Kristin Scott Thomas’ cool beauty and screen presence made her a star in Four Weddings and a Funeral and The English Patient. Set to star in a sexy new film alongside Robert Pattinson, she talks to Tim Adams about splitting up and growing up — and why she spent years in therapy.
Kristin Scott Thomas has lately been attracted to roles in which life takes on this sudden disjointed quality. Two extraordinary films in the past few years - both in French - have seen her play first a woman trying to piece together reality having spent 15 years in prison (I've Loved You So Long) and subsequently a wife who abandons oppressive bourgeois domesticity for a life of precarious lust with her builder (Leaving). For those admirers of the actress who feared she would spend her career playing buttoned-up and increasingly remote English women of a certain class, the sudden broadening of range has been startling.
The easy temptation, interviewing her, is to suggest this liberation in her acting was brought about by dislocations in her life. In 2006 Scott Thomas separated from her husband of 17 years and father of her three children, the Parisian obstetrician Francois Olivennes, a split which coincided with a brief involvement with her then leading man, Toby Menzies.
It is a temptation, though, that she firmly resists. "I don't think the change is about being single at all," she says. "It is just about being a grown-up ... I had got to the point where I was really fed up with playing characters who were quietly tearing their hearts out and I wanted to do something less constraining."
She dates that escape from her own "image" instead to the first time she stepped on to a major stage, to play Racine's Berenice, in Paris in 2002.
Even for a woman who suggests that her acting has always been driven by a need to scare herself, it was the most terrifying thing she had ever done. She is back on the stage this month, starring in the Harold Pinter play Betrayal in London. It's another challenge for her: "I feel like I have a lot to live up to, as usual."
Having been, aged 24, plucked out of drama school by Prince, of all people, to play opposite him in his vanity movie Under the Cherry Moon, Scott Thomas had made 60-odd films and never really been off screen. "And then here I was, this English girl doing Racine in Paris," she says. "But anyway, after a night or two I had a revelation, which was just this: I could do it by myself. It suddenly struck me that I was going to stand up there in front of 1200 people and they were all going to listen to what I said. And then I was going to move over there and they were all going to watch me. No camera was going to help. No editor was going to work it out. And if I forgot my lines, everyone would know. It was the most amazing feeling of liberation."
Up until then Scott Thomas had sometimes spoken in interviews about her "guilt" about being an actress, feeling "ashamed" even, about what she calls now "the suspicion that deep down you are just doing it for narcissism". Having proved to herself she could do it for real, though, that she could properly affect people, the guilt has gone, pretty much, and with it some of the more defensive reflexes that she used to carry around with her. Over the years Scott Thomas has developed a reputation for froideur in interviews, which she now puts down to this kind of self-disdain. She once remarked - accurately - that it had become "impossible to read anything about myself without the words "ice" or "thaw" - and to be honest, I am bored by being judged and weighed up by writers." Now, she says, eyes bright behind her round, owlish glasses, she is almost happy to talk - "as long as you don't say I'm scary".
It can be easy to understand why some might consider her so. She is forthright in her opinions and not your typical actress to interview. She is both animated and intense, particularly when we discuss her image. "I didn't like the way people approached me after films, with this image in mind, made to look perfect through a beautiful lens, my hair blowing in the wind, perfect shade of lipstick, all huge and magnified," she says.
"But the great thing about doing theatre is that people just see you as human, not this vast image. You know my mascara is down here, and my nose is running. No tricks. I really wanted that."
Having established herself, in particular in The English Patient and Four Weddings and a Funeral, as a kind of inaccessible beauty, did she discover a new way to connect?
"It is just that. I'm sort of liberated from expectation." Her breakthrough as a stage actress - she has still done only four plays - came as Arkadina in Ian Rickson's spellbinding adaptation of The Seagull, for which she won an Olivier award as best actress and huge critical success when the play transferred to Broadway. Rickson is a huge fan of Scott Thomas.
"She is like a sort of concert violinist," he says, "or how I imagine a concert violinist to be, with this enormous ability to keep going at a part, really mining something, always looking for more." He recalls how, even by the end of the Broadway run of The Seagull, after months in the play, she would still be pestering him for notes about her performance. "I think she has been realising, since then, what she is capable of. Playing in The Seagull on Broadway was very empowering for her and, in some ways, I'd say it allowed her to do these extraordinary films like I've Loved You So Long."
You don't have to dig too deep into Scott Thomas' biography to imagine the psychology of her former need for approval. She grew up in Dorset, south-west England, the eldest of five children. When she was 6 her father, a commander in the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm, was killed in a plane crash. Five years later her mother's second husband, her stepfather, died in almost identical circumstances. In an effort to cope, her mother packed Scott Thomas off to boarding school, where she was left to make sense of the losses on her own. Acting looked like one way of expressing emotions that were not talked about. I wonder what she makes of the cliche that all actors perform to begin with to gain the approval of a parent?
"I don't think it was a parent literally, in my case," she says, "but you are certainly acting to please an authority in some way. For a memory of something gone, something lost."
Does she remember her father at all?
"Yes," she says quickly, "but only a very little bit. As a parent myself to three children, that is always frightening. I mean my father was killed when I was 6. And I only have tiny, tiny flashes of memory. It's sobering to think that you can look after a child for six years and then cop it, and they will hardly remember you at all."
She is anxious to distance herself from any suggestion that the loss still defines her.
"It's all over now," she says determinedly, when I ask about her sense of absence. "When I was starting out, it was such a defining thing for me as an actress, it was a huge part of who I was. But I have put it all away now. And it's like, 'thank God for that'. In the beginning when people would ask me about it, it was one of those seeds that get planted about you. And as a 23-year-old actress it was very, very important. I used to use it a bit as a shield I could hide behind, something to explain me, as it were. I don't feel the need for that anymore."
One of the things that has disappeared with that feeling, probably not coincidentally, is the debilitating depression that Scott Thomas was plagued by, from time to time, as a younger woman and of which she has spoken eloquently in the past. Is she completely free from that?
"I am," she says, with a look of proper joy. "Completely. I can't tell you how fantastic that is. Years and years of psychoanalysis helped of course. But partly I think it is growing older, growing up. One of the things that has been extraordinary for me is seeing my eldest children become adult-ish. And you see them navigating the same world as you did. Negotiating the same problems. It gives you a sense of relief and accomplishment: you got them this far. It's that cliche, what are you most proud of? And it's always your children ..."
Her youngest son, who is 11, is in Paris, at school. She sees him at weekends and, of course, feels guilt about not being there all the time. "But then," she says, "I have never met a woman who works who doesn't feel guilty. I mean we all deny it like crazy but deep down there is always that voice saying you should be at home."
One way of looking at the progression of Scott Thomas' own career is as something of a comparable journey (though she started from a far more liberated place). For a while, her success meant that she became cast in a succession of limiting roles. The Oscar nomination she received for The English Patient led to Hollywood films in which she became the romantic interest of men about twice her age - Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, Harrison Ford in Random Hearts. She didn't enjoy it much.
But she discovered, living in Paris, that she had a great advantage over other "English" actresses who had gone to America.
"The thing I now cherish most is this: I speak two languages," she says. "And that means I can basically have two careers. I can make films in France and do theatre over here. And I really love to make films in France because they have really great women's roles, still. And I like the way they work. There is less wastage, of time or money like there often is in Hollywood. You get on and make the film. There is a star system of sorts but it is much less arsey." Her next film - French of course - is Bel Ami, in which she stars alongside Twilight's Robert Pattinson. The movie, due for release here in October, is a chronicle of a young man's rise to power in Paris via his manipulation of the city's most influential and wealthy women (including Scott Thomas' character).
Having got herself pretty much where she wants to be, does Scott Thomas still think in terms of goals, I wonder, of things she needs to achieve?
"I don't know about that," she says, "I just want to have fun. I'd love to do some comedy. Particularly French comedy, which I know sounds like a contradiction in terms."
She always used to be a dreamer as a child, "always on planet Kristin, miles away, dreaming about running down Normandy beaches into the arms of Monsieur Whoever."
So what, at 51, does she daydream about now? "I often have fantasies about giving up and going off and doing something completely different. Going to join a community and wear an orange robe and living on a hill to watch the sun set, that sort of thing."
Would she be good at that, at being alone with her thoughts?
"I think I could," she says. "It's the kind of thing I fantasise about when looking out of a train window, anyway. But I like to be busy, too."
She thinks about that for a moment and then, after a brief pause, she heads back to work.