Kristin Scott Thomas sits down with a little theatrical shiver. The actor may have perfected glacial onscreen manners – think Fiona, the snooty friend from Four Weddings and a Funeral, Katharine, the chilly one in The English Patient, or Aunt Mimi, John Lennon's strong-willed aunt from Nowhere Boy – but the air conditioning in her London suite is rather full on.
She pulls the sleeves of her embroidered black sweater as far as they will allow. A tolerance for extreme temperatures is not, apparently, genetic. Scott Thomas is the great-great-niece of Capt Scott, the unfortunate explorer who lost the race to the South Pole.
Adventurousness, however, is a recurrent family trait. She lost her father, a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, in a flying accident when she was five, and her stepfather, another Royal Navy pilot, in a similar accident six years later. She herself is something of a daredevil; her depiction of a bottle-blonde, leopard-print crime-boss matriarch in Nicolas Winding Refn's controversial Only God Forgives – a film she characterises as a "beautiful nightmare" – is among the most fearless performances of the century thus far.
“It is always really thrilling when you’re in something like that,” she says. “Obviously I loved working with Nicolas. And Ryan [Gosling] is brilliant, of course. But it was a difficult film to make. We were in Bangkok and we always shot at night and it was really hot. And then the subject matter is interesting, but so horrible. Really hard work.”
Evidently. Twelve months after Only God Forgives and Scott Thomas took a break from cinema to focus on theatre.
“I don’t know what it was,” she says. “It was a long time ago and I can’t remember my reasoning. I felt I needed a long run at something. I think any kind of creative process can be quite draining. I usually recharge in the theatre – which makes no sense, I know, as it’s the more exhausting work. But somehow, after a play, I always find I do better work. It’s the acting muscles getting a really good workout, I suppose.”
She lights up as she recalls her Olivier-winning turn as Arkadina in The Seagull and her much admired work in Frank McGuinness's translation of Sophocles's Electra, as performed at the Old Vic in 2015.
"Electra has probably cured me of all desire to ever be furious again," she laughs. "It was a fantastic experience. I was working with my favourite director [Ian Rickson] and Frank does such brilliant, relevant translations. We'd get the school trips in and you'd think: oh God, they're going to be so bored! But you could see all these 15- and 16-year-old-girls hanging over the balcony. Well, if anyone is going to understand how dreadful mothers can be, it's that age group."
It required Sally Potter's dinner party farce, The Party, and Joe Wright's new Churchill biopic, The Darkest Hour, to lure Scott Thomas away from the boards.
"I did not miss film-making," she says, flatly. "But then Sally Potter sent me a script which I loved and Joe Wright asked me to do his. So those were two invitations that couldn't be turned down. I thought, I can just do these two. And that was that – I've been sucked back in."
We've been down this road before. At the turn of the millennium, the same actor was one of the biggest film stars in the world, having been nominated for an Oscar in 1998 for The English Patient. She had worked with Roman Polanski (Bitter Moon) and Robert Altman (Gosford Park). Her plucky operative disobeyed a direct order from Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible. She played various love interests to various older Hollywood stars, including Harrison Ford (Random Hearts), Sean Penn (Up at the Villa), and Ian McKellen (Richard III).
She had just finished shooting The Horse Whisperer with Robert Redford and Scarlett Johansson when she saw Zoë Wanamaker's turn as (wouldn't you know it?) Sophocles's Electra on Broadway. She immediately decided to retire from cinema.
I've experienced great difficulty finding roles that aren't just dying women looking back wistfully over their lives
French cinema seduced her back on to the screen. A series of roles in her adopted country – including Arsène Lupin, Tell No One, I've Loved You So Long, Leaving and Sarah's Key – made Scott Thomas a permanent feature at France's Cesar Awards.
Back in 2010, she framed her Francophone career in very pragmatic terms. “I don’t know who is making what in England at the moment,” she said. “But I’ve experienced great difficulty finding roles that aren’t just dying women looking back wistfully over their lives. There are far more roles in French-speaking cinema and French-speaking culture generally, for women of my age. There’s nothing wrong with being a middle-class, middle-aged woman in French cinema.”
Is that still the case, I wonder? Has Anglophone cinema improved?
She mulls over the notion momentarily: "Hmm. Has the situation got much better? Well, I'm still not seeing that many movies being made about middle-aged people. Which is weird because we're people who go to the movies. But they're not onscreen. Unless they are Winston Churchill."
The Darkest Hour
The Darkest Hour chronicles Winston Churchill's (Gary Oldman) first week as prime minister in 1940, as Europe faces the coming war. Following on from Their Finest and Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, it is the third film since last July to feature Operation Dynamo.
Four years ago, Scott Thomas declared that she was done with supporting roles, so when Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) initially approached the actor to play Clementine Churchill, the answer was "no".
She only felt differently after poring over photographs, consulting Churchill’s grandchildren and reading rather a lot. But the script required some reworking.
“It was a bit like pulling a loose thread from a jumper,” she says. “I said to them: maybe send me something to read. And this huge box arrived. It’s a supporting role to a male character. And you want to bring in certain elements and some of those simply weren’t available to me in the first script. I felt quite strongly that they should be there.
“So I spoke to Joe about it and he spoke to the writer and the writer came in and created the role. I don’t think they added any scenes. They just rewrote certain things. When you’re playing a secondary role, you’ve got to nail the character in very precise way.”
As with last year's Churchill biopic, in which Miranda Richardson was married to the British prime minister (Brian Cox), Scott Thomas's Clementine steals every scene she appears in. In today's franchise-happy market, one cannot help but wish for a spin-off movie.
“That’s what everybody says. I do hope somebody can come up with an idea. I’ll be ready if they do.”
While she's rather more fun than her more stiff-upper-lip roles might have you believe, Scott Thomas has never been one for tittle tattle. There was no public soul-searching when her marriage of some 18 years to IVF specialist François Olivennes dissolved in 2006. We do know, nonetheless, that she and her four younger siblings – a big Catholic family – were raised in Dorset by her mother, Deborah. Mum, in turn, had grown up between Hong Kong and Africa.
“For me, there’s always been the other place,” says Scott Thomas. “There’s always been somewhere else. And the idea that home was somewhere else. My mother grew up in the tropics and the Far East and Africa. She always referred to home as being elsewhere. So that’s always been part of my psyche. And I went to boarding school, so that trained me early on to live in two places.”
The first year of drama school in Paris I got by doing a lot of mime
Having graduated from Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Scott Thomas enrolled in London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, where she decided, on the advice of friends and teachers, to switch her major from teaching to acting.
The directors of the teaching course disagreed. They told her she would never be an actor and had best look to amateur dramatics if she ever wanted to play Lady Macbeth. Instead, she went to Paris to work as an au pair.
The mother of the family that employed her encouraged the 19-year-old Scott Thomas to apply for the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Techniques du Théâtre. She got in.
"I spoke pretty good French because I started learning French at seven and had been going to France since I was 14," recalls the 57-year-old. "But I certainly wasn't comfortable speaking French. The first year of drama school in Paris I got by doing a lot of mime."
Upon graduation, she was cast opposite pop star Prince, as a French heiress, in the 1986 film Under the Cherry Moon. She still cannot quite believe it.
“I went up for a casting call and there was a lot of muttering behind the camera and I got called back for an audition. And that was that. I found it a very strange experience. I mean, Prince was a superstar – this 24-year-old superstar at the height of his powers – and I was a 23-year-old who had done nothing and who wasn’t really interested in making films at all. But he was great, and we remained friends.”
Having been "just obsessed with plays" for most of her youth, life in Paris awakened Scott Thomas's inner cineaste. "It's a city for watching films," she says. "There are cinemas everywhere. I happen to live in a district where there are a lot of repertory cinemas, so if you want to go and look at an old Irene Dunne film, or an early Truffaut, it's on. You don't have to belong to some obscure club. It's all out there."
As one of the most famous Franglais crossovers, she is understandably dreading Brexit. “I’m certainly not going to get the worst of it,” she says. “I’m lucky, my life is already split between London and Paris. So I’m prepared, in a way. But a lot of people will be deeply, deeply affected by it. A lot of people are going to be in deep trouble.”
When I say classics, I mean Four Weddings, Gosford Park, English Patient
When you talk to Kristin Scott Thomas, it's interesting to note the films she speaks most fondly of: a 1988 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust; the Romanian comedy An Unforgettable Summer (shot not too long after the fall of Ceausescu); Catherine Corsini's marital-implosion drama, Leaving.
"There are lots of things that I'm very proud of," she beams. "There are lots of films that I'm proud to have even been attached to. I love some of the quirkier things, like Nowhere Boy and An Unforgettable Summer, which is a wonderful film. But I'm also proud to have done so many classics. When I say classics, I mean Four Weddings, Gosford Park, English Patient."
She arches an eyebrow so that it runs parallel to one of her marvellous cheekbones: “It’s not bad, is it?”
Bilingual actors: three to watch
The Italian artist is invariably dazzling in Francophone cinema (see Brotherhood of the Wolf or Ville Marie, for starters) and too often wasted in English language productions (see The Matrix Reloaded and Spectre).
The Carlsberg-promoting great Dane rightly won Best Actor 2012 Cannes Film Festival for his performance in The Hunt (Jagten). Best known in the US for Star Wars: Rogue One, Dr Strange and TV's Hannibal.
See Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, François Ozon's Swimming Pool, Lars von Trier's Melancholia, TV's Dexter and the big screen adaptation of Assassin's Creed for the grandest dame of English, French and Italian cinema.
- The Darkest Hour opens January 12th