Throughout the course of her accomplished — and several-decades long — career, Emma Thompson has established herself as an icon of British cinema. Thompson’s wide range of work includes period dramas like “Howard’s End,” “Sense and Sensibility,” and “The Remains of the Day,” along with more modern films like “Love Actually,” “Last Christmas,” and “Bridget Jones’s Baby.” Along with her acting work, Thompson is also a screenwriter who has written several highly-acclaimed films (via IMDb). In real life, Thompson is known for her eccentric, no-nonsense personality in interviews.
It’s hard to imagine Thompson as a hopeful young actress before all of her success. However, Thompson wasn’t always the confident, self-assured woman we know today. Before establishing herself as a more serious dramatic actress, Thompson began her career doing sketch comedy — and before that, she was just another young girl growing up in London. Here is the stunning transformation of Emma Thompson.
Emma Thompson was raised in a bohemian, artistic family
In many ways, looking back to Emma Thompson’s upbringing makes it easy to see how she became the person that she is today. She was raised in a bohemian family in London. Her mother, Phyllida Law, was also an actress, while her father, Eric Thompson, worked as an actor and presenter, best known for narrating the children’s show “The Magic Roundabout.”
As Thompson recalled to The Guardian, the arts were always infused into her life. “We were surrounded by writers and directors and actors, so there was a lot of talk about [theater].” While her parents were entrenched in London’s artistic world, they weren’t well-known. As Thompson explained, her parents’ version of working as an actor showed her that fame was nothing special. “It was just a job,” Thompson said, “Fame is a completely accidental by-product. I don’t have any feeling of, you’ve got to keep your face up there.”
Emma Thompson's career was fueled by joining this group at The University of Cambridge
Emma Thompson didn’t initially pursue a career as an actor. Instead, she studied English at the prestigious University of Cambridge. As fate would have it, it was here that she found a community of actors and writers that would set her career in motion. Thompson joined the Footlights, a famous sketch comedy troupe that ended up performing on television. Among her friends and co-stars in the comedy troupe were fellow actors Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. As Fry told Time, Thompson stood out even then. He recalled “her frankly radiant presence and range of extraordinary skills as a performer.”
This early success in comedy at university led to her first few jobs. She acted in the sketch comedy shows “Alfresco” and “Fry and Laurie” and was even given her own sketch show called simply “Thompson.”
Emma Thompson's sketch comedy experience led to more dramatic work
Ultimately, Emma Thompson’s work in sketch comedy led to more dramatic roles. As she told Vulture, “I was doing sketch comedy … and I worked with Robbie Coltrane. He was then cast in a wonderful thing [called ‘Tutti Frutti’] that this Scottish artist called John Byrne had written.” He recommended Thompson, and she was cast. “I realized that drama was just like doing a character in a sketch, only for longer than three minutes,” she said. She added, “Comedy is your best training [for drama] anyway.”
She followed this role with other more dramatic roles. Thompson was cast in “Fortunes of War,” a World War II miniseries (via Los Angeles Times).
Thompson also gained some experience on stage in the musical “Me and My Girl” on the West End. However, as she told Interview, this experience taught her that theater wasn’t necessarily what she wanted to pursue. “I did 15 months of ‘Me and My Girl,’ eight shows a week, and I’ve got a feeling it might have actually damaged me,” she said. “I’m not being entirely flippant.”
Emma Thompson won her first Oscar for Howard's End
In 1992, Emma Thompson starred in the adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel “Howard’s End” as Margaret Schlegel. The role proved to be a turning point in her career. At the time, Thompson wasn’t particularly well-known. As the film’s director James Ivory told IndieWire, it was immediately evident she was right for the part. “Instead of reading a script [at the audition],” he recalled, “she read directly from the novel and I cast her on the spot.” And, as Thompson remembered it, “That was the only time I’d written to someone and said, ‘I know how to do this, I know this woman so well.’ I felt unusually convinced I would be able to do it.”
Of course, she was right. She ended up winning the Oscar for Best Actress that year.
In 2018, Hayley Atwell took on the same role. As she told Parade, “I emailed [Thompson] to pay homage and to acknowledge that I know it was a turning point in Emma’s career.” And it certainly was — Thompson picked up two more Oscar nominations for “The Remains of the Day” and “In the Name of the Father” the very next year.
Emma Thompson married and later divorced actor Kenneth Branagh
While acting in “Fortunes of War,” Emma Thompson met the well-known actor Kenneth Branagh. The pair fell in love and married several years later in 1989 and became fondly-known as “Ken and Em.” They worked together on three more projects: “Peter’s Friends,” “Dead Again,” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” However, the marriage came to an end when Branagh had an affair with the actress Helena Bonham Carter, who had played Thompson’s sister in the 1992 film “Howard’s End,” and later starred alongside Branagh in the 1994 film “Frankenstein.”
As Thompson later said at a fundraiser (via The Telegraph), the relationship helped her portray heartbreak in that iconic scene in “Love Actually.” “I had my heart very badly broken by Ken,” she said. “So I knew what it was like to find the necklace that wasn’t meant for me.”
In her characteristic style, Thompson dealt with the heartbreak well. She turned her focus to her career and ultimately moved on. As she told The Sunday Times in 2013, “You can’t hold onto anything like that. It’s pointless. I haven’t got the energy for it… Helena and I made our peace years and years ago” (via The Telegraph).
Emma Thompson established herself as a talented screenwriter with Sense and Sensibility
The year 1995 was a tumultuous one for Emma Thompson. It was the year she and Kenneth Branagh divorced, but it was also the year that she wrote her legendary script for the adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.”
While Thompson’s writing ended up winning her the Oscar for best screenplay, she was initially tentative about the project. As she told Entertainment Weekly at the time, “I felt slightly apologetic about stealing from Jane Austen to make a movie.” As it turns out, Thompson wasn’t intended to be cast in the movie. However, as producer Lindsay Doran said, she “became a big-deal movie star” while writing and was eventually cast as Eleanor.
The film established Thompson as not only one of the most talented, celebrated actresses of her generation, but also as an exciting, intelligent, up-and-coming screenwriter.
Emma Thompson fell in love with her Sense and Sensibility co-star Greg Wise
Not only was “Sense and Sensibility” an important film in Emma Thompson’s career, it was also the project that introduced her to her second husband, Greg Wise. Wise played Kate Winslet’s love interest in the film, and, initially, Wise had pursued Winslet instead. As Thompson told ET, “Before he did the job, he went to see a friend of his who was a bit witchy and she said he would meet his future partner on the film. He assumed it wasn’t me because I was married and quite a lot older than him so he thought it might be Kate.” Luckily, Winslet and Wise weren’t well-suited for one another.
As Thompson later said on the “How to Wow” podcast, things happened pretty organically for her and Wise after that. On her 25th anniversary, she said, “It’s not our wedding anniversary, it’s our sort of shagging anniversary basically” (via Tyla). In 2003, they tied the knot. As of 2021, the marriage seems to be as happy as ever (via The Sun), but she’s remained level-headed. As she told The Guardian, marriage is “like a vessel you have to sail in for a long time. You can’t afford not to do the upkeep required, and sometimes you have to give it some attention.”
Emma Thompson gave birth to her daughter Gaia and later adopted a son
Emma Thompson gave birth to her daughter Gaia in 1999, then, in 2003, she and her husband adopted a boy from Rwanda named Tindyebwa Agaba, whom they call “Tindy” (via The Guardian). As her family grew, Thompson became more and more focused on family. As she told The Guardian, “Family is the center of everything for me. But family is about connection, not necessarily about blood ties. It’s about extended family — and extending family.”
She also explained that becoming a mother gave her strength. Gaia was conceived via in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and born when Thompson was nearing 40. “Even now, when things are bad, I go back and I remember the birth process. I can transport myself back to that moment when Gaia was born — it’s like a well from which I draw strength,” she said. After trying IVF again, Thompson eventually realized she wouldn’t be able to have another biological child. This ended up being a blessing in disguise, as it made room in her life for her adopted son.
Emma Thompson and her family built a quiet life in Scotland
Even though Emma Thompson and her family settled in London, they spend a lot of time in Scotland, where they own a cottage in Argyll near Loch Eck. As she told the Daily Record, “When I want calm, I go to Scotland. I’m half Scottish and every now and then, we retreat up there as a family.”
As Thompson’s husband told The Times in 2018, the couple purchased the woods behind their cottage, which put them into debt. “We couldn’t not buy it,” he said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the family took refuge in their rural Scottish cottage. For Thompson, it probably felt like the most natural place to go. As she once said in an interview for the BBC, Loch Eck has been her lifelong home. “I’ve played on its banks, picnicked on its beaches, swum in its chilly, unsalted depths, cycled round it, drunk it, got drunk near it, kissed in boats on it, got married near it and never wearied of it,” she said (via Daily Record).
Emma Thompson's acting career continued to flourish, as she explored other types of roles
After spending the beginning of her acting career establishing herself as an actress in period dramas, Emma Thompson branched out a little more as she got older. In fact, over the years, she’s proven to be one of the most versatile actresses of our time. In “Angels in America,” Thompson played the alluring angel (via Independent). In “Love Actually,” she played the middle-aged, quietly broken-hearted wife of Alan Rickman. In “Primary Colors,” she played Susan Stanton, a Hillary Clinton-like figure (via The Washington Post). In “Harry Potter,” she played the cooky Professor Trelawney. In “Saving Mr. Banks,” she played the austere P.L. Travers, the author of “Mary Poppins” (via IMDb). The list goes on.
Over the years, her experience on screen and stage has given a kind of fearlessness. As she told Interview, “Honestly, from the point of view of acting, I feel like I could do anything now. I feel completely fearless.” To be honest, we would trust her with just about any part, too.
In addition to acting, Emma Thompson has spent more and more of her career writing
In addition to her impressive acting resume, Emma Thompson has racked up a list of critically-acclaimed screenwriting credits, too. After “Sense and Sensibility,” she wrote and starred in the screen adaptation of the children’s book “Nanny McPhee.” She also wrote a film called “Effie Gray” about a real life woman from the 19th century. She also wrote the script for the third “Bridget Jones” movie “Bridget Jones’s Baby,” and the script for the 2019 holiday film “Last Christmas” (via IMDb).
Working as a writer gave her a new perspective on the entertainment industry. Writers, she said to The Guardian, are thought of as “the lowest of the low.” She went on to explain that too many writers in the industry aren’t given the time they need to do their best work. In a lecture for BAFTA, Thompson confirmed that she works extremely hard on her scripts, but even she can be mistreated by the industry. “Most of the screenplays I’ve written have not been made. … I don’t get very well treated as a writer either,” she said (via IndieWire).
Emma Thompson embraced aging as she entered her 50s
Not all famous actresses age gracefully — but Emma Thompson certainly has. In 2014, she explained to The Guardian that entering her 50s wasn’t something she feared. In fact, she explained that ageism is actually “one of the huge issues of our time.” She said, “People wanting to be 35 when they’re 50 makes me think: why? Why don’t you be 50 and be good at that? And also embody the kinds of choices that are sustainable at that age?”
Of course, aging has made her rethink her approach to her work. She is now more careful and — well — “sustainable” about which projects she accepts. “Especially now,” she said, “when time’s running out. It’s a different patch of life, your 50s.”
In fact, as Thompson told Interview, aging has made her less eager to work quite so hard. “If nobody wants me to act, that’s fine … In fact, I’m somewhat hibernatory,” she said.
Emma Thompson has learned about life through loss
Throughout her life, Emma Thompson has lost several people who were very close to her. Some of these losses included her sister-in-law, Clare, who died in 2017 and her friend Alan Rickman who died in 2016. As she explained in an interview with WebMD, these losses have taught her about embracing life. “It seems like people are dying all the time in my life,” she said. “My existence feels very hard-won and precious at the moment. I’m addicted to doing and action and activity, but this year I’m going to look at how it feels to be less addicted to that and more able to sit.” It sounds like 2019 was a year when Thompson took stock and refocused on what really matters.
In another interview with Vulture, Thompson explained that aging and loss had taught her to accept her own mortality. “I want to enjoy every minute and use the wisdom that I’ve accrued whilst acknowledging my fallibility and the continuance of all sorts of foolishness. It’s so enjoyable to be alive in this state,” she said.
Emma Thompson has become a fierce, unapologetic voice for change
As Emma Thompson aged, she became more and more vocal about British political issues like Brexit and the issues that underlie the entertainment industry, like the #MeToo movement. As she told The Guardian in 2016, her platform means she feels obligated to be an activist. “We all need to speak up, and a woman who has got a louder voice needs to shout very loudly indeed,” she said.
In 2019, she dropped out of a project led by John Lassiter because of allegations of sexual misconduct. As she wrote in a letter for the Los Angeles Times, “If people who have spoken out — like me — do not take this sort of stand then things are very unlikely to change at anything like the pace required to protect my daughter’s generation.”
Thompson summed up her view to Vulture, saying, “You have to challenge behavior that’s entitled or bullying or sexist or racist or homophobic — all the time. Because if you don’t challenge it, as repetitive as that might get, the behavior becomes normalized.” By the sounds of things, Thompson is far from finished, and we’re sure she’ll be creating characters and instigating change for a long while to come.
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