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Emma Thompson: Write for the Part

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”There are a lot of highly intelligent women who can act,” says Sense and Sensibility‘s Emma Thompson. ”There are not too many roles to fill—that’s the problem.” So over the past five years, during which she won an Oscar (for 1992’s Howards End) and was nominated for two others (for 1993’s The Remains of the Day and In the Name of the Father), Thompson wrote the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility, which boasts several juicy women’s parts. ”I wrote [a role],” she says, laughing, ”and then I bloody well played it.”

Sense producer Lindsay Doran met the actress in 1990 while making the thriller Dead Again. And after seeing the BBC’s 1989 Thompson, the second TV special to showcase the actress’ writing and comedic talents, Doran knew she had found someone well suited to adapt Jane Austen’s novel. ”Emma has the ability to think in period language effortlessly,” Doran says, ”the right ironic humor.”

Oddly, Thompson, 36, says she was able to start writing only after convincing herself that the movie would never be made. ”I felt slightly apologetic about stealing from Jane Austen to make a movie,” she says. After turning in a first draft of more than 300 handwritten pages, she had to pare down the complex plot. ”It’s an absolute bugger,” says Thompson, who recalls weeping when told to do several rewrites, ”because you have to juggle those romances, keep them all up in the air.”

The script came alive, Doran says, when Thompson held a read-through supper in London with actors Hugh Grant, Amanda Root, Harriet Walter, and Robert Hardy. Director Ang Lee wound up casting all except Root, who had already committed to the film adaptation of Austen’s Persuasion. And while she had initially written the older sister Elinor and the younger Marianne with real-life siblings Natasha and Joely Richardson in mind, over the course of writing, Thompson ”became a big-deal movie star,” says Doran. Not only did Columbia (the movie’s distributor) and Lee want her to star as Elinor, but Thompson says she was ”desperate to get into a corset and act it and stop thinking about it as a script.”

Acting in the film also fulfilled a fantasy for Thompson, who had written the role of Elinor’s shy lover for Hugh Grant, with whom she had appeared in Impromptu and The Remains of the Day. This time, she says, ”I wanted to play opposite Hugh.” If current buzz is any indication, Thompson could reap yet another bonus: becoming the fifth double threat to be nominated for both acting and screenwriting Oscars for the same film. Makes perfect sense. —Anne Thompson

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