Kristin Scott Thomas is considered one of the top British actresses of her generation. In recent years, audiences are just as likely to see her in a French-language film as they are to see her in an English-language film. That is because the Oscar-nominated actress has been living in France and embracing the country’s cinematic arts. Most of her filmography these days consists of independent European films.
One of these movies is “Nowhere Boy,” which tells the story of a teenage John Lennon (played by Aaron Johnson) and the complicated relationship he had with two sisters: his strict, uptight guardian Aunt Mimi (played by Scott Thomas), who raised him for most of his childhood, and his free-spirited, dysfunctional mother Julia (played by Anne-Marie Duff), who got to know John when he is an adolescent. Naturally, Mimi and Julia have conflicts over their different ideas of how to raise rebellious John and whether or not he should his pursue his dream of becoming a professional musician.
“Nowhere Boy” (directed by Sam Taylor-Wood) arrives in U.S. theaters a week after of Scott Thomas’ French-language movie “Leaving,” which was directed and co-written by Catherine Corsini. In “Leaving,” Scott Thomas plays Suzanne, a physiotherapist who leaves her seemingly comfortable life as a wife and mother to run off with a man hired to renovate her home office. Scott Thomas talked about both films, as well as her other upcoming projects, when I sat down with her at the New York City press junket for “Nowhere Boy.”
Did you see any similarities between your characters in “Nowhere Boy” and “Leaving”?
No, I didn’t. When I was doing them, it never occurred to me. But they both come from the same place: They both have abandonment issues, I guess. The woman in “Leaving” just abandons herself. She just gives up everything for this desire and wanting to feel something, I think.
And Mimi is just terrified of losing everything and feeling things. And she’s hanging on like mad to John. And she’s poured every atom of her love into this boy. And she is trying to control him and is trying to give him what she considers to be best for him and turn him into a doctor or something magnificent. And the character in “Leaving” is doing the absolute opposite. She’s just shedding everything and getting rid of everything. She’s trying to start again, I think.
How do you think Mimi changed from the beginning of the “Nowhere Boy” story to the end?
Mimi remained very tough and defensive up until she died. But I never met her, so I don’t know. Half of what I did on that film [“Nowhere Boy”] was pure invention. You just have to trust somehow that if you get the source right — and I think the source of Mimi’s behavior was just this love for this child and feeling very protective. She didn’t have any children of her own. She’d lost the love of her life during the war. He died of pneumonia or something, and she was a nurse.
And then she has this little boy whom she taken care of because she doesn’t feel that he sister can take are of him. And she’s just overwhelmed by the love she has for this boy, and she wants t give him everything for the best.
In your real life, what was your first memory of the Beatles, particularly John Lennon?
My first memory of the Beatles? I must’ve seen them on television when I was about 6 or 7 maybe. And John Lennon? I wasn’t really a great Beatles fan. The reason why I made the movie wasn’t because, “Oh, I have to make a movie about John Lennon.”
The reason why I made the movie was I was really affected by the story of this boy discovering his talent, and this triangle between the boy and these two very strong and influential women in his life. And how motherhood can form a child. I find that really, really interesting. It wasn’t really that I was massive Beatles fan.
This film is not about the Beatles. It’s, as I said earlier, a boy discovering his talent. And I think that that is exciting in itself. How come some people are just so hugely talented? Where does that come from? How do people nurture their talent and how do they discover it? How does it become genius? That’s what’s interesting to me.
Speaking of talent, everyone who works with you seems to have great things to say about your talent. What has made you a better actress over the years?
[She says jokingly] Well, to answer that question, I have to admit that I am extraordinary. [She says seriously] No, I think that I’m a better actress than I was 10 years ago. I think in most jobs, you get better as you get older. You gain experience, you gain knowledge. I think it’s just working. I work a lot. And most of the time, I really love it. And working the theater has certainly changed my attitude as to why I do this. Because before, I thought it was slightly self-indulgent and a bit wicked, really, to act.
And now, seeing how a show, for example, can affect people … The problem with being a film actress or a movie star is that people see you so huge that somehow you’re visually massive or somehow you’re in some removed space, which is a television or wherever. It somehow takes your humanity. And I think when you’re working on a stage, people will see you almost trip or they’ll see that your mascara’s running or they’ll see you breathing or they’ll see you slightly out of breath or they’ll hear your voice go or something. They’re really with you there and they follow you. And they’re not scared of you. There’s no worshipping that goes on in the theater. It’s just something. It’s kind of a sharing of an experience.
Did you have anyone like Aunt Mimi in your life?
My granny was a bit like Aunt Mimi. My granny was very strict, tough love. And there of shots of me [in “Nowhere Boy”], especially when I’ve got my reading glasses and cigarette, it’s just so much like my grandmother. It’s hysterical. Same period as well … That type of woman hung around a long time. You know, that sort of ‘50s straight skirt, pearls, lipstick.
On the one hand, movie stars who do Broadway shows are good for business, but on the other hand, it seems like a lot of theater actors seem to resent when movie stars get the lead roles over more experienced stage actors. How do you feel about that love/hate relationship?
It’s really tough. When I went on stage, I didn’t want to do a kind of turn and then leave. So the first time I went on stage properly, I joined up ad did a tour of France — I’m never doing tat again — of all the provinces. It was quite exhausting. And I learned a lot through that.
It is a difficult situation because you need the marquee names. Maybe in England it’s different, because there’s less of a divide between theater and television and movies. And most actors will have worked on stage at some time during their career. And that’s the difference between actors in America and actors in England.
About your Suzanne character in “Leaving,” she leaves her husband and kids to run off with another man. Do you think she’s ever done anything that extreme before in her life?
No, it’s like a flip-out. And that’s what attracted me to that part: this idea of letting everything just go to the devil and getting rid of everything. I think it would’ve been any guy. She uses that guy to get out of the situation. It’s a mixture of desperation and desire and all these things that suddenly fall into place. She just loses her mind, I think.
Should the audience question why Suzanne is attracted to the man for which she leaves her family?
I think that. If you talk to the director [of “Leaving,” Catherine Corsini], she wouldn’t say that. But I think she just needed a real person who was going to look at her and see her for what she is. She goes to him. She just needs to feel like she’s a real person. I don’t think he’s a hero coming in on a white charger. She’s fixated on this man. “This man is going to save my life.”
Was there anyone who influenced your decision to sign on to “Nowhere Boy”?
I really liked the script. And I really liked Sam [Taylor-Wood’s] first film. And it’s true: Anthony Minghella was definitely in the mix, because he’s family somehow. And anyway, Sam walked into my dressing room, and I thought, “I really like her. I’m going to do it.” Those things happen sometimes. There’s a good chemistry between two people, and that’s that.
What was it like working with “Nowhere Boy” director Sam Taylor-Wood?
It was very simple working with her. Sam is a photographer, and she has a strong sense of framing. And it was the first time I had realized how much a frame can tell a story, how much the actual shape of a picture tells a story and how as an actor, you can evolve within that frame and you might not need to do half as much acting. It’s a very interesting visual idea of part of a shot, rather than just performing. It’s sort of anti-Actors Studio, if you like.
Anyway, working with Sam was extremely simple. I worked with a dialect coach to get the accent right. It’s a very different accent from John’s. Mimi was very upwardly mobile and was extremely careful about the way she spoke. Luckily, we have recordings of her speaking, so I was able to get that right. I know I got that bit right. And working with Sam was totally organic and easy.
And what was it like working with “Leaving” director Catherine Corsini?
Catherine was the complete opposite. Catherine was one great big fireball of insanity, but I would make another film with her in a heartbeat. It was a totally different experience. One is very, very measured — Sam — very softly spoken and very gentle and light and sunny. And Catherine Corsini is this hurricane woman — very, very passionate with this fantastic energy. It’s like being hit by a train. I did not agree with her on everything. We had massive fights, which she always won. And we made what is this year one of my favorite movies.
You’ve been very forthright about how you prefer to make European films and that you don’t care to make many Hollywood films anymore. Can you talk about why you feel this way?
I don’t want to be disparaging about the hand that feeds us all, because the Hollywood film industry nourishes everything else. That’s sort of the mother house. But it’s true. I prefer to be making the kind of movies that I’m making in Europe. They’re more exciting to me than the things I’ve been asked to do recently coming out of America.
It doesn’t say I don’t want to do them anymore, but when you have roles like Suzanne in “Partir” [“Leaving”] or Juliette in “I’ve Loved You So Long” or even Mimi in [“Nowhere Boy”], even though it’s a much smaller part [in “Nowhere Boy”], it’s so exciting. I think in Europe, they’re interested in women of my age. And I don’t think here [in America] that they are.
Can you talk about “Love Crime” and “Sarah’s Key” (also known as “Her Name Was Sarah”), your two movies that premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival?
One [“Love Crime”] was with [writer/director] Alain Corneau, who is one of the great pillars of French cinema, who died recently. And that is a film noir … which is about two women in a fight for power at a big multinational.
And the other one is an adaptation of “Sarah’s Key,” which is a best-selling novel here and all over the world, which talks about a modern-day journalist’s quest for the truth and facts about the Vel’ d’Hiv, which was the roundup of Jews in 1942, any Jews they could find, and they took them all into a velodrome and put them on trains to take them to the death camps.
It’s one of those secrets that the French brushed under the carpet for a very long time, And abut 10 years ago, in the late ‘90s, Jacques Chirac accepted for the first time and … acknowledged that this had happened, whereas before, it had sort of never been talked about. Last year there was a film about it, but this film, “Sarah’s Key,” because it brings the story of the Holocaust into perspective of today, and what the consequences of all that do.
Even 60, 70 years later, it still has consequences of the dreadful things we do to each other as human beings. History is important. That’s what it’s about. History isn’t just important because it happened. History is important because things happen afterwards. And I think that [knowledge] is useful.
Out of all of your leading men, which ones would you prefer to work with again?
It would probably be easiest to say which ones I would prefer not to work with again, but that would get me into a lot of trouble. [She laughs.] I just made a movie [“The Woman in the Fifth”] with Ethan Hawke, and I’d really love to work with him again. Ralph Fiennes, I’ve worked with him a few times. Loved that. Generally, they’re rather good.
You’ve been doing a lot of French films in recent years. How do you think people perceive you in France?
I think they’re OK with me. I hope so. I do have a dodgy foreign accent; it’s a bit odd.
What’s your favorite John Lennon song?
I don’t know. I like the one [“Mother”] at the end of [“Nowhere Boy”], because it’s the song that we used in the film.
Did making “Nowhere Boy” give you more appreciation for John Lennon’s music?
Yes. Now I can see what I missed.
For more info: “Nowhere Boy” website, “Leaving” website
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