In the context of deconstructing literature, Emma Thompson brings the same gravitas and authorial weight to her role in “Stranger Than Fiction” that, say, Meryl Streep did to “Adaptation.” Playing novelist Kay Eiffel, a towering legend and hermit/recluse in the Salinger/ Pynchon mode, she stands in as well for the third-person omniscient voice, the godlike narrator whose proclamations begin to interfere with everyman Will Ferrell’s free will.
Comedy is nothing new to the star of such dramas as “Howards End” (for which she won an Oscar), “In the Name of the Father” and “Angels in America”: She is a proud alumna of Cambridge’s Footlights Club (the British equivalent of the Harvard Lampoon as a comic pipeline into the industry), has plenty of comedies under her belt (“The Tall Guy,” “Peter’s Friends”) and received an Emmy for her “Yep, I’m Randy” guest role on “Ellen.”
With her second Oscar for adapting “Sense and Sensibility” and an uncredited dialogue polish on the recent “Pride & Prejudice,” she is also arguably Hollywood’s go-to person for Jane Austen adaptations, not to mention the screenwriter of both “Wit” and this year’s “Nanny McPhee.” As such, she brings inadvertent character research to the part.
“It’s not a leap,” says Thompson. “I know what it’s like to sit at a typewriter and type, and get to a point where you want to throw the typewriter out the window. She writes and writes, and desperately tries to commit suicide in her writing, and can’t manage it, and then comes to a point where her whole being and her whole body resist it, and then everything grinds to a halt for 10 years.”
Thompson cites Primo Levi as a literary counterpart to the writer’s block-afflicted Eiffel, not to mention the pantheon of doomed female writers.
“You’d have to choose someone like Emily Dickinson or Sylvia Plath,” she says. “But of course she’s a modern-day Virginia Woolf — she’s someone who can’t cope with herself.
“It’s odd to say that (playing the role) was so nice,” she adds, perhaps with visions of “Nanny McPhee” still dancing in her head, “but she was a troubled character who didn’t have to rewrite the script, cook meals for anybody or be a mum for the entire crew.”
Favorite film of the past five years: “Amores perros”
Actor who impressed you greatly after working together: “I loved working with Dustin (Hoffman). I met him on my 46th birthday. He was remarkable, so amazingly full of wisdom. He astonished me, because you don’t expect that from your average-or-garden legend.”
Next project: “I’m going to write another ‘Nanny McPhee.’ It is absolutely still a Western (the original was loosely based on ‘Shane’), but I haven’t worked out which one yet. It’s not quite ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,’ although there are parts of that in it. It’s more like ‘The Magnificent Seven.’ Or ‘The Wild Bunch,’ although there are two bunches, and they both have good things about them. It’s still about conflict resolution, which all Westerns invariably are.”