Kristin's amazing liberation
Having achieved fame on screen, Kristin Scott Thomas has found a new way to connect with audiences. The actress, who separated from her French husband in 2006, has left behind the debilitating depression which plagued her as a young woman and is now enjoying a late flowering on the stage. She talks to Tim Adams
Harold Pinter's play Betrayal, in which Kristin Scott Thomas is starring at the Comedy theatre in London, explores a love affair lived backwards.
The play begins with the characters locked in open recrimination and bitterness, and ends, seven years earlier, with them in thrall to furtive passion. When I meet Scott Thomas for lunch in a break from rehearsals she is full of the complications that this back-to-front narrative presents, and also characteristically anxious to work her way toward a resolution. "Normally you go in to a scene charged with the emotion of the scene before," she says, "but here you have to sort of uncharge things all the time. You lose that progression with which we make sense of things, so it's more like shards of people's lives strung together."
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. Having been, aged 24, plucked out of drama school by Prince 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 1,200 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. 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 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'." She is now, she insists, eyes bright behind her round owlish glasses, almost happy to talk ("as long as you don't say I'm scary").
She mentions at one point how hopeless she was at maths at school -- another source of guilt -- and of how she "has a complete inability to deal in the abstract, I have a need to see things in front of me", and I wonder if the concrete realities of the stage gave her the same kind of certainty?
"Some of that. But it's partly to do with what happens when you come off stage," she says. "I was used to cinema questions -- you know, 'what's it like to work with Robert Redford?', all that kind of nonsense. I didn't like that. 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.
"People would be scared of that idea. I could see it in them. 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 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." She smiles, then pauses for a moment. "Although not so much in this play... I feel I have a hell of a lot to live up to, as usual."
She had been asked to do Betrayal a couple of times before but refused. This time, though, she had no hesitation. "I had felt it wasn't right before because it is the kind of thing I have been doing in films, quite intimate and real. Only lately have I thought of it more as what it could be like as a play. And it was a chance to work again with Ian Rickson."
Her breakthrough as a stage actress -- she has still done only four plays -- came as Arkadina in Rickson's adaptation of The Seagull, for which she won an Olivier award as best actress and huge critical success when the play transferred to Broadway. Her excitement at being reunited with the director is something he shares. When I speak to him subsequently he describes almost breathlessly how he "absolutely loves rehearsing with her... She is like a sort of concert violinist," he says, "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."
The character Scott Thomas plays in Betrayal, Rickson says, is perfect for her because "she has a deep yearning for fulfilment, and she has been open to all of the ways we have looked at it. We had a psychoanalyst in for a session, we went to see Pinter's widow, Antonia Fraser... Kristin responds with great intelligence to all of that." In the past, Rickson suggests, Scott Thomas has sometimes been too easily defined by her bone structure and Cheltenham ladies' college accent. "I think people here have seen her coded by class too often, but this play does not carry those kinds of codes."
The actress herself describes rehearsal as one of the most consuming experiences she has had. She is thankful for the fact that "there are usually six of us in the rehearsal room including two other women, because we find we are talking all the time about our own betrayals... not necessarily in the same circumstances ... but all the times you let people down, in friendships, in family, that kind of hurt. Everybody knows something about that." She grins. "Anyway, it's all very intense."
The play itself, the last full-length drama Pinter wrote, was based on an affair that the playwright had with Joan Bakewell in the Sixties, while he was married to his first wife. In her rented flat in London, after hours, Scott Thomas has found herself digging out archive footage of Bakewell from that time on YouTube. "I can see why she was such a lure for Harold," she says. "That sense of being such a forward-moving woman. So very bright and attractive. It's strange having watched it because there are bits of the play, certain lines where I can hear exactly her voice as he must have remembered it ... it's fascinating to know it is somewhere there in background."
Scott Thomas talks with affection of Pinter, whom she met several times in Paris. Partly, she says, doing this play makes good an old disappointment. "I met Harold for the first time years ago when he was going to direct Ashes to Ashes in Paris. He wanted me to be in that, but I couldn't do it as I had to go and make a film with Harrison Ford..." -- she smiles -- "as you do. It was a very unnerving situation for me having to say no to Harold Pinter, though. He was very persuasive and quite frightening and brilliant and funny and always right there in the moment. Really right there. And then I met him in much nicer circumstances at dinner parties in Paris with Antonia. I always remember one amazing dinner where I found myself between Harold Pinter and Peter Brook, and trying desperately to retain every second of it, and not to say anything silly. I felt so lucky, as a young woman, to be there."
It is odd to hear Scott Thomas talk of her younger self in this kind of disarming way, I guess because on screen she mostly never appears less than entirely self-assured. Most of her interviewers over the years have explained her capacity for scene stealing, for always drawing your eye to her in a crowd, in terms of her cheekbones, the way the camera loves them. It seems to me it was as much to do with her rare ability to appear entirely alone on screen, to be self-contained.
In her more recent films she seems able to play that ability off against a new kind of vulnerability. Does she recognise that shift? "I do feel that," she says. "I am not sure what it means. It's part of all this being less defensive. I have let my curiosity kick in much more..."
Would she say she has become more herself? "No. Actually I think in some ways it is allowing yourself to be less yourself. It is about trusting your imagination. And not always having to tell everyone all the time who you are through your characters. As a younger actor you want to be approved of, you want to gain respect, be admired. All of those things. To say: 'This is me playing this character. And aren't I fantastic!' I don't feel that so much now."
You don't have to dig too deep into Scott Thomas's biography to imagine the psychology of that former need for approval. She grew up in Dorset, south-west England, the eldest of five children; when she was six, her father, a commander in the 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 Kristin 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 six. 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 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 ... 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 any more."
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..."
Having got herself pretty much where she wants to be, does she 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." What, at 51, does she daydream about now? "I often have fantasies about giving up and going off and doing something completely different. Go and join a community and wear an orange robe and live on a hill and 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.
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