Emma Thompson Is Nanny McPhee
But Emma isn't all serious. In Nanny McPhee, which she wrote and stars in, she plays the title character: a tough but loving caretaker. One look at her character, and it's easy to forget that underneath the warts is one stunning actress. Oprah.com caught up with Emma in advance of the film's release to talk motherhood, big-screen nannies and, of course, Harry Potter.
Emma Thompson: Well, that's one of the major moments in this film, when Nanny McPhee comes and says to Mrs. Green, "I'm going to put the children to bed early, and you can have a little time to yourself." Mrs. Green doesn't understand what time to herself means anymore, because as any mom will tell you, especially a mom with lots of children, you don't have any time to yourself. That's literally not possible, because it's not in the nature of motherhood to choose to take time for yourself. It just feels wrong and selfish, and we've all been brought up to believe it's wrong and selfish. I don't think it is, actually, but there you are. You have to think about it in the sense of the oxygen masks that come down in the plane. You have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first in order to be able to help the others. If you don't put the oxygen mask on, you'll be dead on the floor while everyone else is managing perfectly fine.
It's like when moms first give birth and they're thinking: "Oh my god, what am I doing? I'm going to kill my baby," and they don't know that the baby is as strong as 10 oxen carrying 15 men and will absolutely suck you dry, and you're the one who's just been traumatized by basically pulling your lip over your head. It's an unbelievable thing, giving birth. I had no idea it was so traumatic. I was in shock for ages because I gave birth without painkillers, and I was 40 years old. The thing I'm most proud of in the world is having done that, but my goodness it was a trauma.
There's a big debate in my country about women who choose not to have children, which is a perfectly legitimate choice. It's very important to be able to do that without encountering hostility and prejudice. Why shouldn't women choose not to have children? And also, people who don't have children are fantastically useful to people who do, because they don't have the parenting anxiety and they're great for kids to be with. Children have great relationships with aunties and uncles who don't have kids. My daughter has a wonderful auntie who doesn't have kids and who, of course, is literally her favorite person. And then she gets to give my daughter back, she doesn't have to live with her all the time, and then she gives her the most fantastic time.
ET: An extended family is a good trick, if you have a family that's worth extending. [Laughs] And some people don't. They have difficult and abusive families, in which case, get the heck out! And make your family with other people, because there are lots of other kinds of people who can influence you. I had two gay godfathers who were invaluable to me. And also a childhood uncle who was gay; he was superb. And two grandmothers. I was brought up by a huge gaggle of people. So, yes, my daughter has my mom and her auntie and her cousins. You've got to spread it out and give them a very, very wide base of people because one person, as any single parent will tell you, is not enough. It's not. It's too tough.
RB: Oprah always says that mothering is the hardest job in the world.
ET: She's entirely right. And the pressures of being a mother are just getting worse and worse and worse, not better. And all that superwoman crap didn't help at all, because everyone said, "Oh, you can have everything." And you can't have everything. It's just silly. And it's greedy and unpleasant, as well. Women are finally talking about it after all these years of saying: "No, it's fine. I can do it. It's all fine." Now they're saying: "I'm not coping, and actually I don't want it all. I want to be able to do the things that I'm doing, well, and everything else can go to hell."
ET: Well, I started writing them four years before my daughter was born because I was interested in writing something that was for everyone. I was very fed up with being corralled into groups and being marketed to. Not just in film but in virtually every regard. The commodifying of absolutely everything in life is getting me down slightly, so my real aim with these movies was to make something that everyone could go to. They'd know that they would be catered to, that they would have a nice time, that they could take very small children and still have a great time. I think that is about wanting to make a very good film and nothing else. The demands of making a good film for a large age range are very different than the demands of making a film, dramatic or comic, for a smaller age range. And that I find fascinating and very challenging in a great way. I love trying to create scenes that I know children will understand, that will have the emotional bite that they require, that won't take it too far but that will also make adults literally cry. Just immediately start crying. That's a wonderful thing to play with. And it's hard; it's really hard, which is why they take years to write. But each time I've written one I've learned a lot. When I wrote the first one, I had all sort of complicated beginnings. It was after two goes at the beginning of the movie and not getting it right that I finally worked out that the simplest way was the best, which is always with the words "This is the story of me and my family." Which is all you need to know, and then you can get on with it.
ET: Actually, I disagree profoundly. It's not like Mary Poppins in the sense that they couldn't be more different characteristically. What's alike about them is that they're both nannies, so that's the connection. But as for everything else, it couldn't be more different. Mary Poppins is an out-and-out raging narcissist, I would opine, and her methods are very different. It's sort of like Shane and The Godfather. Just because they're nannies and they're females, and there are so few films that deal with strong female characters, that's probably why people compare them.
RB: What is about Nanny McPhee, not the movies but the woman, that you love so much?
ET: I love her mystery and her wit, and I love her judicious and consistent patience. But I also love her subversive and slightly anarchic view of the world. And I love the fact that really what she's about is trying to provide children with the tools to solve their own problems. She's not about saying this is what you do; she's not like Mary Poppins doing the tidying by magic so that everything gets put away on its own, which is jolly good fun but doesn't solve the problem. It's an immediate gratification, whereas Nanny McPhee is very much into delayed gratification.
ET: It's not more fun, really. It's great doing adult, serious work. Some of the most fun I've had was making a movie for HBO with Mike Nichols called Wit, which is about a woman dying of cancer, and I've never had so much fun, so there you go. You're working with great writing and all of that. ... So it's not more fun, exactly, it's just such a conundrum. You're always working out the balance of emotion and each moment in such a movie as to have this very interesting relationship between drama, comedy, emotional—too emotional?—it's a tension, I suppose, that I enjoy very much.
RB: The other children's movie you are famous for is your role as Professor Trelawner in Harry Potter.
ET: Yes, a very minor minor role in Harry Potter.
RB: But still! What is it like to be a part of such a phenomenon? I know you just wrapped up the last film.
ET: In all, I've only worked on Harry Potter for nine days, and on the Nanny McPhees I've worked for a total of 15 years, so it's a very different thing. I'm not involved in the production and the scripts. I'm hardly there. So it's really good fun, but it's not, as it were, a visceral experience in the same way.
ET: They're ideal, they're absolutely ideal. If I'm writing and being a mom, it's a perfect job. I can be a writer and a mother at the same time, and it's perfect because I can do all the morning stuff, do work in the day and do after-school, evening and weekend stuff, as well. I can do that. Acting is different. If you're filming, you have to come to some sort of arrangement. My daughter's 10 now and my son's 23, so he came and worked on the film and she came and was a runner for the last few weeks when she split up from school. She loves film sets, and I think that next time I might try to do a film in the summer holidays and she can come and work on it.
RB: It's so nice to have that flexibility.
ET: Yes, I think that's right. I'm very lucky and it's unusual to have that flexibility, very unusual. And it's unusual to have financial flexibility. That's the bottom line.