Emma Thompson talks Stranger than Fiction, politics, Nanny McPhee and fame.
There is a new strain of political filmmaking but I have found that some people who are in the films don’t want to speak politically, don’t want to be political, whereas it has never bothered you.
“I don’t think you can avoid it. Look, here’s the thing [puts down her coffee]: issues of poverty and homelessness and Aids, they are profoundly political issues, which is why I only work with charities that are not afraid of being political. The word charity is so out of date it’s ridiculous anyway. But you cannot be involved with them without being political. This is what drives me up the wall. No wonder we don’t live in a functioning democracy when everybody’s so fucking scared of being political. No wonder!”
Is there still the fear around that by talking about politics as one’s self rather than as a character one could pose a risk to one’s career?
“Any business that involves money or consumerism of any kind is scared of politics. The business itself can’t afford to be political. The entertainment industry is scared of being political. Everyone is scared of it. Because, you know, it becomes so dissociated. It’s like we are dissociated from what we think we have, a democracy. It’s rubbish.”
OK, lets go back to the first time we met, at the Venice Film Festival, where you were promoting Imagining Argentina, which was slammed by critics. Some of the press regarded the film as your comeback movie and if that is how you also viewed it, did that make the experience all the more fraught?
“Well the word comeback makes me feel as if I had gone away on purpose, which I hadn’t. You know, I think it’s good for any actor or any writer or any director to take time off. It doesn’t mean to say you’ve gone away. Just because of the way the business works, you’re told you have to be out there all the time; you don’t have to take notice of that or believe that at all, because it’s rubbish. If you’re an artist and you have something to say, wait until you’ve got something you really want to say and then say it. And then shut the fuck up and go away. That’s how I feel about it. So no, I didn’t regard it like that. And no, I wasn’t upset about it at all. In fact I was the opposite. I was rather braced by it. I thought, ‘Oh, how interesting.’
“I’ve had enough success in my life to be able to cope with that sort of thing. But also it was very fascinating. I thought, ‘Bloody hell, this is quite peculiar.’ Certainly in Venice the reaction was contemptuous, angry and vicious. And then later on, I realised, ‘Oh my gawd . . .’ There was a woman who came up to me once and she said, ‘I saw the film and you shouldn’t have made it.’ I said ‘That’s an interesting remark. Why do you think that?’ She said ‘I saw the film and then I went out for dinner with my friends and in the middle of dinner I burst into tears and I couldn’t stop crying.’ I said ‘Do you think that’s an inappropriate response to the film?’ and she said ‘It was irresponsible.’ Well you might agree, I don’t know, Stephen. I’m very, very used to journalists agreeing with me and then disagreeing in print.”
I think if a film with that kind of subject matter makes you feel that way then it can only be a good thing. To me that’s a most appropriate reaction. I think the journalist you mentioned should have been pleased by her reaction to the material.
“But not it seems. The response journalists used to, as it were, nullify [Imagining Argentina], was to ridicule it, which is a very powerful thing to do, although I don’t agree with them at all. I simply don’t agree. And nor does Chris [Hampton, writer/director] and nor does Amnesty International and nor do the people that we’ve shown it to that have actually been through those experiences. I felt, you know, it was probably not a good idea to show it to a room full of rationalists. We probably should not have been at a film festival. That was completely inappropriate. We should have gone in a completely different direction. I think we made a lot of mistakes, collectively, so now the film has a different life and we show it for people like the Helen Bamber Foundation, because we think it’s very relevant to all kinds of disappearances.”
Will you try re-releasing it?
“No, I don’t think we’d do that. You know, we released here, we released it in Spain. But I think the damage was so terrible in Venice, it was so complete, and I’m sure there are a lot of people that are glad. They really believed it shouldn’t be seen. So, you know, they should feel very happy because they did a good job.”
It is crazy to take that kind of stance against a film like that because the subject matter should at least be discussed.
“There was another argument that this all makes it seem . . . I don’t know, I can’t remember. But I think the point was that somehow we’re not doing the people who suffered that any favours, which I think is sort of mad. It’s mad. The whole response to telling a story that is real using a fictional method is mad, because that is how we do it. We’ve got a million World War 2 pictures that are like that. We fantasise all the time. But the fantasy didn’t suit them for some reason. The magical realism is something that is very, very not Western. It’s alien to us and we don’t like it; as long as it’s over in its own bit that’s fine.”
Tell me why you think the film is relevant now.
“Well we’ve got disappearances in Guantanamo Bay. We’ve people being taken away and no questions being asked at all because they could be terrorists. We’re going to have it here and it’s going to get worse. It’s just fucking disastrous for our city. It’s a fucking disaster. Anyone who lives in London and cares about London should get involved. They have to get involved. We’ve got to somehow start talking about the legislation that the government is just slipping through under the wire. There’s no indefinite leave to remain anymore so my semi-adopted refugee son, who’s 18 now, got indefinite leave to remain when he was a minor. But it wouldn’t have been granted to him, despite his having been through the most appalling circumstances, and after two years having become this incredible young man. We are a place capable of healing people that have been through terrible times and a healed person is a very useful person indeed.”
Do you think the people who come here having suffered traumatic experiences are getting the help they require, not just in terms of housing, say, but also treatment for mental health issues?
“There’s nothing there. People who have been tortured, who have had the most appalling things happen to them, are put into these terrible little bed-sits and they’re provided with things like white bread and jam. Things they shouldn’t eat. Things that make them iller. When [my semi-adopted son] arrived, he spent two nights sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square because they didn’t believe his story. He was 16 and, you know, he’d been hurt and raped and then he arrived here. Our response to him was the reason that he had one moment of feeling suicidal. Now, having said that, there are some really good responses, but we are getting it so wrong. So, so wrong. It’s unbearable, actually.”
Are you still a Labour supporter and has your loyalty been strained in recent times?
“What’s the alternative? Is it not better to work with really good people that you can find? You’re not going to find any organisation that’s going to be staffed by entirely great, committed, fantastic people. But you’ve got to find the really great, committed, fantastic people and work with them, because in that way you make any organisation better. I don’t like talking about the Labour Party per se because it’s a collection of people like anything. Like an NGO, like any organisation. It’s big, it’s big, and perhaps that’s the problem. Any government’s going to be problematic, frankly, in my view. But I’d much rather have this one than the other one I had. Also, I think in Gordon Brown we’ve got someone who does know and really care about the issues of poverty. But I will repeat what I said earlier that it does seem nobody’s talking about some of the real issues which will affect us. The fact that if you do have supermarkets and very, very large businesses and organisations that control the distribution of food, they’re going to have to be accountable to the producers. You know, the fact is the government isn’t accountable to coffee growers, but Waitrose and Sainsbury’s are. And they’ve got to become accountable. So that’s our problem.”
How do you see that shift happening?
“You’ve got to make an agreement with the public that they’re going to pay more for things [smiles]. If they want an equitable world then they’re going to have to realise that certain things do not come cheap unless other people are being oppressed. That’s the message.”
This kind of thing, especially the link between poverty, low wage workers and cheap goods sold in the West does seem to be being addressed more now, and documentaries like, say, The Corporation have tried to raise consciousness through film. It does seem to be something that is on people’s minds.
“I didn’t see The Corporation but I did see Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. It’s not the best made documentary ever but, Jesus, the venality of it just takes your breath away. It’s a real lesson about big organisations. In fact there’s a very good article by David Ransom in the New Internationalist last month about Bingos, the big international NGOs, and about, you know, the fact that if we continue to make our organisations essentially a patriarchal structure, the same kind of hierarchy where it all works in the same way, well, we’ve got to start thinking smaller.”
You’re working with the UN and isn’t the problem it has in tackling an issue like Aids that the major corporations have too much power and too much to lose.
“Yes, so what you have to do is make losing their . . . it’s the difference between Pinochet before and after the trial. If you make it criminal to make a profit out of people’s death and pain and anguish, then you could put a company out of business like that [snaps her finger], because they really, really care about that stuff. GlaxoSmithKline does not want to look like a complete shit bag. The corporate image is a strong thing but it also has a lot of weaknesses. And one of its weaknesses is its own solipsism, its own narcissism. Corporations have a deeply narcissistic quality. Of course they do, because they are to do with the consumer society which is only about developing people’s narcissism. That is what we live in and we have to face that fact head on.
“It’s not funny at all that we do all that advertising for children. Why is advertising for children allowed? What possible reason can there be for having those effing adverts on ITV for all this crap that’s made by poor people in poor countries that we sell our children who have too much? [Throws up he hands and looks almost embarrassed] Sorry, I can’t stand the hypocrisy of it. And, actually, in the end, for me the only way of going about it is to say, ‘You’re morally bankrupt. So let’s see whatever cases and forms and organisations we can evolve that work better. Because you chums are fucked. And you’re fucking us.’ I’m so angry about the whole thing – she said unnecessarily.”
How do you protect children from that?
“You ban advertising for children.”
But how do you, personally, try to protect your daughter from it?
“Don’t you remember not being allowed to watch ITV? I wasn’t allowed to watch ITV when I was a child because of the adverts.”
But there are many more channels now.
“We only have terrestrial. So my daughter, who’s five, she gets to watch the cartoons in the morning, but she likes CBBC. So we’re kind of OK, at the moment. And, you know, talk about having radical plans in place but I think that . . . you see, for instance in America, they’ve got this take-your-daughter-to-work initiative, because they’ve found, and this is of course a huge generalisation and I don’t know who did the research, so I can’t back it up with any names or figures, but it’s about the age of nine that American girls seem to be losing their grip on reality and seem to be turning in on themselves, a lot of eating disorders, having been so brainwashed by the magazines, the media, etc, that they stop looking outwards, they stop wanting to achieve. It’s a kind of self-loathing I suppose. I mean in order to produce a really successful consumer society, you’ve got to make people need things as well as want things, or think they need things. And if you make them feel inadequate it’s very easy. Girls are very subject to that in my experience, and they’ve found the best way of getting round it is social work. As soon as they start doing something to help other people they stop, because, of course, it’s not narcissistic. Narcissism is where we will always fall down. If we’re thinking about ourselves all the time and what the next shade of lipstick is that we’re going to buy, then of course there is nowhere else to go except to discontent. There is nowhere else to go. And we are offering our kids very little else. Very little else.”
I remember we did things like the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme when I was younger.
“Yeah, and I did Task Force when I was a kid. I looked after old people, looked after handicap kids, summer holiday jobs -- that was all that I did. And every time I did it I thought, ‘God, I’m so lucky. I’m so lucky.’ Because, you know, at 15, I’d be picking up seriously disabled kids from like Snowman House, down the West End Lane, and thinking, ‘How’s that mother coping? She’s got three kids, one’s disabled, she’s in a block of flats, how does she cope?’ I’d be getting home and thinking, ‘Oh God, I’ve got my own room. I’ve got my own room.’ Just to have your own space, that’s a luxury. We have to start teaching our children that you have to look beyond yourself, beyond your family, beyond your immediate tribe. That now we have to all become responsible. That’s what democracy is, it’s being active. It’s not walking past every single homeless person on the street as though they’re not there. It’s just saying look, even if I can’t do it every day, at least once a week I’m going to sit down and have a conversation. Bung them a few quid or whatever is necessary but to have a conversation, to say, look, it’s not everybody who doesn’t care, that’s important.”
Has your celebrity ever got in the way of your being able to do that?
“I’m not known in that way. So it’s very rare that someone I’ll sit and talk to knows who I am, actually.”
Was it a conscious decision on your part early on not to fully embrace celebrity?
“I think it was a conscious aversion, probably, in the sense that I don’t like dressing up. I have every sympathy for, in fact I admire, people who dress up consistently and go out and everything, I think it’s very nice. I remember when I was doing Me and My Girl in the West End talking to folk outside the stage door about the past, and the first time that show was done with Lupino Lane and the rest. Of course they were stars but because it was before celebrity these were very talented people who had worked very hard all their lives, and they put on a show. When they came out of that stage door they were dressed up to the nines -- Gertrude Lawrence, Noel Coward – then they would trot off to the Savoy and people would go, ‘Wow.’ That doesn’t really happen anymore. What happens is people become aggrandised in other much less accessible ways, and it’s nasty now. I think it’s really nasty now. The relationship between the media, the press, and celebrity is getting kind of abusive on both sides, and twisted, really twisted.”
You’ve often had a raw deal, I’d say, with the press.
“Well they haven’t held back, have they?”
How do you feel when you look back at what has been written? I felt that there was so much caricaturing that went on, particularly during your relationship with Kenneth Branagh and the films from Peter’s Friends to the Shakespeare movies.
“My interpretation is neither here nor there. And of course it’s so long ago I can barely remember it, to be honest with you. I suppose you’re right but I honestly can’t remember much about it. We had a nice time making that Peter’s Friends. And if you look at it, we had a million dollars to make it and four weeks, so we got as many mates together as possible because that’s the quickest way of doing it, plus we’re cheaper. You can get half a pound of mates cheaper than half a pound of actors who are all going to say, ‘How much is he being paid?’ and ‘How much is she being paid?’ Plus it’s supposed to be a group of mates, so, you know, we just sort of did it as quickly and cheaply as possible. And I think we were very lucky to have the opportunity and were very lucky that some people liked it. There’s nothing more to be said about it than that. It’s unimportant. It doesn’t matter.”
Going back to this supposed comeback, some writers suggested that a comment you made at the time of Wit meant you were considering retiring from acting.
“[Laughs] Steve, just, you know, for your information, I can’t afford to retire from acting. What else am I going to do to earn money? I just stopped for a bit because I was becoming a mum. You know, that was all.”
How has motherhood and marriage changed your outlook and the choices that you make vis-à-vis roles?
“Well, you know, there’s mostly practical things. You say, generally, no to things that are shooting in the Sahara for seven weeks because you can’t take anyone with you. What have I done since I had Gaia? I did Wit, which was, you know, seven weeks at Pinewood. No problem. Angels in America was quite a big deal but the big chunk of it, which was two months in New York, we all went together. And last year I did Nanny McPhee, which was here. This year I’ve done Stranger than Fiction, which was in Chicago for three weeks, but that’s been it. So what influences my choices is school and school holidays. I only go to work if I’ve absolutely got to, because I’ve got to earn money. Because contrary to popular belief, I’m not sitting on vast piles of millions that I can live off for the rest of my life, nice though that might be. Although I don’t think it would be very nice. I don’t. I think it would interfere with your creative impulses. I was having a conversation about this with Nick Hornby, because we’re writing a romantic comedy together [Fast Forward], which we’re hoping to make this year. I’ve loved writing with Nick, it’s been great. And it’s great writing with a North Londoner who’s the same age as me, I think he’s maybe two years older, and we were talking about having to go to work and that it would be odd not to have to. But if you have that then it also sort of hones your choices. You’ve got to be very careful about what you do, I think, and you’ve got to be very careful about the stories you tell. You’ve got too choose them very carefully, I think.”
Jeanette Winterson said you don’t separate anything in your life, your politics, your social conscience, love, whatever, it all goes into your work. It’s a full expression of who you are.
“Probably, yeah. If you were to do some essay on it you would probably find that that was the case.”
After watching Nanny McPhee I read about Alone in London and I was surprised by how the messages in the film about family coincide with the aims of the charity.
“I don’t suppose it’s accidental but it is part of the fact that the fabric is the same, I suppose.”
What do you think drew you to the Nurse Matilda books? Was their relative obscurity attractive because of the creative freedom it would give you?
“No, it wasn’t that. It was literally the thing of picking it up and thinking, ‘Hm, somebody changes as behaviour changes.’ I think that says something interesting about perception. And also it’s about someone who’s good no matter what they look like, and kind no matter what they look like, so you can’t work out why they’re changing. I just thought that was a really wonderful visual thing. And when I rung Lindsay [Doran, producer], who is the person I like working with the most, as soon as I said to her just that little thing, she said, ‘Oh yeah.’ So I sent her the book and, of course, at that point realised there’s no plot, and thought [panicky tone], ‘Oh fuck. Fuck, fuck, I’m fucked. There’s no plot. I’m going to have to write a whole film.’ So that’s why it took so long. Seven years, on and off. It took forever, Steve, honestly. Forever [laughs].”
You were also an Oscar-winning screenwriter when you sat down to write this one. Did that weigh on you at all?
“No, no, no, you’ve just to make it the best you can. I don’t mind about things failing. If you can’t fail, as my father once memorably said to me, you can’t do anything because you’ll never take a risk. If you start thinking because you had a success doing one kind of thing that you’ve got to be just as good at the next, than why are you doing it? Are you doing it in order to be good at it or are you doing it because you’re really, really interested in it, and really interested in telling that story and that’s what you want to put all your soul into? You can’t do it just because you want to be good. That’s not a good enough reason. The work is too hard and too long and too grinding, actually.”
Do you enjoy writing? Some of your writer friends, according to a newspaper piece I read, suggested that you might give up writing screenplays and work on books instead, because writing is the thing that’s always moved you.
“I’ve never wanted to write a novel. I’m a screenwriter; I don’t want to write a novel. I understand why they might think I’d want to write a novel but I have no desire to write a novel. Maybe I’ll have a desire later along the line but it’s very specific what I want to do. When I started writing I wanted to write comedy, sketch comedy, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be Lily Tomlin. Screenwriting, in a way, is the same kind of extension as sort of being a sketch actress and then becoming an actress who does longer roles. Do you know what I mean? Because a sketch is dialogue, it’s people in rooms. That’s what I like writing.”
So going back to Nanny McPhee, it was tough finding the structure?
“Oh, it was a killer. You know, the thing is it was the structure. And the plot, of course, which I find really hard. I find dialogue and character easier. As well I think the most difficult thing was making it as attractive to adults as it is to children. That was my aim. That was my thing. At least I wanted it to please me. In the end that’s all you can do. It’s like me and Nick writing our 85th draft for Fast Forward. Finally you get to a slightly resentful patch where you just say, ‘Look, we’ve just got to like it. It’s got to be what we want it to be.’ Because, finally, in the end, that’s what matters.”
Because you were writing for kids, were you conscious of there being a line you couldn’t cross, that there was a step too far?
“That but also just how do you make it fun and funny and joyful and emotional and dramatic for everyone? That’s hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
You’re dealing in big themes in it. [An intercom trills and Thompson is called to the front door. She returns looking sheepish.]
“Talk about the dissonance of life. There’s a bag there from Prada who have very kindly said they will help me finding gear to travel in and go and do all the publicity in. So there’s me talking about consumerism and branding and all of that. I remember seeing, I think it was in New York in one of these art galleries, one young artist had made this installation, it was Auschwitz, he’d made it out of cardboard and pieces of paper like a model of Auschwitz, and all of it had the Prada brand on it. I never forgot it, actually. I found it a very powerful image, although you interpret it in all kinds of ways, like there was a big bean can which had Zyklon-B on it. It was the selling of stuff and the connection between selling and killing. It was very interesting.”
In Nanny McPhee, your’e dealing with quite big themes – death, grief, bereavement, marriage, anger, love, not communicating. Something like death, which isn’t overplayed in the film, you have the chair symbolising the absence of the mother . . .
“There’s a few corpses as well. I was very surprised and thrilled when the censors board gave us a U because it meant they understood that there is nothing there that is meant to shock or to disturb, that in fact it’s the opposite, that I think children understand death very, very well.”
How early do you think children should be introduced to the concept of death? In fact I was talking to your latest director, Marc Forster, whose films are very preoccupied with death, and he said he thought we’d lost the death rite in the West and that children should be introduced to the reality at quite an early age.
“Whether they should is an interesting question, because children are introduced to death whether they like or not sometimes. So what are we saying? If death comes along, have we any way of dealing with it? We’ve got two kids who have just lost their mum, say. Do they come to Nanny McPhee or don’t they? Is it helpful or is it not? You can’t introduce children to death per se, because death is not something you can’t know about until you experience it. I started experiencing it very early on, really. Twenty-one is quite early to sort of see many [laughs and clicks her fingers] people dropping off the twig right, left and centre. So I’m quite blasé about death now. I don’t know.”
Is the point, though, making it something that shouldn’t be feared?
“Absolutely. Not be feared. Death should always be with us and not feared. Life’s last great adventure, you know? Of course Americans think it’s optional, death. And I think the avoidance of age, indeed, and death, are disastrous to our minds and the way in which our minds develop. Very bad.”
This was Marc’s point. He felt that the fear of death was at the root of most fear and it held people back.
“Oh that’s a very interesting thing to say. I think that’s very true.”
He also lost people in quick succession, which is why his films are coloured by death.
“Yeah he did. He really did. That’s why I suppose it wouldn’t occur to us to mind about failing. We’re both very anti-authoritarian. Because, in a way, you just sort of realise, well get on with it. You know, you can sleep when you’re dead. When you’re dead everything’s over anyway, so just get on with it. And don’t be frightened about failing because it’s just a nasty feeling and then you get on with it. You get up and start again. Everyone is better for it.”
Are you still working on the screenplay of a Victor Jara biography because in Venice you were saying that’s a tough one and you had to be prepared to fail?
“I wrote two versions of that that didn’t work because they were still biopics. Two things happened at once, really. I did do one research trip to Chile after I’d had Gaia but I don’t think it’s something I’d be able write unless I went and lived in Chile for a little while -- took the family and went -- and that’s not possible at the moment. The next thing that happened after that realisation had occurred was that Joan, Victor’s widow, decided that she didn’t want a film made of his life, which I completely understood. And she also, I think, felt another thing that I would stand and support, that she wanted Chileans to make it if it was going to be made at all. I said, ‘Well absolutely. Anything that I have written, you’re very welcome to.’ And I continue to support the foundation.”
Going back to Nanny McPhee, did you read Victoria Coren’s piece where she wrote that Nanny McPhee probably represented the kind of nanny most wives now wanted after the Jude Law affair, apparently overlooking the point that McPhee actually changes.
“[laughs] And some people start to think, ‘Ooh, maybe Mr Brown’s going to go off with Nanny McPhee.’”
It does add a frisson to their scenes.
“I also love the idea at the end of me and Kelly, two women who are so, so different, coming down together. There’s something very important about that, I think, because there’s not just a mother in a family there’s also other women that you can make as important. Sometimes I think the pressure on mothers is so important that you’ve got to be this central thing. In Africa, people are always talking about the way African babies don’t cry. Well one of the reasons they don’t cry is they’re surrounded by women. Loads of them! Aunty after aunty after aunty! It’s not just Mum. It’s never just Mum. Like with my family, we’ve got my mum, two aunts, and so on.”
You all live very nearby to one another, don’t you?
“Well Sophie’s [her sister] five minutes away and my mum’s over the road. And my sister-in-law’s five minutes in the other direction. And that is so, so helpful.”
Have you ever used a nanny or did you have a nanny as a child?
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. My mum and dad were a lot less wealthy than we are at the time, they were really quite poor actors, but they had to have an au pair because they had to work. And if they hadn’t both been able to work, they wouldn’t have been able to pay the bills. In fact some years they couldn’t I think. I have a nanny who came onboard when Gaia was about nine months old. Of course now things are very different, because Gaia’s five and a half. But there are little funny moments where Greg and me will be working at the same time. So she’s part-time at the minute and her daughter, who’s two, is my goddaughter. So Gaia, who’s an only child, will have this sort of sister. So in fact it’s another part of the extended family. I don’t think families can be big enough [laughs]. You know, you extend and extend and extend, and of course the connections get more tenuous as you get further away from the centre of the web, but that’s how life works best. For children and for adults, if you’re running a family, you need a lot of people. And the more people you have -- not necessarily right in the middle of your home, I think that lack of space is one of life’s big problems, especially in urban societies – the better, because extending your view is so good for kids.”
You make it clear in the film how difficult it must be for nannies to cut the ties with children they’ve been caring for, but it’s kind of a fact of the job.
“I wonder how often parents think about that and say, ‘Well, we don’t need a nanny anymore.’ Well hold on a minute, your kids have known this person for four years, and known them perhaps, and seen them possibly, more than they’ve seen you. And you just get rid of them? I wouldn’t dream of doing that to Gaia because she loves Viv. She’s part of the family.”
One of the things I liked in the film was when Nanny McPhee arrives and it’s the kids’ lack of manner that help her decide that they need her. But at the end of the film the kids are allowed to disrupt the wedding with a food fight. It’s like you’re saying manners and discipline are important but there are other times when passion and action are required if you feel a wrong is being done. This seems to me to reflect the way you’ve conducted your life.
“Mm, exactly. In fact, funnily enough, that’s connected to something I just wrote down. Someone wrote to me from Cambridge with a questionnaire about what were you like when you were 21, and what do you know now that you wish you had known then. One of the things I wrote down was, ‘However older and wiser someone may appear, they are not necessarily right.’ It’s very, very important to remember that. Sometimes they are but you’ll know because things chime in with your instincts. You’ve got to learn to use your instincts. That’s what Nanny McPhee’s teaching them as well. She watches Simon at the end and he’s using all his intelligence and he’s feeling that this is not right and there must be some solution. It’s a wonderful feeling if you’re a parent.
“You know, this is to do with family mediation. If you can find a way out of a conflict that’s not forced or painful or violent, it’s such a fantastic feeling. It’s like conflict resolution, either on a large scale or a small scale. It’s like watching Sebastian with his knots and then suddenly she just lifts the kite up and it magically untangles. You can do that if you approach problems, and emotional problems, with the right kind of energy. You can dissolve things rather than breaking them. But you need time, and sometimes training.”
What do you hope kids will take away from the film?
“Well I never think in terms of messages and all that crap, I can’t be doing with that at all. It’s too prescriptive and not what I was trying to do. But the main thing about writing it was that I wanted the children to be the heroes. Often in films about children they’re kind of generic children who behave in a childlike way but don’t have characters of their own and certainly aren’t central to the solving of the problem necessarily. And if they are they’re kind of unbelievably good. It’s not that difficult thing of really, really trying and really having to think, and sometimes having to make sacrifices or compromises and all of that. So I suppose to identify with the children and how they behave and how they find their way, but retain their capacity to break out when necessary, seems ideal to me.
“We live in a particular kind of society here and my kid, she says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ because I trained her. I know mums and dads who don’t want to teach their children or train their children to say please and thank you until they want to say it. But my argument is this is the society we live in and people are going to be nicer to you if you say please and thank you. They’re just going to like you more. And the more they like you, the easier it’s going to be. Life’s hard enough without people thinking, ‘That little cunt of a child has come to my house, had lunch, dinner and tea and hasn’t said thank you.’ Whether they mean it or not, I don’t care. I want to hear a thank you. I’m very fierce with kids when they come. ‘I don’t like broccoli.’ ‘I don’t want to hear what you don’t like. I just want you to say thank you for my lovely dinner. You can leave what you don’t like, I’m not interested.’”
So how much of you is there in Nanny McPhee? When you were writing her, did you draw on any of your own traits, or knowing that you would be playing the role, tailor it to your strengths?
“I didn’t at all. I had enough problems, Steve, with making the children work. And, indeed, bringing the number of children down from innumerable to seven [laughs]. Funnily enough, she’s a woman of very words, for a start.”
She’s very still.
“She’s very still. And to be honest I didn’t really find out how to do it until I was doing it. One of the women who was on the team, a fantastic woman who looked after the kids and sort of trained them as we were going along, one day she said to me, quite accidentally, as she was looking at a scene and we were talking about Nanny McPhee and how the hell I didn’t know what I was doing, ‘Well it’s sort of mask work, isn’t it?’ It was really helpful because I suddenly realised that with mask work, of course, it’s a very interior thing and you’re not present in the same way. You certainly don’t have to move your face around so you can forget your face. I’m not very good at that because I think I’ve got to do something with my face. But I didn’t have to do anything with my face, really.”
Before we finish, could you talk a bit about the work you’re doing with ActionAid and also Helen Bamber’s organisation?
“Well ActionAid, I have been working with them for about three or four years and I’ve done three trips for them. Travelling’s difficult now that Gaia’s older, it’s much harder to go away, so a lot of the stuff I do is communicating their work. It’s really the work of the organisations they support. The point about them is that even though they’re quite a big NGO, all the work they do is grassroots, small community-based work. So I go so that I can communicate about that work so that people know what it is exactly they are supporting, and also to encourage them to become more engaged. Because the other thing that’s got to happen now is that people have to engage. We’re going to have to learn and be far more involved. If we’re going to understand poverty and how it works we’re going to have to understand the economics of it and the politics of it. So there’s a long way to go. And I like ActionAid a lot because they’re political. The guy who runs it now, Ramesh Singh, is fantastic. He’s Nepalese and he was born into a really poor family, the type of family that AcionAid would be helping now, and he came up through in various ways and he started to become an activist. He’s a true activist. An activist as I understand it. We use the word about white people with comfortable lives, and actually the true activist is someone who comes from a really, really, really terrible, challenging background and works within that community to activate things. That’s what Ramesh is. He’s done it all. So from the top of the organisation in Johannesburg, where they run the ship from, to all the little community organisations, I’ve never met anyone that wasn’t completely committed and engaged with all the socio-economic, political implications of the work and where it all connects to. It’s nothing to do with charity. It’s everything to do with full human responsibility. And that’s why I like them.“And it’s the same with Alone in London. I think their family mediation work is great and they’ve really shared it. They’ve shared it with lots of other organisations. I haven’t actually sat down with kids for quiet a long time, so I’ve neglected them a bit recently. But I can’t do everything at once and that’s all there is to it. You know, it’s all family. It’s all family! And that’s why you have to sit down and talk to people because you’re going to find out that that girl sitting there, her mother was a fucking arsonist and set fire to the house with her in it, or the entire family was alcoholic and she was the only adult. That’s the most terrible thing: a lot of the times these kids are survivors. It’s like refugees and asylum seekers, they’re often extraordinary people because the very fact they’re here at all means they’ve survived unbelievable hardship. And it’s true of young people on the streets, which is why you must talk to them. Say, ‘What happened?’”
Do you find something in these people that you don’t find elsewhere necessarily because you have said before that you’re drawn to people who have had hard lives, tough experiences?
“Yes, I think I do. And they’re often very much more interesting than people who have had nice comfortable lives, thank you very much. They’ve really got something to offer because they’ve worked things out. They’ve solved really difficult problems. Someone who was on the street might have solved a really difficult problem by being there. And then they’re being treated like they don’t exist because they don’t happen to have a home. So find out. That’s what I mean by engaging.”
What did you find when you went to Africa and how has that affected you?
“Yeah, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Uganda.”
How did that experience affect you? And how did you see the issue of Aids being dealt with out there? When you did Angels in America that was about attitudes to the illness in America in the Eighties under Reagan. Was there a correlation between now in Africa and then in America?
“Good question, yeah. Angels in America was, as you say, the ‘gay plague’ – the epidemic in the Eighties that attacked mostly gay men. I mean you talk to the nurses, we had a great male nurse on our set, who said, ‘You can’t imagine what it was like. It was a war zone.’ We know about that and the positives and negatives that came out of that plague, as things started to change, and people who had gay sons and were forced into re-evaluating all sorts of things. “This Aids plague, this pandemic, is very similar in the sense that it holds the seeds of revolution, actually; a revolution towards women’s rights. Particularly towards women’s rights, because until women have jurisdiction over their own bodies, nothing’s going to change. And I noticed that particularly in Ethiopa where the issue of women’s rights wasn’t even at the top of the ActionAid agenda. That was what I said at the end of the trip: ‘You make that your first priority because you have a Muslim community here, and Muslim, whether you believe in the religion or not, I don’t care because I don’t care about being polite, because the fact is people are dying. Because in some of those religious set ups, women have no say and no rights, and that’s not on. I think that’s crap. And it has to be dealt with.’ And, you know, the Muslim community’s really going to have to look at itself. I’m sorry, I know you’re not supposed to say these things, it’s not politically correct, you’re supposed say, ‘But yes, that’s their culture.’ Well, if it’s their culture then everyone’s going to die.”
There seems to be a huge amount of denial going on about the issue, particularly in countries like Zimbabwe.
“Huge denial. Everyone’s in denial. The guys are in denial, never mind the Muslim men. African men are going to have to change their ways because a lot of them think it is their right to shag whoever they want to shag. Also, men are put in impossible situations, like the whole sort of work thing of having to go away for months at a time in order to be able to buy a table. I remember sitting with someone, this was in Mozambique, and he had to go off and he worked in South Africa for six months, and when he came back he bought a table. That’s what it earned him. His wife said, ‘Yeah, yeah, well you finish off on the farm, then you go off and see all those ladies and contract Aids.’ Women’s rights are really, seriously at the top of the list of stuff that has to be addressed when we think about Aids, and Aids is our biggest emergency. Aids and poverty, because they’re linked totally. There’s no distinction really. When you start to deal with one you’re dealing with the other. Because as soon as you provide water to a community, then people who are HIV+ are better off.
“The trips, to me, even if I won’t be able to do them for a couple of years, we’re helping my friend, Noerine Kaleeba, who’s the Chair of ActionAid, to build a school for her to run in Uganda, which we really feel should be an exchange school so there’s a lot of exchange. If we want to dismantle the consumer society to a certain degree then take your kids. Go to Africa and say, ‘Look, there are other ways of living.’ Just be aware, just see, just look, because as soon as you’ve got that in your head, you don’t care about your next pair of trainers anymore. I mean even my daughter who’s five knows about stuff because her [semi-adopted] brother went to her school and we taught them about how people collected water, you know? Just to be taken away from that sort of juggernaut of consumerism, that sort of heavy, heavy feeling of going into a gigantic supermarket and just thinking, ‘Oh Jesus Christ Almighty, what the hell is going on here?’ It’s mad.”
It’s a tough battle because many towns now have an Asda, a Tesco, a Sainsbury’s, all offering cheap food and clothes.
“Oh yeah, it’s a really tough fight. You know, we’re never going to go back to the little shops on the street. We might be able to support farmers’ markets a bit more. That might occur. I haven’t really thought about this but the most anyone really wants is to make sure our supermarkets are accountable to the producers. If we can manage that we will have come a long way and that will necessarily make them smaller, because things will not be available to us.”
Can you say something about Stranger than Fiction, before we finish up?
“Sure. That was something I did in May. A guy called Zach Helm wrote it, a young Chicagoan, really nice guy, fantastic writer, and how it happened was Lindsey sent me the script and said, ‘This is not for you to do anything but act in.’ I read just three pages and rang them and said, ‘Yup, I’m on.’ It wasn’t even me, particularly, it was just the quality of the writing. It’s so good. It’s Will Ferrell, playing straight, and he’s utterly wonderful. He’s playing someone who is very concerned with numbers and works with the IRS, and he starts hearing a voice, his own life being narrated, and I’m the author. It’s about a character in search of an author and an author in search of a death. Again, death.”
That’s what I said to Marc, he is again dealing with death. He said exactly but it’s funny and no one actually dies.
“It’s funny, there’s no death, and it’s very romantic. I got to fall in love with Dustin Hoffman, which wasn’t difficult.”
How is he to work with?
I’d imagine it’s a lot of fun – these days.
“Exactly as you say, these days. It’s funny because I was talking to him, and I just adored him, and, you know, he’s done a lot of work on himself. At 67 he’s come out of stardom into some new place where he’s able to do Meet the Fockers. He’s just heaven in that. He’s heaven in this film. You just get reminded again and again of how great these guys are. I mean who have we got who can touch Dustin when he was young? Or Steve McQueen, who I just saw again in Bullit? We don’t have those guys. We don’t have Redford and Newman and Hoffman, we just don’t fucking have them. We’ve got boys who are all buff and with nothing in their heads. I’m fed up with it, actually.”
Isn’t this all part of the celebrity culture? A lot of people are just there for the fame, for the celebrity.
“That it’s drawing the wrong kind of thing, yeah. It perhaps used to be different. Because when I speak to students, because I remember speaking to students in Chicago at the theatre school, I said, ‘If it’s fame you want, you’re in the wrong job. It has to be a side effect that you cope with well or badly, really, it doesn’t matter.’ I mean Sean Penn is someone who doesn’t enjoy fame, I imagine, but he deals with it, he finds a way of dealing with it, and he uses it, occasionally, in whatever he feels is appropriate. But it’s the side effect of what he does. He’s one of the few very good, really top-notch, male actors, I think. But it is lowering that thing of wanting stardom. If you take people like Peter Andre and Jordan, they actually want fame, so I presume they deal with it well. So it’s difficult because some sort of distinction now has to be made between the sort of famous fame and then fame that is a by-product, as a result of . . . never mind talent. You get a little bit of talent and you just have to work on it and work on it and work on it. But what really matters is hard bloody work.”
And that’s what people aren’t prepared to put in. Look at some of the people on the X Factor. They want instant fame despite having no discernible talent as a singer or an entertainer. It’s as if celebrity culture is creating a kind of neuroses that if people aren’t famous, they’re nothing, they don’t have a life.
“I think you’re right. In a way it’s only an extension of the narcissism we’ve been talking about before. I mean the Twentieth Century I suppose was the century that gave birth to narcissism as a way of life, because the Industrial Revolution made that possible. You know, it wasn’t possible before hand. It wasn’t possible without the media and without technology. It would be very interesting to see how this patch of time is looked back at because I think it will be seen as very crazy, very mad, because we haven’t come to terms with our technology. We haven’t come to terms with it. I do think that’s true. There’s a really good book by Neil Postman called Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century which is about the fact that we haven’t grown into our technology, we don’t know how to cope with it, and it’s creating very neurotic, very narcissistic, and really weird behaviour.”
And the media feeds that narcissism by focusing on the petty details of people’s lives, what they do in the bedroom usually, rather than trying to discover what they really think about and what makes them tick.
“Totally, yeah. It’s not a conversation. So what do you do? I had a guy here who said, ‘You said this’ and I said, ‘That was 1988.’ [Exasperated] It’s just so reductive. If you don’t understand that to really get something out of someone you have to have a conversation with them, and certainly not display in a great big sort of horrible tarot pack your assumptions and the things that you’ve read that you think are that person, you’re not going to learn anything.”
A lot of coverage seems merely to perpetuate an image that was created by the media in the first place.
“Exactly. It’s all self-perpetuating, which is why most media journalism is about other media journalists, it’s never about the person involved. It’s a tricky one. But it is not good for any of us, is it? You know, Phyllis Rose said, ‘Gossip is the first rung on the ladder towards self-knowledge, self-exploration.’ I’ve remembered that because sometimes we do sort of look at these stories because we want to see how other people do it. And there’s a lot to it because you remember in Kinsey people thinking, ‘I’m the only one who does this. I must be sick’? Or girls thinking, ‘I’m the only one who feels this way or looks this way’ and the awful self-harming and the brainwashing of girls, which is one of the things that we really do have to look at in our society, because we’re going to have big, big problems. We can’t afford to lose the girls at this stage.
“I’ve had all sorts of experiences with journalists. Sometimes they’re surprising in the sense that I’ll think, ‘Oh God, they hate me,’ and then they write not a sycophantic piece but just a perfectly reasonable, interested piece that’s not what you might have expected from the encounter. Or you’ll get the opposite where you have a really great conversation and think, ‘That was a good communicative moment,’ and they’ll write something just so rude.
“But, you know, it would be wrong to say that none of us cares. We presumably partly do our job because we want to communicate because we like people and want to please them. We do it for attention and we want to please. So if we don’t please we feel as though we’ve buggered it up in some way and we take it very personally. But, you know, I used to think about that thing that was said that you have to have a skin like an elephant, and I qualify it and say, ‘No, don’t have a skin like an elephant because if you don’t have slightly one less skin, you won’t be a good artist, because you’re not going to be sensitive enough.’ You’ve got to be sensitive and you’ve got to be wounded, and then you’ve got to get up. That’s the trick.”
© Stephen Applebaum, 2006