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Emma Thompson On 'The Children Act'


In the film "The Children Act," Emma Thompson plays Fiona Maye, a High Court justice who's palpably brilliant and accomplished but also contends with conflicting morals and her own unraveling marriage. She's asked to rule on if a 17-year-old boy who was a Jehovah's Witness should be compelled to receive blood transfusions even though it conflicts with his faith. The justice decides on seaming impulse to see him in the hospital.


EMMA THOMPSON: (As Fiona Maye) Should we let you do yourself in? Somehow, I've got to decide.

FIONN WHITEHEAD: (As Adam Henry) I think it's my choice.

THOMPSON: (As Fiona Maye) I'm afraid the law doesn't agree.

WHITEHEAD: (As Adam Henry) The law is an ass.

THOMPSON: (As Fiona Maye) So they say.

SIMON: "The Children Act" is written by Ian McEwan based on his novel. It also stars Stanley Tucci and Fionn Whitehead. And Emma Thompson, who this year became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Adam, the young man in this film, is just days from his 18th birthday. But legally, he's still 17. So what do you think that Justice Maye doesn't just deliver her ruling and instead decides to meet him first?

THOMPSON: Well, it's not a simple answer to the question because, of course, as with all Ian's work, it's about the complications of being human. That is to say, in my view, the reality of life. And it was very important for her to show that she respected the views of the family and of the young boy enough to go and discuss it with him. She wasn't willing just to brush it all aside and make the ruling that, of course, as he points out later in the film, she was bound by law to make. I thought that was a very interesting part of the decision-making process for her.

SIMON: Justice Maye often seems reserved. And arguably, she has to be. How does a great actress play someone who is reserved?

THOMPSON: Well, I mean, I'm sure everybody's got different ways. But I went and watched judges at work. And one of the first things I noticed was that mostly the women listened. They listened with a peculiar muscularity and intention as though listening with their whole bodies rather than just their ears. They are working at a level I just found overwhelmingly impressive.

SIMON: You got your start in comedy, didn't you?

THOMPSON: Yes, I did. That's what I wanted to do. I went to university to study English literature. And when I was at university, I joined the Footlights, which is where all the Pythons came from, with my mates Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. And we were with the Footlights for years because we were there for three years. And then afterwards, we carried on doing sketch comedy on tour and then on television. So I earned my living doing sketch comedy until I was 27. And then on the side, I used to do a bit of stand-up.

SIMON: You did stand-up? I didn't know that.


SIMON: So how did you become the serious...

THOMPSON: An actor.

SIMON: ...Woman of the theater? Yeah. And I know a comic is an actor, too.

THOMPSON: Indeed. No, no, no. I mean, I understand. And I think it's probably healthy that we don't take comedy quite as seriously as drama. But I take comedy much more seriously because I think it's much harder. But that's another story. And, you know, you'll find most actors say that. I was in the sketch show that I described earlier with Hugh and Stephen and Robbie Coltrane.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh - what a cast.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I know. I know. It was an amazing cast. Anyway, Robbie was about to do something written by that extraordinary painter and writer John Byrne who - they were looking for, as it were, the girl whose name was Suzi Kettles. So he said you should go and see them. And they gave me the role. And that was the first time I did a straight part. And I remember being on set and thinking, this feels a bit weird. But then after the first hour, I realized it was really just like doing a sketch only for longer.

SIMON: Do you find that you, at some level, emotionally, you get personally involved with the characters you portray as you do in "The Children Act?" Or like a judge, do you have to keep some distance, too?

THOMPSON: It depends. I mean, I've learnt to give myself decompression time. And I would say to all young actors who work that you do have to be aware that you're playing tricks with yourself and with your subconscious mind and that I've had experiences where I've gone and played someone and I've come back home and not been able to shake it - just not been able to shake it off. It's complicated. And that's been bad for me. I mean, it's not terribly good for your mental health. So you do have to - yeah, you have to keep an eye. And playing Fiona was interesting actually. It wasn't a long shoot. It was six weeks, but it was very intense. And I'd been rehearsing not only the language is quite - a lot of her language is quite complicated. But I also had to learn these piano pieces, which took me a long time because I hadn't played the piano for ages.


SIMON: That was you. I - forgive me. I assumed they got some ringer in there. Oh, my gosh.

THOMPSON: Oh, all of it - yeah, yeah.


SIMON: And, of course, without giving away anything, although the novel's been out a few years, Fiona becomes - well, she finds she can't leave the case of the young boy just - it's not just another case. She becomes touched and overwhelmed, too, doesn't she?

THOMPSON: Yeah. She - I mean, I think the relationship between her and Fionn - wonderful Fionn Whitehead - he's a fantastic young man, wonderful. Just to have that cast was such a gift. There's a long scene in the hospital, which is a kind of play in itself because so much happens between them.


WHITEHEAD: (As Adam Henry) So what were you doing at my bedside, coming, bothering me and singing with me?

THOMPSON: You know, he's expecting something. She's expecting something. I think their assumptions about - one about the other are overturned in a very beautiful way, actually, because they become very drawn to each other on an intellectual level, on an emotional level. I think Fiona is expecting someone - what's the word? - limited in some way because of his upbringing within the Jehovah's Witnesses. And what she finds is this living flame. And, of course, she's warmed by him.


SIMON: Emma Thompson, who stars in the film "The Children Act" showing now on Direct TV and in theaters next weekend, thanks so much for being with us.

THOMPSON: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.