Friday, April 6, 2012

Venus Rising: A Conversation with Kristin Scott Thomas (1995)

When Kristin Scott Thomas strides into a room, she holds her head proudly as if sniffing a rarefied air that only her lungs find pleasing. She is a regal beauty, turning the heads of all the men seated at the bar as she approaches my table, suggesting a darker, more exotic Grace Kelly. But do not call her 'aristocratic.' Mention that word and she winces as if lemon juice had just violated her taste buds. Thomas is an actor whose beauty is often accentuated by undercurrents which charge dramatically to the surface. She imbues British etiquette with teeth that hunger for something more than just shallow pleasantries.

Educated at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, Thomas made her film debut in Under the Cherry Moon (1986) as an heiress who humanizes Prince's preening gigolo. She didn't, however, really step into the spotlight until she portrayed the cynical Fiona in the Oscar-nominated hit Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Before she would become renown in The English Patient (1996), Gosford Park (2001), I've Loved You For So Long (2008), and more recently, Sarah's Key (2010), Thomas appeared in Angels and Insects (1995). In the picture, she played Matty Crompton, the impoverished relative of an aristocratic Victorian family. As a budding feminist, Matty attempts to define what independence means to her. It's a quality you could say that Kristin Scott Thomas, as an actor, has embodied all along.

kc: In his memoirs, Sir Laurence Olivier describes acting as "the art of lying," which is interesting because the American school tends to seeing acting as a realistic search for truth. Do you think there is a fundamental difference between how Americans and the British approach acting?

kst: I haven't worked with that many American actors yet. But I remember playing a nun in an American film (Body & Soul, 1993) and I started to get really fed up because I had to cry all the time. I was fed up with being depressed and miserable since I had to put myself through these states. Then I thought, "Get an onion!"[laughs] So I had, hidden in my habit, an onion that suddenly became very useful. You couldn't tell the difference. I mean, a tear is a tear is a tear. It's just the effect that's needed. So I believe what Olivier said is very true. Sometimes you think you're giving the most rotten performance in the world because you're not feeling anything and somebody tells you it was great. Other days, you think you were stupendous because you really felt it and it turns out to be rubbish. Feeling it does not have much to do with acting. You can feel something inside of you but it might not come across to somebody else. You have to use your instincts when you act.

kc: Speaking of instincts, when did instinct tell you that acting was a profession you wanted to pursue?

kst: When I was about four or five. It was in the back garden of our house. We were playing cowboys and Indians and I laid down with my arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross. That's what death meant to me then – Jesus on the cross [laughter]. I remember thinking this couldn't be right because if someone shoots you and you're not alive anymore, your feet are not going to be neatly together with your arms outstretched. That was my first clue about what it meant to be an actor.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Prince in Under the Cherry Moon

kc: When you debuted in Under the Cherry Moon, it was also Prince's debut as a director. How did you get interested in this project?

kst: It was just sort of thrust on me. I went to audition for one of the small girlfriend parts and ended up with the lead. Here I was, just coming from doing a play in Burgundy, and then I found myself waltzing around in a hotel in Paris with Prince. And at the time, he was one of the biggest stars in the world. I just couldn't believe it. It happened – quite literally – overnight.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Hugh Grant in Bitter Moon
kc: In Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon, you team up with Hugh Grant for the first time. And – as a couple – each of you plays a variation of British etiquette versus American uncouthness which is represented by Peter Coyote. Did the thought of playing a part that looks at what sometimes lies beneath that etiquette attract you?

kst: Yeah...that's a good way of putting it. You know, it's amazing how much English formality hides. That's why currently in England all this stuff with Prince Charles and Diana has become such a scandal. People can't imagine, because of all that formality and rigidity, that there's a human being underneath. And to them it is so shocking when they discover that these people are not Barbie dolls who are made of plastic. They're not impervious to life.

kc: Four Weddings and a Funeral certainly struck a chord with audiences. Did you have any idea, when you were making it, that audiences worldwide would flock to it?

kst: We knew we were making a special film because the script was a perfect little gem. And I'm very disappointed that Richard Curtis who wrote it – and is very talented – hasn't received the recognition he should have. With that script, it was very easy to act the role you were given in the film. But no one really believed it was going to be the success that it became.

Kristin Scott Thomas in Four Weddings and a Funeral
kc: Many critics have said – in praise of your work – that you give your roles a self-possessed aristocratic coolness. Does that description fall in line with what you feel you give to your parts?

kst: Oh, I hate the word 'aristocratic'! It seems to imply – especially in America – wealth and stupidity. I want to get away from playing Lady This and Lady That. Matty in Angels and Insects isn't aristocratic, she's the poor cousin. 'Poor but Proud' better describes her. What is true is that I like my characters to know who they are. They have to know! But maybe that comes with trying too hard as an actress. For me, you always want to do something different.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Randy Newman's American Dreams). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of IdealismWith John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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