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Emma Thompson Charms Berlin With ‘Leo Grande,’ Speaks Candidly About Women Being ‘Brainwashed’ to Hate Their Bodies

Emma Thompson
AP

Emma Thompson says the physicality of her performance in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” pushed her into uncharted waters as an actor learning to accept her body on screen.

In the Sundance-premiering movie, which enjoys its European bow at the Berlinale on Saturday night, the British actor plays widow and former teacher Nancy, who has stepped outside her comfort zone for the first time in her life by hiring a sex worker, the titular Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack).

Asked candidly during a Berlin press conference about a key scene where Nancy stands unmoving in front of a mirror, the 62 year old spoke passionately about the challenge of delivering an “untreated body” in a movie.

“It was hard,” said Thompson solemnly. “This is homework for all of you. We’re only used to seeing bodies that have, you know, been trained … I knew that Nancy wouldn’t go to the gym. She would have a normal body of a 62-year-old woman who’s had two children.

“I can’t stand in front of a mirror like that. If I stand in front of a mirror, I’ll always pull something in [or do] something. I can’t just stand there. Why would I do that? It’s horrifying. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Women have been brainwashed all our lives. That’s the fact of it. And everything that surrounds us reminds us how imperfect we are and how everything is wrong. Everything is wrong, and we need to look like this.”

An impassioned Thompson then stood up and addressed the room of journalists: “So you try. You try standing in front of the mirror and don’t move. Don’t move. Just accept it — just accept it, and don’t judge it. That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’ve done something I’ve never done as an actor.”

“Leo Grande’s” German premiere marks its first physical bow with an audience, given its Sundance world premiere last month was forced to go virtual when the festival moved online due to the surge of omicron Stateside. “It’s good to be out!!” shouted Thompson with arms outstretched when she first took her seat.

Later, Thompson and McCormack were asked about the physicality of the movie, to which the former admitted that “we did a lot of work on the body” with a few days of rehearsal that “saved us a lot.”

“[Director Sophie Hyde] had these fantastic exercises,” said Thompson. “We would lie on the ground and draw around our bodies and then … [point out] the places that you think you like or you don’t like or things that have happened to your body. And then one day we spent the entire day with no clothes on, because we had to get used to [it].”

McCormack added: “Sophie created such a beautiful foundation for us. On the sixth day of rehearsal we finally got to the intimate scenes and we were ready to jump across that threshold of vulnerability.”

Thompson said the movie is “enormously realistic” in its depiction of a woman finally seeking pleasure for herself after going without it for her entire life.

“I don’t think female pleasure has ever been at the top of the list of things the world wants to make sure it has,” said Thompson. “In my country [the U.K.], it’s not considered important that we have pleasure … Nancy’s not growing up or going about in a world that’s saying, ‘Actually, have you had any pleasure?’”

An exuberant Thompson received an uproarious response from Berlinale photographers, whose whooping in the next room prompted puzzled looks from journalists in the press conference, unaccustomed to such an enthusiastic photo line at this year’s film festival.

One journalist actually thanked the actor for bringing the “party feeling” back to the Berlinale, which has been a much quieter undertaking this year.