try this lip stuff, it’s great for lip sag. What a pity it doesn’t work for boobs too ….I would smear it on everywhere.”
Two weeks ago in Lyon we meet for the last time. Her stage run in Berenice is winding down. It must be the only classical tragedy in which no one falls on an asp, drives a sword through a relative or sends out a fleet of ships in pursuit of a lover. Berenice loves the Emperor Titus, but after five years together, he decides for reasons of state not to marry her and banishes her instead. It is basically two-and-a-half hours of prenuptial dispute in 17th-century rhyming couplets. A terrifying prospect, especially as I have dragged along a friend who speaks only high-school French. The man sitting next to us politely warns that he will be leaving before the final curtain, but at the end we are all three still sitting rapt as the play finishes.
Backstage Scott Thomas is standing around looking white as a sheet and limp as a doll. She is totally drained by the performance. “I was a bit S&M tonight,” she jokes nervously. “Usually I am a bit nicer than that.” She has that English habit of apologising even when there is nothing to apologise for. Her performance was flawless, a riveting study in minute gradations of hope, fear and despair. The theatre was full, as it is every night, and outside in the frigid midnight air, hoards of fans cling to the stage door hoping for a glimpse of their heroine before she jumps into a taxi and shuttles off to her hotel to collapse.
“It is really, really, really hard work,” she says of the part – “torturous”. She can’t face taking Berenice to London or New York as director Lambert Wilson wishes. But the play has restored her confidence in her abilities as an actress, she says. “I’m totally in control of my own performance and now I have this great big voice. It’s completely amazing.” Evidently at 41, Kristin Scott Thomas is in her prime. “You mean prime beef!” she says with a chuckle. For Scott Thomas, no amount of praise will ever be quite enough to convince her she is doing more than just OK.