She's Every Woman: Catching Up with Kristin Scott Thomas

Kristin Scott Thomas/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock
Kristin Scott Thomas/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock

"Yes, it's quite complicated, isn't it?" Academy Award nominee Kristin Scott Thomas asks. If art house cinemas stacked themselves into multiplexes, it would be possible to catch the British-born, French national on three screens currently, while the six films she has in various stages of production could easily fill up the multiplex across the street.

The four films a year she's been averaging over the past five years could very well fry up a Netflix queue, but the average moviegoer might be hard pressed to name any of them. In fact, the most one is liable to get, after some prodding, is a vague, "Wasn't she in that 'English Patient' movie?" But her Oscar-nominated turn as Katherine Clifton was more than fifteen years ago and a lot has changed since those days of Miramax owning Oscar night.

Today, she's 5,832 kilometers away from her Parisian Rive Gauche flat holding court in the basement of the Crosby Street Hotel. And if “The English Patient” set her up as Hollywood's go-to gal for an ice queen Brit -- see her oeuvre from “The Horse Whisper” to “Gosford Park”, there's even a 2003 “Ab Fab” cameo in Eddy's book club wherein her character, Plum Berkeley: Queen of the Spas, discusses the literary merits of OK! Magazine -- then her work in French film sees a mid-career actress that's downright convivial.

Certainly, she's always made time for French cinema, ever since moving to Paris at the age of nineteen, after a teacher at London's Central School of Speech and Drama told her she'd never cut it as an actress in Britain. "I didn't look right," she admits, "and I was hideously shy. Going to France and having to reinvent myself was the best thing."

So for six years, she paired au pair work with acting exercises at École Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Techniques du Théâtre. Graduating at twenty-five, she was plucked from a Parisian audition to star as a topless socialite opposite Prince's gigolo in his 1986 black and white Côte d'Azur musical fantasia, “Under the Cherry Moon.”

And it's a debut that still kind of smarts. "Don't watch it, please!" she begs. Too late. It's a film that uniquely sums up the 1980s, particularly her Golden Raspberry-nominated turn. She lost worst supporting actress to Dom DeLuise. She takes this in, wide-eyed. "I'm not embarrassed about the film," she reconsiders. "I'm kind of proud of it, actually, but my performance is really awful. Someone said I was a better cure for insomnia than a glass of milk."

"I'm a better actress than I was ten or fifteen years ago," she continues. "The sad thing about that is in most jobs you get better as you get older. You gain experience, you gain knowledge. That's just working. And I work a lot. Most of the time, I really love it."

Could it be that the roles on offer have also changed over the last decade? A decade that saw her morph from what she calls "chain-smoking snobs" to someone like Suzanne from 2009's “Leaving” who jettisons her doctor husband for an immigrant ex-con only to find herself trying to pawn her Cartier wristwatch in a dirty gas station. It seems almost a willful dismantling of her patented aristocratic lady.

"Suzanne just abandons herself," she agrees, "she gives up everything for this desire, for wanting to feel something. She's shedding everything and getting rid of it. She's trying to start again."

Ergo Scott Thomas? "I don't want to be disparaging about the hand that feeds us all," she begins. "The Hollywood film industry nourishes everything else because that's the mother hand, but it's true: The movies I'm making in Europe are more exciting to me than the things I've been asked to do recently coming out of America. That doesn't mean to say I don't want to do them anymore, but when you have even a much smaller part, it's so exciting. And in Europe, they're interested in women of my age. I don't think that here they are."

It's hard to ask the following question without imagining her well-manicured hand untucking itself from beneath her businesslike gray skirt and landing across my face, but after recent turns opposite It Boys Aaron Johnson and Robert Pattinson, both more than twenty-five years her junior, one has to wonder if some of the recent stretching of her acting chops couldn't be construed as the cougar pacing her cage. She rolls her eyes. "I played Aaron's mother," she replies, "or at least his mother-figure. And Robert, well …" she trails off. "I was definitely the adult on set," she says. "Let's just leave it at that."

Certainly, of her current crop of films, the role of Prime Minister Press Secretary Patricia Maxwell in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” brings her closest to her ice queen heyday. I gamely try to get her to give me a bit of “Horse Whisper's” Annie MacLean, a thinly disguised Tina Brown, but she flatly refuses. Her other roles, that of the spectral adulterer in an adaptation of Douglas Kennedy's “The Woman in the Fifth” and her aforementioned turn opposite the “Twilight” star in the adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's “Bel Ami,” seem to all have books in common.

Her willingness to take on works that originated in literature could certainly be singled out as the through-line of her career and it's something she pinpoints on a particular role. Somewhere between being made an officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in her native England and a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur in her adopted France, she tackled the title role of Bérénice in Racine's tragedy on stage in Paris.

"Working in the theater has certainly changed my attitude as to why I do this," she explains. "I thought it was slightly self-indulgent and a bit wicked, really, to act." She finds the direct connection you experience watching a play or reading a good book to be one and the same.

"The problem with being a movie star," she adds, "is that people see you so huge, you're either visually massive or in some removed space like a television. It takes away all your humanity. When you're working on the stage, people will see you almost trip or your mascara's running so they're really with you. They're not scared of you. There's no worshiping that goes on in the theater or books. It's the sharing of an experience."