Kristin Scott Thomas made her Hollywood debut in the 1986 Prince vehicle “Under the Cherry Moon.” It was not an acclaimed breakthrough. “It was what people like to call ‘a turkey,’” Thomas says in a crisp British accent that actually makes the word “turkey” sound elegant and prestigious. The reviews were vicious. “After being told you’re a better cure for insomnia than a glass of warmed milk, I’m amazed I ever got back in front of the camera,” Thomas says with a laugh. 

Thomas stresses that the filming experience was wonderful. “To this day, I feel very, very lucky and privileged to have been involved,” she notes. “But it was all a difficult thing to take at the tender age of 24.” For her work, she got two Golden Raspberry Award nominations, for worst supporting actress and worst new star. She returned to France, where she has lived since the age of 19, and, she says, “went back to the drawing board.”

She can laugh about it now, perhaps because the following years have brought her an Academy Award nomination for “The English Patient,” a BAFTA for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” an Olivier for “The Seagull” and numerous accolades for her work on stage and screen. She’s collaborated with some of the best directors in the business and performed everything from Chekhov to Pinter. And, having split her time between England and France, she has been able to balance her English-language movies with such notable French films as “Tell No One” and “I’ve Loved You So Long.”

Thomas will next be seen taking on another iconic role: Mrs. Danvers, the icy and mysterious head housekeeper in “Rebecca.” The Netflix film is the latest adaptation of the classic 1938 Daphne du Maurier novel. This telling, from director Ben Wheatley, stars Armie Hammer as the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter and Lily James as his new wife, the unnamed protagonist who bears the brunt of Mrs. Danvers’ scorn. Though never seen, the title character is de Winter’s first wife, to whom Mrs. Danvers still holds intense loyalty. Regarded as one of the most memorable antagonists in literature and cinema, the part seems a perfect fit for Thomas, who has played her share of elegant and intimidating women, from Clementine Churchill in “Darkest Hour” to Lady Sylvia McCordle in “Gosford Park.”  

Told that Mrs. Danvers is ideal casting, Thomas laughs. “I’m not sure how to take that,” she jokes. “But oh well, if the glove fits.” Yet, she agrees; in fact, when she first heard about the film, she was the one who reached out to producers, including Eric Fellner, with whom she’d worked on “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” “As people have said, I think I’m perfect for this role,” she reveals. “I was literally pestering Eric and saying, ‘You have to hire me!’ Every time I would see him, I would ask, ‘When are you going to offer it to me?’ I was not subtle at all.” 

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Lily James plays the new wife of Armie Hammer’s Maxim de Winter. Mrs. Danvers does not approve. Courtesy of Kerry Brown/Netflix

This isn’t the first time Thomas has campaigned for a part. When “Four Weddings” came up, she had established herself as, in her words, “the go-to actress for aristocratic adulteresses” in films like “A Handful of Dust,” and was concerned about typecasting. It was one of the reasons she wanted to prove her skill at comedy. (Ironically, that very image made her perfect for her Oscar-nominated role in “The English Patient,” but she had to fight for that as well, crediting producer Saul Zantz and director Anthony Minghella with sticking by her.)  

To hear Wheatley tell it, he needed no convincing. “Danvers is a character that needs to hit the ground running,” he says. “It needed someone who could look into the audience and command their attention. I also wanted to explore a more sympathetic Danvers. For me, she is the moral center of the story. It needed Kristin to pull this off. She is a commanding performer who can navigate through complexity and intensity with ease.” 

Thomas admits it was a challenge to step into a role that had been played to great acclaim by the likes of Diana Rigg and Judith Anderson; she has vivid memories of watching Anna Massey in the 1979 miniseries and being utterly terrified. She took some relief in the fact that this adaptation differs somewhat from previous versions, though the main plot is the same. “I think it’s going to be a ‘Rebecca’ for a new generation,” Thomas says. “And it’s wonderful to keep a story like this alive.” It also helped that both she and Wheatley wanted to depart from previous incarnations of Mrs. Danvers somewhat by making her more three-dimensional. “We don’t talk about it in the film but there are hints of her relationship with Rebecca,” she notes. “We wanted to ask, What is her relationship with Rebecca? Is it one of lust? Is it one of love? Is it one of possession? We really enjoyed playing with those ideas.” 

Scott herself could be quite imposing, considering her body of work and the role she was playing. But Wheatley says that was easy to put aside. “She’s intimidating only in that she is at the top of her game and you don’t want to sound like a fool when you are talking to her,” he admits. “She’s very sweet, of course, moment to moment, but it’s always there, as it is with any actor at this level — the ghost of all their work, all the amazing roles and experience they have. I loved working with her.”

Thomas enjoyed diving into Mrs. Danvers’ dark side, she says, though some of her past roles have been harder to shake. She cites her turn playing Ryan Gosling’s merciless mother in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2013 “Only God Forgives” as probably her most challenging part. “There was nothing to love about her,” Thomas says. “I enjoyed inventing her and working with Nicolas and Ryan, but I had to carry her for seven weeks and it was debilitating. There were no redeeming features to that woman.”

Scott admits she’s gotten much better at letting go of her characters at the end of the day – though she jokes that you’d have to ask those close to her if that’s really true. Sometimes, saying goodbye to a character has even resulted in a physical response. “There are times when I’ve had a sort of almost allergic reaction to the end of a film, and I find myself getting sick. I’ve been known to vomit at the end,” she reveals. “If you’ve done a strenuous job and gone really deep, sometimes it’s a way of getting it out of your system.” 

Fortunately, she assures us there was no throwing up when “Rebecca” wrapped. “It hasn’t happened in a while,” she says. “I must be sane now!”