Emma Thompson Reflects on Life, Loss, and Resilience

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on March 06, 2019
7 min read

Emma Thompson is thinking about death.

Having just turned 60 in April, the two-time Academy Award-winning actor and screenwriter is used to the typical media questions about “growing old gracefully” in the film and television world. But she’s more interested in talking about bigger questions.

“With this watershed birthday, I will contemplate what I really want to do next,” she says during an interview from her offices in London, where she’s just wrapped up filming for Last Christmas -- a romantic comedy inspired by the George Michael song -- which she co-wrote with performance artist Bryony Kimmings. “Time is precious, and it is not unlimited. One feels immortal, I think, until one is about 40. Then intimations of mortality come. My big conversation with myself, which has already started, but will go on this year is, ‘How do I feel about dying? Am I ready to look at that?’ We are in such denial about it, and it’s very strange because it’s the one thing we know absolutely will happen.”

Thompson’s life recently has been “dotted with loss,” she says. Her beloved sister-in-law, Clare (who lived just down the road from Thompson and her husband, Greg Wise, in London’s West Hampstead neighborhood), died of cancer in 2017, just a year after the death of Thompson’s close friend and Love, Actually co-star Alan Rickman, also from cancer. “My mate Jeremy Hardy, a comedian, died just 2 weeks ago, and my best mate’s husband died last year. It seems like people are dying all the time in my life. 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.”

Emma Thompson? Sit?

Probably not for very long, she acknowledges: “That’s the point of this patch of time. Sixty isn’t 50. Sixty is well into ‘How many more years have I got when I can be active and useful and produce good and worthwhile work?’ Maybe 10 or 15? Going longer, I think maybe you should let everyone else have a go.” She pauses. “But if I’m lucky enough to reach that age and no one’s able to shut me up, you can remind me of this interview.”

It’s hard to imagine the peripatetic Thompson “just sitting.” Since rising to fame with her role as Princess Catherine of Valois opposite her then-husband Kenneth Branagh in Henry V in 1989, Thompson has appeared in at least one major movie virtually every year -- sometimes several. In 1993, for example, she starred as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, as Gareth Peirce in In the Name of the Father, and as Miss Kenton opposite Anthony Hopkins in Merchant Ivory’s The Remains of the Day. Thompson’s also a screenwriter: She wrote and starred in both Nanny McPhee movies and won an Academy Award for screenwriting for 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, in which she played Elinor Dashwood. This summer, she reprises her role as Agent O in Men in Black: International; and her new film with Mindy Kaling, Late Night, which earned praise at the Sundance Film Festival in February, debuts as an Amazon Original Movie.

Thompson’s “good and worthwhile work” has defied genre and categorization. For every restrained, enigmatic, emotions-bubbling-under-the-surface character like Miss Kenton or judge Fiona Maye in 2017’s The Children Act, there’s a kooky Sybill Trelawney, the divination teacher in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, or a passionate, fiery Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. She loves comedy -- she began her career in standup with the Cambridge Footlights, alongside Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. And in 2003, she took on the complex dual roles of nurse practitioner Emily and the fantastical Angel in HBO’s Angels in America.

“I’ve enjoyed the really out-there characters more than anything,” she says. “I played a 77-year-old serial killer in The Legend of Barney Thomson. That was something special. And maybe the most remarkable experience I’ve had in the last 10 years was playing Mrs. Lovett on Broadway in the concert version of Sweeney Todd. I suppose I’m probably not very good at repeating stuff. I think I would be bored if I had to do things again and again. It’s like going on a different walk, and the landscape is different, so you’re unlikely not to notice what’s going on. And it’s vital that you know what’s going on when you’re creating.”

Thompson has spoken candidly about plunging into work to help her cope with depression in the 1990s, when she was going through her divorce from Branagh, but says she hasn’t had any serious bouts with it recently. “My brain might be changing,” she says. “Your brain does change as you get older. And life is kind of settled, in a way, now. It’s so interesting to be allowed to live long enough to survive things like depression. I’ve got an awful lot of mechanisms that I can use now to cope with it, so I’m much more resilient, I think, than I was before.”

Some of her resilience may also come from her passion for activism and focus on the needs of others. Thompson is a longtime supporter of Greenpeace UK and the Food Foundation, which focuses on making a healthy diet more affordable for families. And she’s the president of the Helen Bamber Foundation, which provides specialized care for refugees and asylum seekers who have experienced extreme cruelty, such as torture and human trafficking. She has also spent many years campaigning for immigrants’ rights -- her son, Tindyebwa Agaba, now 30, escaped life as a child soldier in Rwanda.

Always politically outspoken, Thompson says that as time has passed, she’s become more willing to see things from other people’s point of view. “That’s a great, great gift, and only time gives you that,” she says. But she’s still more than willing to put values ahead of career: In late February, she released a powerful letter explaining why she was dropping out of the animated film Luck after the producers hired a former Pixar executive accused of inappropriate conduct with women.

“I am well aware that centuries of entitlement to women’s bodies, whether they like it or not, is not going to change overnight. Or in a year,” she wrote. “But I am also aware that if people who have spoken out -- like me -- do not take this sort of a stand, then things are very unlikely to change at anything like the pace required to protect my daughter’s generation.”

For young women like her daughter -- Gaia, who’s now 18 -- as well as women of her own age, Thompson has a message: “Summon your powers,” she says. “You’ll find they are great.”

Spending time contemplating death, as Thompson plans to do in her 60th year, may not sound appealing. But in her research, social psychologist Laura King, PhD, has found the opposite: After reminders of death, people value life more highly and find more meaning in it. “When we remind people of the idea of death, it makes life seem more wonderful, more precious,” says King, curators’ professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

To find meaning in life in the face of the fact that it’s inevitably going to stop one day, you might imagine the need to achieve something great -- a lasting contribution to the world. “But 1,000 years from now, all our lives will be as if they never happened,” says King. “So our meaning has to be located in our present circumstances.”

Indeed, Thompson’s description of a recent “perfect day” has nothing to do with receiving her damehood from the Queen of England or getting an Academy Award. “I got up and pootled in my kitchen, and then I went for a long walk and had a coffee in a glass in one of my favorite food shops. I bought my mother some biscuits and then walked home and had a cup of tea with my mum and my sister.”

King suggests seeking your own meaning in a similar way:

Don’t aim for the gigantic achievement. Seek meaning in everyday, trivial moments -- like Thompson’s cup of tea. “We’ve found that just being in a good mood, playing with the dog, having an enjoyable meal with friends, can promote the sense that life is meaningful,” she says.

Love your routine. That regular morning coffee, the after-work walk with your dog, the glass of wine after dinner? They’re more than just mundane. “Everyday habits bring a structure and rhythm to your life that has meaning. They’re about the stamp that you put on your day,” says King.

Take time to notice. When you’re doing your spring cleaning or watching snow fall from your front porch or talking to a friend in the carpool line after school, take a minute now and then to be present. “You don’t have to hire a life coach or find that perfect self-help book,” King says. “Your life is already meaningful -- you just have to see it.”

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