Emma Thompson Interview, Nanny McPhee Returns

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

In Nanny McPhee Returns, Academy Award-winning actress Emma Thompson returns to the role of the magical nanny who appears when she’s needed the most and wanted the least in the next chapter of the hilarious and heartwarming fable that has enchanted children around the world.

In the latest installment, Nanny McPhee appears at the door of a harried young mother, Mrs. Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is trying to run the family farm while her husband is away at war. But once she’s arrived, Nanny McPhee discovers that Mrs. Green’s children are fighting a war of their own against two spoiled city cousins who have just moved in and refuse to leave. Relying on everything from a flying motorcycle and a statue that comes to life to a tree-climbing piglet and a baby elephant who turns up in the oddest places, Nanny McPhee uses her magic to teach her mischievous charges five new lessons.

MoviesOnline sat down with the super-talented Emma Thompson at a roundtable interview in Los Angeles to talk about her new movie, Nanny McPhee Returns, which she produced, wrote and stars in. She told us about her character, what it was like recently to get her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and why she won’t be casting Russell Crowe in the next Nanny McPhee movie. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: You look so pretty. No funny moles.

EMMA: No moles.

Q: You look very tanned.

EMMA: Do you know what? I got this tan in Scotland. Yes! I know you want to challenge me on that one, I can tell.

Q: How did you get a tan in Scotland?

EMMA: Believe or not, it was sunny. Normally, when the sun comes out in Scotland, we’re all out there going “What’s that strange orange ball? It is burning me, burning!” And then we get into the cupboard under the stairs for the rest of the day until it starts raining again and we can come out.

Q: When the sun stays out for six months, how far north is that?

EMMA: Where I live it is very light until midnight and then starts getting light again at 3am. We’re not that far north, but it’s Scotland and Scotland is pretty north.

Q: Did you jump into the pond to keep the kid’s attention when there are supposed to be little pigs doing synchronized swimming?

EMMA: Oh I did. I didn’t just jump in the pond.

Q: They weren’t looking at a tennis ball?

EMMA: No. They were looking at me being dragged into the pond by the first AD and pushed right in and then I swam out into the middle and did a little bit of synchronized swimming of my own and then I got out and started to splash them as well. Luckily it was a beautiful day and hot so I was quite pleased to get into the water. It’s difficult for children to laugh when there’s nothing to laugh at. It’s difficult for actors, but for children it’s really hard, so that was necessary, I mean, not just good fun. Actually I believe there’s a little extra on the DVD that has that bit because I think one of the cameras turned around and took it.

Q: Can you talk about your collaboration with the film’s director, Susanna White, and what that process was like?

EMMA: Well lovely, because Susanna is a great collaborator. When you’re making a film and there’s often between 8 and 12 characters in a scene and 5 of them are children, you need to have as many eyes on the process as possible. So we would just share the task when that was necessary. For instance, when we were shooting the scene when the bombs come into the field and there’s all that stuff with the children, Susanna is over on the other side of the field by the monitors, so she can’t come running backwards and forwards. She can’t run in the barley because every time you move on the barley, you flatten it and the art department goes “Oh! Don’t flatten the barley! We haven’t shot that scene yet.” And everyone gets very tense. So, Susanna would say “I need a bit of something from her” and someone would relay that to me. We just worked together like that all the way through and that was great.

Q: What was the challenge to write a delightful film in the middle of a war?

EMMA: When I said to Lindsay (Doran), I think it would be good if there was a war background, but I don’t think you should be too specific, I mean, it is going to be Second World War but not so that you’d really know. I don’t want references to Germany so the enemy plane just has “enemy plane’ written on it. The idea being that I wanted the father to be absent. Now, in present day wars, because it could have been a modern war, that could be either the father or the mother because both sexes now go to war, which was something that the early feminists thought would put an end to war, but it hasn’t unfortunately. I thought if it is the Second World War, then it’s a good hundred years later, I can really change up the feel and the look and the conflicts can be very, very different. But we saw other people about the direction. Quite a lot of the blokes said I’d really like when they go into London to see a lot of bombed out craters. I said, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think this is about war. This is about absence, the possibility of loss, the possibility of jeopardy, but it’s not about war. It’s about the small war that occurs between the two groups of children.” So it was a perfect backdrop to create another actual war between two factions which is the same thing. It’s hidden in there but it is a piece of land, a piece of territory where new people come and are not wanted and are regarded as invaders and they’re supposed to be driven out. So it’s actually the same thing – Britain in childspeak.

Q: What did you think about getting your star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood? You’ve been performing now for close to 30 years, does that have a special meaning to you as an actor and did you feel like you were being embraced by us?

EMMA: Yeah, I did feel that. I was incredibly touched. If you do a piece of work and you think it’s good, now I would think oh well, there’s a possibility that this will go well and maybe people say you might be up for a this or a that. People speak like that. I wish they didn’t but they do. But with this, you haven’t done anything. It’s not specific to a piece of work. It’s just someone rings you up and says “We’re going to cement you into the city.” And I was thrilled. I was just so thrilled because when I first came here, when I was 14 years old, it was one of those strange round of events. My parents were not rich. My dad just happened to have a job that was paying well. He was directing The Norman Conquests, Ayckbourn’s plays, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion over a hundred years ago. He brought me and my sister and my uncle over here and it was the most surreal experience because I had never been to America, never been anywhere in America, so Los Angeles or Hollywood was this absolutely unreal world. Plus, we were staying in a house on Blue Jay Way which had a conversation pit and very thick shag pile carpets and lots of plastic fruit in the kitchen and loads of cupboards with nothing in them and a swimming pool, which for a kid coming from West Hampstead where you could barely buy green vegetables in winter, it was just all a bit extraordinary. And the sun and the palm trees and then you went to a supermarket and you could buy makeup and bacon in the same place. He gave us one of those trolley things and he said you can come back and you can go and get anything you want and we came back with two kinds of ice cream, some mascara, and some bacon. That’s all we had. We had hardly anything in our little trolleys because we just weren’t used to that sort of plenty, that kind of overwhelming choice. We were overwhelmed by Los Angeles and the only place my Dad had time to take us was Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to look at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And I remember that so clearly because as a child you’re just looking at these stars, and you see all the names of lots of people you’ve never heard of and lots of people that you have. I thought it was a lovely thing then to put in names of people who had made the city the legend that it is into the paving stones. I thought that was just so cool when I was little. And the fact that they’ve done it for me just seems quite unreal. Plus I’m right outside a pub. Not only outside a pub but literally it’s my name you stand on as you walk in and it’s my name you stand on as you reel out. So I’m hoping that a lot of people will miss the step, fall over me and there’ll be lots of action, so it’ll be interesting. But I’m just really chuffed as they say in my country by that.

Q: Initially, wasn’t this called Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang? Why the name change? And also, given the huge box office success of the original, why did you choose not to use Kirk Jones who directed the first one?

EMMA: No, we asked Kirk because that’s etiquette anyway and we’d have loved him but he was just about to make a film with Robert De Niro and said “I’m sorry, I can’t” and we said “Oh, okay. You’re gonna go work with Robert DeNiro.” So that was that. And Nancy McPhee and The Big Bang, the Americans felt that that might be misconstrued by some people because the big bang could refer to something other than, for instance, an explosion. I don’t want to go into it farther. I’m sure you can extrapolate the necessary information. So it went to Nanny McPhee Returns which I think has its own pleasant ring. It’s a bit boring but nevermind. I don’t mind.

Q: Did you write about a mom working and trying to cope because of something in your own life with your kids?

EMMA: It’s not just something in my life. It’s something in everybody’s life. Because you know what? I think that even when people are together and are bringing up their children together, unless they have servants, then if one of you is working which necessarily that generally is the case, the one who’s at home with the children all week feels like a single parent. They do, because apart from everything else, then your person comes in, in the evening, late, late, late, not wanting to take over and put the children to bed and you’re going, “Right. That’s it. That’s it. I’ve had enough now. You can take over.” And they go, “Excuse me, I’ve been working all day. Now I want to stop.” I think that there’s a lot of anguish involved in parenthood and I think in the 21st century we are going to have to grapple with all sorts of issues to do with parenting and to do with work and the relationship between those two vital jobs. Because parenting is much more important than most of the work we do. That is the fact. The work we do is important because we need to earn money. But we’re probably earning much more money than we need, a lot of us, except obviously in the poorer countries where that’s a whole other argument. But here, we really do have to do a lot of imaginative thinking about how to work this one out.

Q: Can you talk about the hair and makeup for your character and what that preparation process was like?

EMMA: Sure. There’s varying degrees of it. There’s the X factor degree where it’s the full thing. I mean, when she arrives, which is wig, hat, full makeup, fat suit, all the stuff over the fat suit, the clothes, and that constricts the ribs so you can’t quite breathe and plus you’ve got a prosthetic nose on and a mouth piece and I can’t talk and you’re getting little sore bits everywhere. So you’ve got to be rather Zen when you’re in that state. You’ve just got to let it float over you because it’s very uncomfortable. Even though it was brilliantly designed, it’s just 8 to 12 hours in that get-up is uncomfortable. And it takes about an hour and a half to put all of that on. Maybe an hour and three-quarters at the beginning of the shoot and then it gets faster. The final bit takes just as long because the makeup artist has to comb my hair to do all this. It’s very funny actually. And then there’s nice little intermediary bits where I don’t have a monograph, I’ve got a nice little button nose, and I don’t have the earlobes and things like that. So it is a little bit of me coming in in the morning and going “What level is it?” It’s level 10? Oh God!” And you’re always very relieved when it’s over.

Q: When you write, do you have to consider the differences between American and British culture?

EMMA: Sometimes I do. For instance, there are certain words like “syrup” for the syrup situation, that I call “treacle” in my country. Treacle is such a great word but I had to change it to “syrup” because the Americans, I was told, would not know what “treacle” was. So I cowtowed to that one. Sometimes there will be words or things that people will say that I have to change and I refuse.

Q: What about concepts too?

EMMA: Well no, because I think that all of the concepts in this film are universal, I would say – parenting, war, absence, fear of loss, divorce, conflict between children – I think they’re all universal. I think that the language and the detail of what food you’re eating or how you eat it or how you wear your hair, that’s all different probably. But I think that the concepts are entirely universal.

Q: What’s your favorite part of being Nanny McPhee?

EMMA: The reaction of the crew because when I come on as Nanny McPhee, they’re all very respectful. All these huge guys say “Good morning, Nanny McPhee.” They never call me Ann. They don’t call me Emma. And I’m on set a lot just in civvies because I’m not on every day but I’m here. I’m on set all the time. But as long as I’m Nanny McPhee, they don’t come near me. It’s hysterical. It’s nice. I like it. I get a bit of peace.

Q: Is it fear or respect? What do you think it is?

EMMA: Both. Mostly fear, obviously.

Q: Do you have to teach them the same lessons?

EMMA: No, the crews are very professional people. They’re very good. They’re very well behaved, really.

Q: How did you decide the lessons that she teaches in this particular movie?

EMMA: What I do is write the story first and then decide what lessons might work, might pertain, might be useful because that’s the best way round. First, I can’t start with lessons because that’s not a story and some of the lessons are ironic. Yes, they’ve learned how to share nicely with a pig and an elephant and a goat and a cow. You know, it’s not really them learning how to share nicely. But, of course, you know that after they’ve shared with a particularly unpleasant smelling goat, they’re going to share pretty well because they don’t want to share with a goat anymore. So, they’re all meant, but they’re also very lightly meant because I’m not here to teach people lessons.

Q: What’s your writing process like in general? Do you create the characters first or the story?

EMMA: Story first. I’m writing the third one at the moment which will be modern so that’s very interesting because they’ll be dealing with communications and these machines and all of that. So it will be very interesting. Story first, superstructure of the story first, what’s the big story? And then, what’s the little story inside that? What’s the internal emotional plot? What’s that? Get that right, start creating the characters, and then the last thing is the lessons. It’s an interesting question because I know how to do that now. And I know how to start the movies now. Because the first one, I’d written this whole huge sort of introduction about the history of naughty children through the ages, which actually one day I would love to have the money to be able to shoot, but we tried shooting it cheaply and it didn’t work. Anyway, in the end, we just had Colin (Firth) do “This is the story of my family” and I thought “Oh God, well that’s never going to work!” and it worked beautifully. So this time I thought, I can’t remember what the original opening was, but still the penny hadn’t bloody dropped, it’s extraordinary how long it takes sometimes for something very simple. And I’d had this whole introduction and I’m finding out we’re never going to do it, oh God, let’s just have Maggie say “This is the story of me and my family.” So now, writing the third one, I’ve got the beginning. I know that it’s going to be somebody saying “This is the story of me and my family.” That’s all you need.

Q: As far as the second film connects to the first with Maggie Smith’s character, was she one of the children from the first movie?

EMMA: She was the baby. What’s very, very sweet is you go and watch this with kids and when she says “I remember from when I was little…,” it’s just a tiny little thing. She waves the thing. You can see all the [whispers like a small child] “Oh she was the baby,” because they get it immediately. It’s very interesting. I didn’t know whether they would.

Q: When you’re done with the script, does the studio alter it?

EMMA: There’s always a process of give and take. The first thing I do is I work on my own with Lindsay, my producer, who’s an independent producer. We work together for however long it takes – in this case, 3 or 4 years – and then we take what we think is our finished product to Universal, Working Title at Universal, and then we will get notes from them and we’ll look at the notes and some of the notes are very good. I remember Working Title saying “We’d love a little bit more magic in London,” which gave me the excuse to be able to write a lion coming alive and roaring and Nelson bowing on the top of his column which was a great pleasure. So sometimes you get a lovely note where you’re allowed to. I would never put that in because I think it costs too much but they sometimes want a bit more.

Q: You and Maggie Gyllenhaal are friends. Can you talk about your friendship and what it’s like having the opportunity to work with a good friend who you’re actually close to?

EMMA: It’s bliss. As you can imagine, it’s much easier than working with someone you’re not trusting and you don’t like (laughs) which can sometimes happen. I think on a film like Nanny McPhee, it’s vital that you cast people you know are -- what we would say in my country are company members, people who play with the team, support the team. I mean, Maggie was so fantastic with the kids. She really did mother them. The girls were in floods of tears when she left on her last day. It was so touching. Look, however much I like his acting, I’m not going to be casting Russell Crowe in a Nanny McPhee movie. Do you know what I mean? I mean, because that would be too difficult. Not that he would do it. Cue the phone calls. (Laughs) “Crowe is McPhee!”

Q: What was the relationship between Nanny McPhee and Mrs. Dockerty?

EMMA: She’s the baby. She stays with her. She was the baby from the first film. Maggie Smith’s character, Mrs. Docherty, was Aggie, the baby from the first Nanny McPhee film.

Q: Are you affiliated with any charity organizations?

EMMA: Only about 600. I’m chair of the Helen Bamber Foundation which is the one I work with the most. They treat victims of various human cruelty of one kind or another. So we have our clients come from all over the world and have very unpleasant stories to tell.

Q: How’s My Fair Lady coming along?

EMMA: I’ve delivered it. It’s done. I’m just the writer so I said “Here you go! Bye.”

Q: Are you going to write a part for yourself?

EMMA: Obviously I re-wrote it with Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper. I wrote a whole load of new songs for her and she goes off with [Professor] Higgins at the end so it’ll be a real interesting re-make.

“Nanny McPhee Returns” opens in theaters on August 20th.

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