At 59 years old, Kristin Scott Thomas says she has ‘got to the other side of the invisible phase’. I find it hard to imagine she ever endured such a phase, but Scott Thomas is right in that she is suddenly gloriously visible, in Military Wives with Sharon Horgan, directed by Peter Cattaneo (of The Full Monty fame); and, in a clever piece of casting, as Mrs Danvers in an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, opposite Lily James and Armie Hammer. She’ll also be back on the London stage in December, playing Phaedra at the National Theatre.
This renaissance was not heralded by the damehood Scott Thomas received in 2015, or by her return to London after three decades living in Paris, but by her turn last year as Belinda, the high-flying, Martini-downing, no-bulls—t lesbian whose ‘women are born with pain built in’ state-of-the-gender monologue was one of the most electrifying moments of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s award-winning series Fleabag. ‘I had an unbelievable response, even men were coming up to me,’ says Scott Thomas, dipping a sugar cube into her espresso and popping it into her mouth.
We are in a noisy café off the Euston Road, Scott Thomas ravishing with post-shoot hair and make-up, Dior camo messenger bag at her feet. She is famously chic, an Englishwoman so stylish that she can pass as Parisian. Today she is layered up so much that it almost feels defensive – long houndstooth coat and cashmere scarf over blazer over plaid shirt and jeans. But it turns out that her coat and shirt are not by some cult French designer, they are booty from Military Wives; clothes worn by her character, Kate, married to a senior Army officer, who maintains morale among the women on the base, though their husbands are at war and they can do nothing but wait for the worst news. The wives start a choir, an initially unpromising enterprise that, this being a feel-good film (as well as loosely based on a true story), ultimately triumphs.
‘What appealed to me was telling a story about the people who we never see, we never think about, the people who wait,’ she says. ‘I was very aware of the waiting; I can’t stand that, that has always been something for me.’
Scott Thomas was raised in Cornwall and Dorset, and spent much of her childhood on military bases. ‘So I know what it was like to live on “the patch”.’ Her grandfather, William, was a commanding officer in the Royal Navy who helped rescue Allied troops from Dunkirk and took part in the Arctic convoys (she explored his story in the Channel 4 series My Grandparents’ War). Her father, Simon, was a naval pilot who died in a flying accident when she was four. Scott Thomas’s mother, Deborah, was 27 at the time, four months pregnant, with three daughters, of whom Scott Thomas was the eldest. She does not remember much about that period. ‘I was so little. I have no idea how my mother coped, I can’t fathom it.’
Deborah remarried but, awfully, her new husband, also a pilot, died in another flying accident when Scott Thomas was 11. ‘My stepfather was missing. My sister and I were sent back to school… It was my housemistress who told me that he was dead. We were given no counselling, anything like that. None. Zero… What we did to our children…’ She pauses for a moment. ‘But they thought it was the best way, and no doubt in 50 years’ time we will think that therapy is a waste of time and we shall just take a pill!’
Kristin and her sister Serena, also an actor, were at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, their mother scraping together the fees with help from the school, the Army and her family, which meant there was little money for anything else. Suppressed grief and make-do poverty were the motifs of her childhood. ‘What I was going through as a teenager was not much fun. Looking back now, I think actually, poor little sausage, she could have had a bit of help.’
Nonetheless, she isn’t one to linger on troubles: she insists it is not that unusual to lose a parent, and impoverishment was the norm in the 1970s. We talk about the current vogue for an unflinching and often very public engagement with personal trauma. ‘It is slightly self-indulgent, which I find slightly irritating even though I am guilty of it, my God,’ she says. ‘However, I am able… I shouldn’t say this… but there is an outlet for us actors to channel experience into a role. You can use it.’
Scott Thomas has indeed brought her life to her work, often playing roles that require her to present a huge range of emotions – grief, desperation, desire – elegantly constrained, until they can be constrained no more. She is famous for her portrayals of self-possessed upper-class Englishwomen, passion percolating beneath a pristine surface; like Lady Brenda Last in A Handful of Dust, Katharine Clifton in The English Patient, and the immaculate, sharp-tongued Fiona in Four Weddings and a Funeral, quietly devastated because her love for Hugh Grant’s Charlie is unrequited. Audiences rave about Scott Thomas’s raw performances in plays like Electra and The Seagull, for which she won an Olivier Award in 2008. Theatre director Ian Rickson has said, ‘She can journey into pain without sentiment.’
‘I think that is true,’ she says. ‘I don’t like sentiment. Sentiment implies some sort of pleasure in the pain, something a bit saintly and aspiring to noble, which I am not interested in. I am just interested in the mess, in the unravelling.’
She always wanted to be an actor. As a child she was obsessed with imitation. ‘When I was 10 I used to dress up as a 60-year-old lady and go to the village shop, convinced that no one would recognise me.’ She attended the Central School of Speech and Drama, but was on the teaching course rather than the acting course, living above a chip shop, dressed in ‘painter’s dungarees, a Breton T-shirt and so much diamanté. I remember at drama school Rupert Everett saying to me, “Darling, you’ve got enough diamanté to sink a battleship!”’
During that time, Scott Thomas was desperately depressed. ‘Because of an accumulation of disaster and not knowing what I wanted to do, feeling lost, being away from home.’ She was also, she says, bullied. ‘It was very uncool to be middle class at the time, so I got bullied because of the way I spoke. It was horrible. One or two people, mature students, were super mean. “Just because you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth,” they would say. The assumptions that people make… But then that has carried on, because of the roles I played. If my first role hadn’t been Brenda Last, but a different sort of person, people wouldn’t imagine that I was posh totty.’
She asked to be transferred to the acting course, but was told she wasn’t good enough. So she went to Paris, aged 19, and became an au pair. I suggest that arriving there, leaving behind all that sadness and class-consciousness, must have felt like breathing again. ‘I am not sure about “again”. It was like breathing for the first time. I didn’t have to behave in a certain way, I didn’t have to define myself, I didn’t have to belong here or belong there, do this or do that; I was just free, I could just be.’
She attended drama school in Paris, and met her future (now former) husband, François Olivennes, an obstetrician. Her first major film role wasn’t actually Brenda Last, but Mary Sharon, the posh totty in Prince’s 1986 film Under the Cherry Moon. The film was not a critical success, but it got her noticed. Then, aged 26, two days after her wedding to Olivennes ‘in a tent in a field with a rabbi and a priest’, she auditioned for A Handful of Dust, an adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel starring Anjelica Huston and Judi Dench.
Her subsequent parts, tormented period beauties, morphed into roles as the love interest for older Hollywood stars like Robert Redford and Harrison Ford. It is only relatively recently, with women’s voices being heard more, and a greater number writing for film and TV – ‘Bring it on!’ – that she is reconsidering the gender politics of her younger years.
In 2019 she was made the honorary president of the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society, promoting gender equality. ‘When they first asked me I thought… Me? I am not particularly involved or engaged, I am not an activist, but then I started thinking about it, and actually, that really p—ses me off, when I find out that someone who does the same job as me got paid more because he has a penis. I have come to realise that the subject of equality, and all that implies, is something that has to be addressed every day by everybody.’
Scott Thomas says she was aware that her male co-stars were getting paid more than her, but like so much else, this was just accepted as normal. ‘It’s like when I was working as a waitress, years ago, and one of the clients grabbed my arse. I was rude to him. He reported me and I got fired. But I believed that I had done something wrong.’
At least she was rude to him; back then, many of us would have just sucked it up. ‘Why should I put up with some bloke grabbing my bum when I am 19?’ she says.
She has never been afraid of speaking plainly. ‘None of your business,’ she says, when I ask if she is single (there have, according to reports, been relationships with actor Tobias Menzies and financier Arpad Busson since her separation from Olivennes in 2005), and again when I ask if she is still in therapy. She does, however, lament the lack of good psychotherapy in the UK. ‘It is easier in France because there are more of them, it is more normalised. When I went to France no one could understand why I wasn’t already in it.’
Scott Thomas lived in Paris for over three decades, raising her children as well as working relentlessly (her CV is something to behold, including many French art-house films), but taking small sabbaticals to spend more time with her family. Hannah, 31, a journalist, now lives in Geneva and has a two-year-old daughter, Bluma; Joseph, 28, is an actor and theatre director based in Brussels; and George, 19, is at design school in Eindhoven. ‘If I ever get reborn I would love lots and lots of children,’ says Scott Thomas.
She is a doting grandmother, posting pictures of Bluma on Instagram. However, the fact that she no longer has to look after small children (apart from occasionally babysitting) has enabled her to move back to London, a gradual shift that started around 2013. ‘I hadn’t been doing much work in Paris, but more importantly the stuff I was being asked to do here just got really great,’ she says.
On days off she likes to cook, draw, go to the gym. She went through a period of being obsessed with yoga, attending a retreat in Karnataka, ‘and after that I never set foot in a yoga studio again’. She enjoys going to the theatre, though she finds it less sociable than she once did. ‘I would know six or seven people in the audience; now I don’t know a single person. It makes me feel slightly small. I do feel more insignificant than I did 20, 30 years ago, but that might be something to do with my age.’
Scott Thomas will turn 60 in May, and while she certainly does not look it, she does not have the smoothed-out-forehead appearance of tweak-mented contemporaries. ‘I try to maintain rather than repair,’ she says. But then she sighs. ‘It is so difficult. I am going to LA in March and I know I will get side-eye, people thinking, “Why don’t you do something about that?”’ – she flutters her hands about her face – ‘and I could, I just… Believe me, I often look in the mirror and think, oh God, really, now? Do I really have to look at my mother every morning? However much I love my mother.’ (Deborah is now 83, ‘incredibly active’ and looking pretty magnificent.)
It is, it seems, a problem that most women have, even ones as beautiful as Kristin Scott Thomas, that there are very few moments in our lives when we are able to see our own beauty. ‘You look back at pictures of yourself and you think, what on earth was I worrying about? Youth has its own beauty, but then so does age, it is just less fashionable, less celebrated. This is what Phoebe Waller-Bridge was saying, we don’t celebrate maturity, we don’t celebrate wisdom, there is an appetite for discovery, and not much reflection on what you have accumulated along the way.’
As we stand to leave, an awestruck young woman approaches. ‘I am so sorry to interrupt,’ she says, ‘but your scene in Fleabag was the most amazing thing that has happened on telly in the last 20 years.’ Scott Thomas smiles. ‘It was nothing to do with me. It was all in the writing,’ she says, ever gracious. ‘But it was your delivery,’ insists the fan. Scott Thomas glows a little, and says to me, sotto voce: ‘You see, I told you, it really has been incredible.’
Military Wives is released on 6 March