Emma Thompson Talks Artistic Responsibility

According to Dame Emma Thompson, some stories are more worth telling than others. Thompson, who played Professor Trelawney in the Harry Potter film series, sat down with Vanity Fair earlier this month to talk about recent projects and her desire to be part of the change. Her most recent movie, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, certainly provided that opportunity.

Leo Grande is the story of a retired teacher, Nancy Stokes (Thompson), who hires a young sex worker named Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack). The film explores weighty topics like age, intimacy, power, and of course, sex. Don’t mistake Nancy for the bold sort of character Thompson has played in the past, however. This role demanded a different sort of complexity.

The way I always put it when I was thinking about it is that she’s the person who is always standing next to the person who’s doing the interesting thing, and suddenly, she’s the one doing the interesting thing.



One major film theme was body image, particularly the perception of aging female bodies. Thompson has spoken on body acceptance at length in previous interviews, commenting on the lack of “normal bodies” in the media and the problems it perpetuates.

This notion of the ideal and the perfect, industrialized, banal and tedious though it is, has been made even more of a thing.

Photoshop and social media have only furthered what she labels “brainwashing.”

We’re looking at kids as young as eight saying, ‘I don’t like my thighs. I don’t like this.’ Anorexia’s hugely on the rise. It’s something that I’ve fought against all my life, but I can’t fill in those runnels. I just can’t do it. But I can try to be the change. […] And at least I can say, ‘Look, I accept this now.’ I accept my body. I don’t have to love it, but I accept it.

Coming to this acceptance is modeled well by her character in the film and was exercised even during rehearsal. Thompson revealed that she and McCormack, as well as director Sophie Hyde, spent a day naked in preparation for the 19-day shoot.

Along with setting an example through her characters, Thompson said that being the change is also about choosing the right stories to tell. Many meaningful texts, from scripts to science, were all written by men. “All of this stuff has to be unpacked, taken apart and redefined, re-explored [sic],” she urged. A new take on dusty and potentially damaging tales is in order. First to go, she said, should be the idea of happily ever after. She lauded the 2019 film Marriage Story as an excellent start in destroying the tired concept. Thompson doesn’t stop there, though.

The other story that we really need to stop telling is about one man saving the world. This is just a very, very dull story, and it has to stop. I’m so bored.

This one is particularly tricky, in that it is often perpetuated by female heroes who are written problematically.

[Writers are] told the most extraordinary things now—today they’re told, ‘Well, she can’t cry. She can’t cry because that’s showing feminine weakness. She’s got to be badass.’ All the female tropes now have to be like the men. You go, ‘Hang on a second.’ It’s the same story.

Leo Grande is decidedly not the same old story, and certainly one worth telling. As is Matilda the Musical, Thompson’s upcoming screen adaptation of the West End show. “I think making work for children is the most sacred work we ever have, and it has to be our best work,” Thompson told reporters at the 66th BFI London Film Festival. She is, however, finding an unexpected challenge in her role as antagonist Miss Trunchbull. “I was supposed to terrify them,” she told Deadline, referring to the children in the cast. “I mean, the characters they played were terrified of me, but they weren’t!”



We can certainly empathize with her child costars: Feeling anything other than adoration for Dame Emma Thompson would be a challenge.


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