For decades now Emma Thompson has redefined what it means to be a triple threat.
The actress, who first began appearing on screens in the early 1980s, rose to fame as a star in period dramas based on renowned literary works like Howard’s End and several Shakespeare adaptations. In 1995, she proved herself a force to be reckoned with off-screen as well, winning an Oscar for adapting Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (which she also starred in). In the years since she’s continued to expand her repertoire, doing everything from adapting children’s books to the screen (Nanny McPhee) to joining the star-studded cast of the Harry Potter franchise.
Now, Thompson adds the challenge of portraying a high-powered family court judge with a fondness for piano playing to her credit as Fiona Maye in The Children Act. Ian McEwan (Atonement) adapted the film from his novel of the same name. Fiona is a judge in the family court in Britain, an institution responsible for weighing in on decisions involving contentious divorces, battles over religious belief and medical care, and more. As Fiona presides over a case involving a young Jehovah’s Witness and a blood transfusion, she faces similar upheaval at home when her marriage to Jack (Stanley Tucci) begins to unravel.
The role is dramatically demanding, and Thompson is in nearly every scene, but it was one in particular that intimidated her — an emotional interlude in which a holiday recital gives way to an impromptu singing performance. While Thompson has sung onscreen before, most recently in Beauty and the Beast, she describes that scene as “really scary.”
That aspect of the role demanded six months of rehearsal from Thompson, and she also undertook extensive research into the lives of female judges in the British courts to help her understand the psyche of her character. “Their workload and the way in which they undertake their workload is different to a lot of the male judges,” she explains.
Ahead of the film’s Sept. 14 theatrical release (it’s available now on DirecTV), EW caught up with Thompson on what drew her to the project and how her own life experiences influenced her approach to Fiona.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you first get involved with this project? Were you a fan of Ian McEwan’s work already?
EMMA THOMPSON: Yes! I was always a fan of Ian’s and met him years and years ago actually. We were both doing a strange talk show back in the day. At that time, he was more established than I was, and he was terribly nice to me. I remember thinking, “That’s a nice man,” and then I read all of his books. So I’d read Children Act when [director] Richard [Eyre] asked me to do it. Ian had done the script and made such a good job of his own book, which is not always the case. People that adapt their own novels, [it] doesn’t always work as well as it did with this. It was a no-brainer really. It was, “Yes, please, where do I sign?”
You are not a religious person — did your own beliefs factor into your approach to Fiona and how she considers a case so knit up with morality and faith?
The job of acting is to pretend to be someone else so really the things I’m considering are what Fiona’s position might be. She would probably be brought up in the Church of England, christened, and had quite a conventional upbringing. I wouldn’t have thought of her as an atheist. More agnostic. Someone who takes faith very seriously.
Talking to the judge who actually presided over this case [McEwan based the case on a real one a friend presided over] — he really wanted to show his respect for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for their beliefs. Whatever he might have thought about their decision, he wanted to make it very clear that he was taking them seriously. A lot of the time people don’t. They’re sort of sidelined and belittled and ridiculed. I thought that was very interesting, that aspect of the personality of this judge that she wanted to be judicious and consistently respectful of everybody’s opinions. I suppose that’s part of the job; you can’t bring your personal beliefs because you’re representing the law and the law doesn’t have personal feelings about anything.
You recently told The Guardian, “Marriages die, but then they are reborn” – that’s fitting for what Fiona and Jack go through here. Would you agree and did you bring any of your personal experiences to bear here?
I absolutely think that all long-term relationships have to change. Otherwise, they’re very unlikely to survive. You can’t continue a relationship in exactly the same vein over 20 or 30 years because it’s simply not going to happen. We’re human, and we change, and we get older. We change our minds. We become different in all sorts of ways. For a lot of people who are in very long-term relationships, part of that journey is definitely having to recalibrate. There are all sorts of things that can happen to people. They can become ill. They can lose a leg. Everything can change and does change.
In the case of Fiona and Jack, he’s got to the end of his tether and throws an emotional grenade into the room. [It] explodes, knocks her off balance, but then she still has to work. Because it’s not the type of job you can take a break from; you’re a public servant. It’s cost her a lot to get there as it is. The woman judges I know are incredibly lucky because they have very, very supportive husbands. Jack’s been very supportive of her. He must have been. Otherwise, they just wouldn’t have managed really. The commitment she’s had to show, the work level is just incredible. It’s so hard. It’s such a demanding job. It’s not surprising at some point something happens to both of them within the relationship, which is the moment where they have a look at it and go, “Well, things have changed here.”
You are also a screenwriter and adapted one of the most beloved novelists of all time — did you and Ian ever discuss the process of adaptation and its challenges?
No, we didn’t really. Because when we met, we were on the set, so you tend not to have that kind of discussion when you’re in the middle of shooting. We talked a lot about the law. We talked about the people and the personalities that we’ve met. We talked about being backstage at the law courts and how extraordinarily arcane and obtuse it all is and how surprising that was. I did an awful lot of research on my own because I wanted to really focus on the women judges. Their workload and the way in which they undertake their workload is different to a lot of the male judges. We talked about the family court a lot and the fact that it’s almost mythic in the amount of pain and difficulty and resentment and rage that passes in front of these people who then have to make decisions that affect people’s lives in extremely profound ways. I can’t imagine having that kind of responsibility. Nor the sort of pressure that might put upon your consciousness.
It’s probably difficult for American audiences to fathom because we don’t have that notion of a distinct Family Court in the same way where one person has so much responsibility.
That was something that was really central to the development of her character was this sense of responsibility. She’s accused rightly by both the men we see her interact with of having lost touch perhaps a little bit with her own fallibility. She’s not used to being questioned anymore. The pillar upon which she rests everything is this massively, almost swollen sense of personal responsibility.
You sing onscreen here, that’s not something we get to see you do often. Would you like to do more of it or was it intimidating for you?
Yeah, it’s always a bit intimidating. I used to do it much more than I do now. Just a few years ago I did Sweeney Todd. That was an amazing experience. That was more intimidating, but it still is always scary. Playing the piano at the same time as singing, that was a lot of rehearsal. That took me six months to really get that under my skin. Because we shot it live. That’s how it was performed on the day as it were. It was really scary, but there’s a tentative quality to it which I really liked because there’s a risk involved when you’re playing and singing live. You ‘re going to make mistakes, and those mistakes contain a lot of the emotion of that scene.