“Dalmatians Are Tricky Customers,” Says “Cruella” Star Dame Emma Thompson
When Dame Emma Thompson won her first Oscar in 1992 for her role in Howards End, it did not take a fortune-teller to predict we would be able to enjoy her unparalleled talent for decades to come. Behind the extra-thick glasses and many scarves and shawls, the Harry Potter films‘ Professor Trelawney quivered and stammered her way into the hearts of a generation of new fans. While she enjoyed this past year’s break from endless work and awards shows, Thompson considers herself more fearless than ever as an actor, or so she told Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner in their recent chat about the joys and perils of showbusiness.
Whether she plays a quirky governess like Nanny McPhee or a frighteningly realistic political villain like in Russell T. Davies’s Years and Years (available on HBO/BBC), Thompson is a joy to watch. Her love of acting comes from her parents: “I went to see my mum [Phyllida Law] when I was about 7 in As You Like It at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. I loved that, because you got a rough, army-issue blanket to cover yourself in your deck chair,” she remembered fondly. Likening actors to children at play, she also discussed her love of exploring backstage and the lessons she learned early on.
I looked up at her [Law], and I said, ‘What’s the play called?’ And she said, ‘As You Like It.’ I said, ‘No, seriously, what’s it called?’ And she said, ‘It’s called As You Like It.’ I got cross and said, ‘I’m asking you a serious question.’ She said, ‘That’s what the play is called, As You Like It.’ I realized later on how clever Shakespeare had been with titles like that or What You Will, that he was actually saying, ‘Look, make of this what you will, kid.’
The apple fell only an inch from the tree. While Thompson has appeared in many classics and period dramas, such as with fellow Potter cast member Sir Kenneth Branagh (Gilderoy Lockhart) in Much Ado About Nothing or with Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange) in Howards End, the overwhelming majority of her work has been on-screen rather than onstage. “I think it’s a weirdly practical thing for me. This is going to sound so f***ing shallow, but I’m a morning person. In the evenings, I just want to sit down. I don’t want to get my dander up,” she shared honestly, along with an anecdote about a nightmare about forgetting her lines and another one about Dame Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), who shares Thompson’s feelings about the demands of stage work:
When I was in my early 20s, I did 15 months of Me and My Girl, eight shows a week, and I’ve got a feeling it might have actually damaged me. I’m not being entirely flippant. I remember having a long conversation years ago with Maggie Smith, who was put into plays when she was young. She would have to do the play for two years without a break. She said it really messed with her head. Yet you think about the old theater people; they would do the same thing three to five times a day for seven years on end. I’m not lazy, but I find getting adrenalized in the evening quite hard.
Not that film acting can’t prove uncomfortable if Thompson’s costumes in the upcoming Cruella movie are anything to go on:
All I can say is that I have never had underwear like that. I had underwear like a ship’s rigging; it was just extraordinary. In the end, I had to stop drinking anything, because just to take a pee was an enormous ordeal. I would turn up to the set in a six-foot wig, a massive costume, and heels, with three Dalmatians on leashes. Dalmatians are tricky customers, let me tell you.
Thompson told the playwright (in whose play Angels in America she once played Angel America) that her daughter Gaia, 21, is set on continuing the family tradition of acting. With a mentor like Thompson, what are strenuous schedules and uncomfortable costumes? As long as they’re not Dalmatian fur. Cruella comes out on May 28 on Disney+.