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  • Interview: Kristin Scott Thomas

    Tue, 28 Oct 2008 11:53:42

    Interview: Kristin Scott Thomas - The star of <i>I've Loved You So Long</i> talks about one of her most challenging roles to date

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    Actress Kristin Scott Thomas' prolific career has included an award-nominated turn in The English Patient and a memorable role in director Robert Altman's murder-mystery masterwork Gosford Park. With I've Loved You So Long, the British thespian departs from her history of playing aristocratic period characters and takes on the challenge of portraying Juliette, a somber French woman who has recently been released from prison. Under the direction of Philippe Claudel, Thomas penetrates the emotional strata of Juliette's being, forgoing Hollywood glamour for depressive realism. Thomas recently spoke about the film, which was released in Europe earlier this year and is slowly rolling out in theaters across North America.

    Do you feel like you're experiencing a career renaissance at the moment?

    This is the first time I'm really enjoying the attention. I feel like I'm [at] the right place in my life to be able to enjoy being in this great production on Broadway, to enjoy being in a movie so many people seem to appreciate, and [have people pay] a lot of attention to the film. I feel that I've done work that I feel proud of and I'm able to enjoy it right now.

    Is that because you're doing so many different things which appear, to us, to be overlapping?

    Yeah. Obviously it's all staggered because you make a lot of films and they come out [at different times]. This film, I've Loved You So Long, was released in France in the early spring, and then it's been rolled out across Europe, and now it's coming to America. In between I've done other things. It does seem to be in strains and it's all dovetailing and coming together at the same time.

    As a parent, your character, Juliette, had to make some heartwrenching choices. How did you grapple with these difficulties as an actress?

    The point of this character is that she is holding [a profound] secret, and the secret she is hanging onto like an unborn child, almost, is her link to this event of the past, and it's something she doesn't want anyone else to get their sticky fingers on. That was the motor [of the performance]: to keep hanging onto that secret and be aware that the camera was going to come in and pinch stuff from time to time. Really, my aim as an actress was to keep as closed down as possible knowing that I had to produce something for people to watch and to understand, but also to let [emotions] out.

    How are you with keeping secrets, and was it easy to relate to her having such a huge secret?

    No, it wasn't actually. I think there are so many of us who have unsaid events in childhood or relationships that are taboo, or whatever, and you just don’t want to go there. That's how I see it, as a taboo subject—you're not allowed to think about it. If someone tells me, "This is a secret and you mustn't tell anyone," I will not tell anyone.

    How did you decide on the physicality of Juliette?

    By watching footage of documentaries and seeing people sitting and thinking about not getting enough exercise and thinking about what is precious [in life]. When you're shut up, and you were probably hated by the other inmates because of [a] crime—because there's a kind of hierarchy in prison and people who do certain things are closed off in different ways than others—she would have been really miserable. Finding your character is definite teamwork, and I worked with a makeup artist and the costume designer to find a way of [expressing Juliette physically]. We wanted her to appear as if she had no skin—she was naked, was a bare person, someone who didn't really care about her appearance. No self love, nothing. Just, "Here I am. Take it, get on with it." It’s almost aggressively ugly.

    What about the notion that you're a warmer actress in French than you are in English?

    [It's] not a question of me acting, it's a question of what the role is asking me to do, what directors ask me to do. I think that in French I don't have all of this kind of class baggage that [audiences] seem to throw at me when I'm in England because I haven't played any aristocrats in France. I don't have to do them again ad infinitum.

    Did playing Juliette give you a different sense of compassion toward [criminals] trying to reestablish themselves in the world?

    I make no secret of it: I didn't go to prison to talk to people because I was afraid of my own emotions getting in the way of portraying this character. [I played Juliette] in the most immediate fashion I could think of, which was me using my imagination and [trying] to push myself into that position. I was afraid that my fear or my pity, all those things, would get in the way. But I did watch quite a lot of stuff about people talking about how difficult it was coming out of rehabilitation. It was the most heartbreaking thing. And these women, particularly, once they'd been separated from their children, separated from their families, they just broke [down]. Therapists and psycho-specialists have told me that it's virtually impossible to completely pick yourself up and get going [again]. It's so sad. Of course there [are] people who have such difficulty in feeling sympathy for [them] because they've done these horrible, evil, wicked things, but at the same time you see these human beings who are trying to be human again. Really tough.

    That's why I like this job: I get to explore different existences.

    What is it that you would like people to walk away from this film with?

    When I chose to play this role, I didn't think about the consequences. It was just the pleasure, if you can call it that, of being able to explore these emotions and these situations that, hopefully, let's pray, I won't ever know in my life. That's why I like this job: [I] get to explore all these different avenues and have different tastes of different kinds of existences. That is what interests me in my job, so I rarely think about the consequences of what people are going to think afterward. I'm just bowled [over] by the effect this film has on audiences, a lot of strangers sitting in a dark room watching a film. I think people really want...to get together and have this shared experience in a safe environment. They've spent their money and they've bought their tickets and they know it's going to be over soon. They get this kind of moment of relief, which is sitting through this kind of film which really churns everything up inside of you and, actually, in a weird kind of way makes you feel better afterward.

    Can you discuss establishing the sisterly bond in this film?

    Well, it was funny because Elsa [Zylberstein] doesn't have any sisters. She had a slightly romantic idea about sisters which was perfect for the role because Lea['s] sister left when she was 10, and she hasn't seen her in 15 years. She was very small when the girl left and she had this idealized vision—Elsa, the actress—had this idealized vision of what it must be like. She's got one brother; she doesn't know what [having a sister] is like, so she imagined all of these hair brushing parties. I know the opposite—how vicious little girls can be, and older girls [too]. It was quite interesting being able to play off that reality vis a vis what we're pretending to be in the film; it's quite useful. It worked really, really well. I think [audiences] are completely convinced that we're sisters, which is so extraordinary. If she walked in the room now, you'd never imagine that would be possible, but on camera something happens.

    Awards season can certainly be helpful for a film's exposure. Having been through the process before, is it old-hat?

    I think it's always meaningful. I think it's always lovely when something gets recognition, and I certainly would be over the moon if something like that happened. It would be wonderful, but who knows.

    —Heidi Atwal

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    Tags: Kristin Scott Thomas, Philippe Claudel, Elsa Zylberstein, I've Loved You So Long...

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