Emma, Actually

In Nanny McPhee, the Oscar-winning actress and screenwriter gets to flex her comic muscles

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Notwithstanding her wonderfully costumed ditzy professor in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Thompson has gotten so typed as a put-upon matron that one almost forgets she got her start in comedy. Her father, Eric, who died when she was 20, was the creator of the delightful children's television series The Magic Roundabout, and she grew up among what she calls "journeymen actors" with bags of joie de vivre. Thompson went to the tony, modestly boho Camden High School for Girls in northwest London, which has produced more than its share of media and entertainment types. At Cambridge University, where she read English literature, she got her sketch-comedy training in the famous Footlights Revue, side by side with the likes of Hugh Laurie, Robbie Coltrane and Stephen Fry. "I assumed I was going to be a comedian," she says, "and I wanted to be a cross between Lily Tomlin, Ruth Buzzi, Ruth Draper and Joyce Grenfell [a wonderful British monologist, much influenced by Draper, who's not as well known as she should be in the United States]." That's a pretty rich pedigree, and much later Thompson got her own sketch-comedy television series with her mother and younger sister Sophie, which drew mixed reviews. With help from Coltrane, she landed her first acting role "for longer than three minutes," and from there she went to a straight role in the World War II television series Fortunes of War, playing opposite Kenneth Branagh—whom she refers to as "my ex"—in a dark wig ("it looked like a cow pat") ever after referred to by her friends as M. Wig. Her first feature film, Mel Smith's wonderfully antic The Tall Guy, opposite Jeff Goldblum, justly remains a favorite.

But if there's a role that bottles Thompson's mercurial presence—goofy and radiant, with an edge of sadness—it's as the Angel in Mike Nichols' television adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. She's like that offscreen, too—warmly accessible, playful and relaxed (publicists adore her), but wary of self-revelation. She's endlessly solicitous: When I mention in passing that my mother is a fan of hers, she leaps to a desk and bangs out a letter that will make my mum's year. It's almost as though someone deputed her early on in life to be everyone's caretaker but her own. Though she says she hates to work all the time, Thompson drove herself so hard recently that she suffered a sort of collapse and had to down tools for a while. She speaks of her writing more as a compulsion than something she enjoys. (Her preferred place to write, despite the fact that her husband has built her her own office, is the loo, where her two Oscar statuettes—Best Actress for Howards End in 1993 and Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility in 1996—also reside.) Would she like to direct? "One day," she says. "But if you can tell me how to be an adequate mother and direct a film, I'll do it." And where does she see herself going from here? She smiles sweetly. "Downhill."

For a review ofNanny McPhee, go here.

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