Emma Thompson reveals everything she wishes she'd known at 20

emma thompson advice
Emma Thompson's advice on love, work and lifeDave Benett - Getty Images

I've discovered, if you're in a long-term relationship of any kind and any gender, you'll have more than one relationship with that person.

I’m in a long-term relationship [with actor Greg Wise] and I’ve learnt you’re not going to have the same relationship after 20 years as the relationship you had when you met – people change and it’s important to be honest about that.

When couples say they’ve had two decades of unbroken bliss, they’re lying. Within that time your relationship will die and comeback as a new one maybe four or five times. If you’re lucky, it’ll be with the same person. When things do go peculiar, the world isn’t falling apart – the old relationship is making way for the new one.

emma thompson advice
Emma Thompson and Greg WiseDave Benett - Getty Images

I’ve had the same three best friends since my teens. They are the rock upon which I put my feet, especially if I’m feeling wobbly. I’ve known my best schoolfriend since I was nine. Now our children are nearly grown up, we’re going to be able to holiday together again!

I’ve never had any preconceived ideas about family – whether I wanted one or, if I did, what kind. Thinking ahead too much makes it more difficult to be alive to the present. It’s nice to have dreams, but understand they might not come true. They’re dreams for a bloody good reason!

I became a parent nearly two decades ago. What do I wish I’d known back then? Anything! Parenthood is synonymous with guilt and everyone thinks they’re a terrible parent. Mostly I was ignorant and learnt the hard way. While we were ‘good enough’ parents, I wish I’d known more about the brain development of children and teens. Our neighbours had a daughter two years before us, and seeing her develop helped when our daughter was born.

It’s also helpful to look at your own parents, consider where you think they got it right and wrong, and try not to repeat their mistakes – but that’s another whole nest of vipers! Ultimately, it’s useful to bring up children with consistency and calm, though I don’t think I was consistently calm or calmly consistent! If a parent can be observant but non-judgemental, so a child feels seen and loved but not defined, that’s great.

Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky because I do writing and acting, and when there’s been no acting I’ve been able to make a living writing. My mum was emancipated and I’ve been financially independent from a young age; my father died young and I started earning at 20 – I didn’t have a choice.

I consider it fortunate that I’ve never had to do work I’ve hated. Some people have to do jobs they don’t much like, so to be able to make a living as an artist is, frankly, a bloody miracle. I don’t know what a normal job is like. Actors are used to feeling insecure, whereas some people aren’t. If you’re going through a career rough patch and circumstances allow, take some time out and give yourself space to look around.

I find the concept of ‘success’ flat and uninteresting – our society places too much emphasis on it, and not enough on the importance of failure and disappointment. I wish I’d known that success is a byproduct, not something to be strived for. The process is the most important thing. Besides, consider the corrosive effect of great fame on people like George Michael and Amy Winehouse – it’s difficult to shoulder. Small success is best, then you can build on it slowly.

Actors and writers get minty about critics, but I’ve learnt you need strangers who are willing to say why they do or don’t like your work; it makes you look afresh at what you’ve done. What’s much harder to deal with – and takes more work – is the inner voice, self-criticism. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have it, but you can’t allow it to drown you out; you have to make friends with it. That niggling inner voice has caused me severe depression in the past. My friend calls it ‘Shit FM’ – the channel in your brain that says you’re not worthy. You need to be able to access the knob that muffles it out.

emma thompson advice
Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant in Sense and SensibilityGetty Images

Now I’m older, people behave themselves on set around me, but I’ve felt compelled to speak out in work environments in the past. When a young actor was asked to lose weight by producers, I objected – loudly. If I hear anything like that, I will say something. When you’re young or inexperienced it can be scary to speak out for others and you sometimes feel it’s not your place. But I’ve learnt that if you don’t join your voices, you might be hauled off yourself. It never occurred to me not to add my voice to the Harvey Weinstein conversation. When Newsnight asked me [for an interview], I knew I’d regret it for ever if I didn’t speak. It felt terribly important to say what I had to say – he is a predator,
and there’s a broader problem with extreme masculinity harming women and girls.

I don’t harbour career regrets – what would be the point? In 1987, I made a TV series that was a humiliating failure – the greatest failure of my life – but out of it came my friend, producer Lindsay Doran. She asked me to write the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility, so in a way, my greatest failure birthed my greatest triumph.

That said, there are aspects of the acting industry I don’t care for, such as red carpets. I’ve never liked the process, but recognising they’re part of the job makes it easier – I’m not trotting up it for the good of my health. At my first Oscars, a fashion reporter said, ‘She looks dowdy in anything’. I wore that as a badge of honour for years! I’m grateful when stylists help me, but I’d be perfectly happy not bothering. Honestly? I don’t give a toss.

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