Why Kristin Scott Thomas got bored with acting – and then came back

by Helen Barlow / 03 February, 2018
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Kirstin Scott Thomas at Cannes in 2013. Photo/Alamy

After a spell on stage, acclaimed actress Kristin Scott Thomas returns to the screen in two films this summer and is preparing to make her debut as a director.

The two movies marking the return of Kristin Scott Thomas to the big screen are set nearly 80 years apart, but they share a postcode: in Darkest Hour, she plays Clementine Churchill, the wife of the celebrated wartime occupant of No 10 Downing Street; in the black comedy The Party, she’s a modern-day MP, celebrating a promotion.

The 57-year-old, whose 70-plus screen credits include a dozen substantial parts in French cinema – a Paris resident since she was 19, she speaks French fluently – has not been much seen on screen in recent years. She turned her attention to stage work after what she calls “a bit of a crisis a few years ago”.

“I had just got really bored with being an actress on film,” she says. “Really fed up with it.”

She earned rave reviews for work in the West End, notably in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Old Times, and as Queen Elizabeth II in a production of Peter Morgan’s The Audience. She also took the title role in the Greek tragedy Electra at the Old Vic. “I did two years on the stage and that cured me!” she says, with a laugh. “But the work I’ve recently been doing on film has been such an enjoyable experience.”

Scott Thomas initially turned down the offer of the Clementine Churchill role, and director Joe Wright travelled to her Paris home to persuade her.

“I’d always wanted to work with Joe, and I was working exclusively with Gary [Oldman] and Joe, so it was also a bit of a no-brainer,” Scott Thomas says.

“I also wanted to play this woman I’d admired for a long time and always been fascinated by, because she was such an extraordinary woman, to be married to that man and put up with him.”

She was surprised to discover the relationship had been fiery and tender in equal parts. “They had these lovely names for each other. Clemmy referred to him as ‘pig’ and she was ‘cat’ and they would write to each other every day, even if they were in the same house. Then suddenly she’d fly off the handle and they would have these big fiery arguments about practical things.

Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill.

Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill.

“She was very much running the finances and was horrified by the amount of money he was spending – he loved expensive champagne and cigars. You can’t imagine Winston Churchill having to worry about bills, but that was very much part of their life.”

Clementine exerted her influence in other ways, too. “She would listen to his speeches and talk to him about what was going on in the world, give her opinions and support him. I’m not sure how much notice he took, but she was allowed to have her points of view.”

It was the lead role in The Party that lured Scott Thomas back to screen acting. Her signature hauteur perfectly suits her politician role in the 71-minute film, which director Sally Potter has called a portrait of “a broken England”. The Brexit vote took place during the shoot – “We were in shock,” recalls Scott Thomas. “We had three days of misery.”

In the climate of austerity that prevails in the British film industry, the movie was shot in two weeks on a small budget, but Potter was able to attract an impressive cast: Scott Thomas’s Janet is the host of the titular get-together and the seven-person ensemble includes Timothy Spall as her husband and Patricia Clarkson as her sharp-witted American friend April. Other guests are played by Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer and Cillian Murphy.

“It was a bit like being on a tightrope,” Scott Thomas recalls. “It was great fun, because the dialogue was clever, precise and inviting, but there was also the dangerous aspect of having to do it so quickly and having to really trust and bounce off people.”

As Janet, who hosts the party in The Party.

Janet, whose political affiliation is never mentioned, is throwing a small party to celebrate her elevation to shadow health minister, but secrets and lies of a non-political nature soon begin to emerge.

“Janet is a woman with a purpose, with a blind faith in what she does, and that amused me,” says Scott Thomas. “There’s also a sense of treachery in that she has a fantastic double life.

“Playing a character that’s lying is obviously more tempting than playing a character that is being fantastically truthful. She’s a woman with so many layers of secrets that, if revealed, are going to be catastrophic.”

The actress, who has three grown children with ex-husband François Olivennes, last year added another French-language film, Au Bout des Doigts, to the dozen or so she’s made.

And she is preparing her directing debut, an adaptation of The Sea Change, the 1959 novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard. The story follows the unhappy marriage of a famous London playwright (Mark Strong) and his wife (Scott Thomas), as their lives takes an unexpected turn when they travel to a remote Greek island.

“The best way of making films for me is if they are small-budget, with a small crew and straight to the point,” Scott Thomas says, intimating it will be very much like The Party.

“I was always lurking around the monitor and looking over Sally’s shoulder. But I’ve done a good many films and hopefully some of those experiences have seeped through my rather thick skin.

“Also, if you like the humiliation you get when you’re an actor, why not go one step further and take responsibility for the whole thing?”

Darkest Hour is in cinemas now. The Party opens on February 22.

This article was first published in the January 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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