Leaving - Kristin Scott Thomas interview
She’s renowned for playing English aristocrats in Four Weddings and a Funeral and The English Patient. But lately Kristin Scott Thomas has ditched Brit flicks for the ‘grown up’ French cinema. Tom Dawson meets the versatile actress who hates to be called an ice queen
It’s mid morning in Paris, and amidst the luxurious surroundings of Le Grand Hotel Kristin Scott Thomas has just finished a photo shoot and is politely venting her frustrations.
‘I just get so fed up with seeing the same things written about me,’ she says. ‘If I see the words “ice queen” attached to me, I feel like banging my head against the wall. There’s this perception that I can only be in a film if I have a glass of champagne in my hand and a stately home in the background.’
Yet it’s undeniable that her star persona has been built around her ability to embody coolly beautiful and sophisticated aristocratic types: think of her roles in Four Weddings and a Funeral, The English Patient and Gosford Park. ‘Ever since I played Lady Brenda Last in the adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust [in 1988], I did get stuck in certain roles in England,’ admits the 50-year-old actress. ‘I’d never get cast in a film like [Andrea Arnold’s gritty estate drama] Fish Tank.’
The Cornish-born Scott Thomas doesn’t come from a particularly privileged background. When she was four years old she suffered the trauma of losing her naval test pilot father, who was killed in a plane accident. Tragically, six years later her stepfather died in similar circumstances. And given that she is routinely described as a quintessentially English actress, it’s ironic that Scott Thomas has actually lived in France since she was 19. She has dual nationality status and in past interviews has confirmed that she feels ‘more French than English’. For nearly two decades she was married to French gynaecologist François Oliviennes, with whom she has three children.
In recent years it’s French cinema which has given Scott Thomas the opportunities to break free of typecasting and revitalise her career. She excelled in Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long, playing a middle-aged doctor released from prison after serving a lengthy sentence for killing her own child. Scott Thomas gave an impressively patient performance as the guilt-ridden protagonist tentatively re-establishing her connections to the world.
Now, in the contemporary amour fou Partir, Scott Thomas’ character Suzanne is a doctor’s wife in southern France, who embarks on a passionate affair with an immigrant builder Ivan (Sergi Lopez). Her husband (Yvan Attal), however, has no intention of allowing her to leave their marriage. Here Scott Thomas captures the passion, determination and naivety of a woman whose hitherto comfortable existence is ripped apart.
‘I think French cinema treats women over 40 in a very different way than Anglo-American cinema,’ observes the actress, adjusting a gold bracelet on her wrist. ‘I just can’t imagine people in England making a film about a middle-aged doctor’s wife. Here they appreciate women in a different way. I get offered roles here which don’t just involve me being aloof and beautiful.’
She had been intending to work with the director of Partir, Catherine Corsini, for some years, but what particularly impressed her about this script was that it was a story about, in her words, ‘grown-ups’.
‘The characters are driven by impulses and passions, but they are mature people. Suzanne has been married for 20 years; she has kids, she has experience. I just think that cinema has forgotten that after 40 life goes on. It gets more complicated and more interesting in my opinion. You become more sure about what you do and don’t want. I am so bored with seeing stories about a mature man of 65 falling in love with a beautiful girl of 32. Here Catherine has taken a mature woman in her 40s, who falls in love with another mature man, who isn’t a sex god figure. He’s just a bloke.’
Did she not experience some anxiety, though, I ask, about the candid sex scenes between Suzanne and Ivan? ‘They were nerve-wracking,’ she admits. ‘I got the heebie-jeebies at one point, and we had to postpone shooting these scenes. Catherine is a very tough character, though, and there were a lot of other women on the shoot, like the cinematographer Agnès Godard, who were very supportive. Sergi had it much worse than me. In a way the challenge of the role is to act out desire; to portray somebody who wants somebody else.’
Following The English Patient, Scott Thomas made a couple of glossy American films, notably The Horse Whisperer and Random Hearts, where she was cast as the love interest for the likes of Robert Redford and Harrison Ford. It seems, however, that she has turned her back on Hollywood for both logistical and artistic reasons. ‘It’s very hard having a career in different continents and two different languages,’ she explains. ‘I didn’t want to travel so much for personal reasons, and I couldn’t see the point in doing films that I wasn’t particularly enjoying. I found it too difficult to leave home for that long and to go that far away. My life is European.’
At the moment, Scott Thomas is clearly an actress in demand. She stars opposite Ludivine Sagnier in the Alain Corneau thriller Crime d’amour, about a career woman obsessed with power; she’s also the lead in Lola Doillon’s kidnap drama Contre toi. This year she has completed filming the Maupassant adaptation Bel Ami, in which Twilight’s Robert Pattinson will play a 19th century seducer, and she has also shot The Woman in the Fifth, the new feature from Pawel Pawlikowski. ‘It’s based on a book by Douglas Kennedy, an American writer living in Paris,’ she says. ‘I loved working with Pawel and Ethan [Hawke]. Pawel is very intense and he has no fear. If a scene isn’t working very well, he’ll set it up in a different room and try again. I’m hoping for reshoots!’
It sounds as though Scott Thomas has been working solidly for the last couple of years, given that she has also fitted in an acclaimed stint on Broadway playing Madame Arkadina in The Seagull.
‘I woke up on Saturday and for the first time in ages I realised I didn’t know what I was doing next. Well, not for a few months anyway,’ she smiles. So presumably she feels that casting agents and producers have started to appreciate her versatility? ‘Let’s just say that I’m asked to do things in France that I’m not asked to do in England, and that I’m beginning to win the casting battles.’
Partir (Leaving) is on selected release from Fri 9 Jul.