“The star system is not a good system. It’s all hierarchical. I think that’s just revolting. It is revolting for actors to become grand,” said Thompson, who claimed that she was the only star to have ever asked for a smaller trailer.
During the interview, which was part of BAFTA’s “A Life in Pictures” series, in which top talent talk about their careers, she paid tribute to those actors who were “great” without being “grand,” such as Dustin Hoffman and Anthony Hopkins. She recalled how Hoffman was once stuck in traffic while travelling to the set of “Last Chance Harvey,” and got out of the car, took his shoes off, and ran in his socks to get there in time. “He just wants to do it so much,” she said.
When she played in “Howards End” alongside Hopkins, just after he’d played Hannibal Lecter, her mother sent him a note that said: “This is my daughter. Please don’t eat her,” Thompson joked.
Thompson described Hopkins, when playing a key scene with her, as being “like a little volcano.”
She had secured her role in “Howards End” after writing to director James Ivory to tell him, “I know who this woman is,” she said.
Thompson spoke about the “hypocrisy that stalks society” and the “deformity of servitude.” She told the audience about the experience of her grandmother, who had been a servant in a large house and had been raped by her employer. “It’s slavery of a kind,” she said.
Thompson’s role in “Howards End” won her an Oscar. She said people treated the statuette like “the ark of the covenant.” “You realize what a powerful object it is,” she said.
Thompson said that when she came to adapt “Sense and Sensibility” — for which she won an Oscar for adapted screenplay — she had gone for advice to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who had written the screenplay for “Howards End.” Prawer Jhabvala, whom Thompson described as “hugely influential,” advised her to “adapt the whole book and see what works.” Thompson took the advice and wrote a first draft that was 500 pages long, which she then had to cut to around 90 pages. Thompson said the process of adapting a book was a “very mysterious journey.”
She found that the director of “Sense and Sensibility,” Ang Lee, came from a very different cinema culture, where actors “were slaves to the director.” But nevertheless they got on well with each other. She said some of his notes to her included, “Don’t be so old,” while Kate Winslet was told, “It’s alright you’ll get better,” and he said to Hugh Grant, “Now do one (take) like a bad actor,” to which Grant replied, “That’s the one I just did.”
Thompson said that Kelly Marcel’s screenplay for her latest film, “Saving Mr. Banks,” which is attracting awards season buzz, was “one of the best scripts I’d been offered in a long time.” Speaking about her character, P. L. Travers, she said she is “so complicated and she’s so inconsistent.” She said both Travers and the character of Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, had “daddy issues” and showed the effect that parents have on their children. She added that “we were all surprised that Disney let us make the film in the first place.”
Thompson kept her audience amused and entertained throughout the event, and was self-deprecating, for example referring to her teeth as being like those of the alien in Ridley Scott’s film, and describing her dress as a “posh sack.”
She said that humor improves everything. Without it, it is like “eating food without salt and pepper,” she said.
However, she added that she had found out at an early stage in her career that she couldn’t do stand-up comedy. “Nothing is so frightening,” she said.
After a clip from “Love Actually” in which her character weeps, Thompson discussed how actors dig into their own psyches and experiences for their performances. “I think most actors are fundamentally inconsolable,” she said.
She compared the role of a thesp to that of a magician as they develop their craft.
“The trick that you are playing on your own psyche becomes easier to play, so you become a master of your own magic tricks,” she said.