Emma Thompson on Sex Positivity, Body Dysmorphia and Dating Kenneth Branagh
“Talking about sex is always completely fascinating,” Emma Thompson tells me. “It’s my favorite topic of conversation.” The famous actress is refreshingly candid as she discusses the themes uncovered in her new film, Good luck to you, Leo Grande. A tender story about sexual exploration, female pleasure and human connection, the drama sees Thompson play the role of widowed Nancy Stokes. The 60-year-old retired teacher has had only one sexual partner in her life, her husband, and she has never had an orgasm. In an effort to rectify this, she employs the services of a twentysomething male escort named Leo Grande, represented by Peaky Blinders‘Daryl McCormack. Thus begins an unexpected and sometimes conflicting journey for the two of them.
In a country known for embracing a stiff upper lip, I ask Thompson if she’s ever felt uncomfortable discussing sex in the public sphere. “I think it takes time [not to], but the more conversations we have that aren’t sneering, the easier it gets,” she muses. “Consider how obsessed we are with other bodily pleasures, like eating, and how much time we spend talking about food. There’s no reason we shouldn’t look much deeper into sexual pleasure. .
The term national treasure is often thrown around quite liberally but, in that case, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t consider Thompson as such. And it looks like the Queen agrees, as she bestowed the actor with Dame Honors in her 2018 Birthday Honors.
Born and raised in London, Thompson rose to prominence in the early 80s, appearing in numerous comedies and sketches. But her pivotal year came when she was 28, when she brought home the TV BAFTA for Best Actress for his roles in Tutti Frutti and fortune of warwhich she appeared alongside her future husband, Kenneth Branagh.
Thompson, who has two grown children, Gaia and Tindyebwa, with her 19-year-old husband, Greg Wise, has continued to build an unrivaled career. His performance in Sense and sensitivitywhich earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination and everyone’s favorite holiday movie, love in fact are particular strengths. And Thompson found herself introduced to a whole new generation when she took on the role of disaster-obsessed Professor Trelawney in the Harry Potter film franchise, making its first appearance in prisoner of azkaban.
Now, Thompson has taken on an unparalleled role, baring both her soul and her body in her new film. It’s a story that found the actor at the right time in his life, she tells me. Interestingly, Thompson thinks it’s a story the world is now well placed to hear. “This story wouldn’t have landed the way it did if it had been published before the Me Too movement, and before the mainstream conversation included all these things that happen to women,” she remarks.
On the outside, it might seem like Thompson has always had it all figured out, especially when she was a BAFTA-winning 28-year-old rising through the ranks of Britain’s most esteemed acting talent. . But she is quick to dispel any idea that her life was ever perfect. In 1982, tragedy struck his family when his father, actor and director Eric Thompson, died at the age of 53. She also suffered from crippling body dysmorphia. “As I talk about it [being 28]I feel this sense of promise, but there is also pressure,” she notes.
Below, the actor talks about being in love with Kenneth Branagh, going through the agony of heartbreak, and the one thing she would change if she could go back in time.
In 1987, where were you at home?
I am a born and bred Londoner. At that time, I was living in the apartment of my dear deceased great-uncle. It was a studio, but really nice. It was on the same street where I’ve lived all my life. I am still based there.
At 28, you won a BAFTA TV for Best Actress. Take me back to that special moment.
I remember that night very well. It was really great fun. I was there for two projects, so I had two tables to sit at, which was a little tricky, actually.
I think Princess Anne was there. The French were there too. Actor Daniel Auteuil received an award [for period film Jean de Florette]. I was really taken by Auteuil, and I wanted to talk to him, but he had absolutely no interest. He rejected me like an empty beer can.
But that night was incredibly important to me. I felt that I was in the right profession. I thought, “Well, I must have something good.” I think for young people to receive awards like this is a very encouraging thing.
What was your view of love and relationships at 28?
I was in love with Ken [Kenneth Branagh], but I don’t think it went very well, as far as I can remember. We got married when I was thirty, but I think  maybe it was a bad time.
I always felt quite romantic about relationships, which I now realize are completely crazy. I didn’t think I would have children at the time. Instead, I thought, “What do I do next?” What should I write?
The great joy of growing old and learning as much as possible about your emotional life comes to a point where you are no longer, so to speak, at the mercy of your emotions.
There’s a beautiful moment at the end of Good luck to you Leo Grande, where a newly confident Nancy stands naked in front of the mirror and studies her image. At 28, what was your relationship with your body?
Oh, that was completely fucked up. It was much worse than now. I lost confidence in my body in my early teens. I was surrounded by iconography that suggested to me, very forcefully, to etch messages into my brain that have never been deleted, that I could never have a body beautiful enough. That I would never be thin or pretty enough. I felt like my form, and everything, was wrong. i was stuffed with it [thought process] very early, like most of my friends.
It’s a big, big shame. It’s a waste of time, energy, money, passion and purpose. When I think of waste, I wish I had found a way to escape it sooner. I know now that I never will. I’ll die with it, and that’s it.
Looking back, do you think you were emotionally fulfilled at 28?
I probably didn’t know enough about myself to be very skilled with my emotions, which may have meant that I suffered unnecessarily. I think the great joy of growing old and learning as much as possible about your emotional life comes to a point where you are no longer, so to speak, at the mercy of your emotions. They won’t show you any neighborhoods, and unless you know how to navigate them, you’re not going to have a great time.
It is a place where it would be good to go as soon as possible. Could have done with a little more therapy, probably.
What was the soundtrack of your 28 years?
It was pretty eclectic, but basically anything I could dance to. My big hero was David Bowie. I liked Paul Weller, The Clash and a bit of punk music too.
Any Joni Mitchell?
Yes absolutely! “Ladies of the Canyon”  was a very important record for me.
What social issues were you passionate about at the time?
The same ones that fascinate me now. All women’s rights. At that time, I had met my human rights mentor, Helen Bamber. She led me into the world of Freedom From Torture [a charity] and fight against human trafficking. I was active on many political fronts at that age.
Did you experience serious heartache at 28?
I had had my heart broken properly twice by then. It was so painful: absolute agony. My grandmother used to say, “Your heart is worthless if it hasn’t been broken at least 10 times.” I wonder if that’s true. I think so [heartbreak] makes you very compassionate, because it makes you so vulnerable.
You think, “I will never be the same again. And maybe you won’t, because you learn something when you go through something that intense.
If you could go back in time and visit your 28-year-old self, what advice would you give her?
Stick to your guns and don’t be afraid.
What, if anything, was holding you back at 28?
The usual things. The fact that I was a woman and, like it or not, we just weren’t taken seriously. When I talk to young women I often say that the highway for men is very well signposted and based on that signage they can decide where they might want to go next.
Whereas for women, it is rather a mountain gorge with a poorly marked path, strewn with various obstacles that must actually be crossed. And to do that, you’ll have to put things down, things that you might need later, and leave them. You really have to find your own way.
I was extremely lucky because I had older men in my life who stood up for women. I don’t think I necessarily would have had the opportunities I had if I hadn’t met these people. Part of it was the great privilege of going to a posh college [Newnham College, Cambridge], because you come into contact with people like that. It’s not automatic for women.
Are you still in touch with any of your social circles from that time?
Absolutely. My three best friends then are still my best friends. There’s my best friend from school, whom I met when I was 12. There’s my best friend from college. And my oldest friend is a man I met when I was nine. This continuity of experience and exchange is extremely valuable, especially as we enter what is called the “afternoon of life.”
My friends are among the greatest joys of my life. And I’m good at friendship. You can’t just assume people are going to hang around if you don’t keep showing interest.
You are a role model for many. Tell me, who was your role model when you were 28?
I loved and adored Lily Tomlin. She and Jane Wagner [now Tomlin’s wife] produced a show called The search for signs of intelligent life in the universe. Presumably in response to the fact that there didn’t seem to be many signs of intelligent life on the planet. They were really brilliant with the sketches they created. Tomlin was funny and smart, and played all of these characters. I wanted to be her.
My mother was also a role model for me. She worked throughout my childhood and I am very grateful to her, because she was a good example for me.
If you could go back and change anything from that year, what would it be?
There were a few outfits that were misjudged [laughs]. But I think I would stop dieting. I would absolutely try to defuse this body dysmorphia thing and really focus on it. It’s unfortunate and tragic how long I’ve spent caring about it. I would like to reuse this energy elsewhere.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.