Emma Thompson uses real grief for ''Love Actually.'' The Oscar winner talks about her touching new role -- and teases her one-time ''Junior'' costar who's now running California

By Liane Bonin
Updated July 25, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Emma Thompson: Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMA Press/NewsCom

Emma Thompson is garnering critical raves for her performance in the bittersweet romantic comedy ”Love Actually” (in theaters). But don’t look for the Oscar-winning actress (1992’s ”Howards End”) and screenwriter (’95’s ”Sense and Sensibility”) to upgrade her surprisingly low profile.

Despite parts in buzzed-about projects like ”Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (opening June 4, 2004) and the HBO miniseries ”Angels in America” (debuts Dec. 7), Thompson, 44, says she’s happy to cede the spotlight to other actors — like a certain muscle-bound former costar. Speaking with reporters in London before the opening, Thompson dished on why she’s mad at Schwarzenegger, why Teamsters don’t warm to her, and how Brits handle a broken heart.

People are talking about your woman-scorned performance in ”Love Actually.” Does her reserve reflect how you would have responded to a similar situation?
I think I would have done something similar, especially with children involved. I think we’re very practiced at thumping our emotions down, particularly in England. Had I been Italian, I might have gone into the kitchen, taken a knife, and stabbed him in front of the children. It’s much more like an Englishman to go upstairs with a broken heart, stick it back together with anything you can get your hands on, wrap an elastic band around it, and go back downstairs — and then later go and sit in a corner somewhere and really cry.

To capture that, did it help to remember past heartbreaks?
My grandmother said your heart’s no good as a heart until it’s been broken at least 10 times, which is probably true. So it’s not difficult to unpack some grief from some little corner.

You costar in this film with Hugh Grant, but you hardly have any scenes together. Was that frustrating, or were you already sick of him from ”Remains of the Day” and ”Sense and Sensibility”?
This is one of those irritating films where I don’t really get to work with a lot of people. It happens in our profession, where someone says you’ll be in the film with Hugh Grant, and you say, ”Ooh, what fun!” But then you turn up and none of your scenes are with him. You’re playing the scene with a bulldog and some cleaning equipment alone in a room somewhere.

But you did have several scenes with Alan Rickman, who’s done a number of films with you. Have you become like an old married couple?
Working with anyone more than once is great because you can be thoroughly rude to them. You don’t have to skirt around their egos. Alan and I are so married now we actually had a row on set, where I said, ”Try this” and he said, ”I’ll do what I bloody well want. Don’t tell me what to do!” And I told him, ”I’m so glad I’m not married to you!”

Despite being well respected, you’ve never become a huge star in the U.S. Why have you shunned the spotlight?
Not to say I don’t enjoy the attention, because I’m a showoff. If I wasn’t I wouldn’t have become an actor, and I would be dishonest to say it means nothing to me. But I don’t approve of the star system. We don’t have it in England. I’m uncomfortable if I can’t live on the street with everyone else. It makes me feel very disconnected and claustrophobic. With British actors, that hierarchy surrounding film stars in America wouldn’t occur. You would get brutally teased for behaving that way.

Is that why you so rarely cross the pond to appear in American films?
I’m very rooted here. Here in Britain, the crew are your friends, your family. I’ve gone to work on American films and tried to create the same relationships on the set with the grips and electricians, but it’s always regarded with suspicion, actually. Somehow you’re crossing a boundary they don’t want you to cross. They have their specific strong identities, from the Teamsters onward.

But you did sign on for HBO’s ”Angels in America.” How tough is it for you to stick with an American accent?
The most challenging thing with that part was trying to be a working-class nurse from Queens. I was so scared of doing that, because it’s just the whole atmosphere. How people move, how they sniff the air is different. An American script is much more of a challenge to me. But I could do [1998’s] ”Primary Colors” because it’s the same sort of loudmouth I usually play.

You costarred with the new governor of California in 1994’s ”Junior.” Are you going to the inauguration?
Did I get invited? No, I bloody well did not. I take that deeply personally. I should be writing a letter. But I’m a bit of a Democrat, aren’t I? What are Arnold’s policies — that’s what I haven’t been able to work out. I guess that’s not the point, is it? He’ll probably do rather a good job. He’s done so much in so many different areas that I can’t imagine him not making a success of whatever he does. I don’t think Arnold’s without a sense of justice or fair play or a sense of decency… We’ll see.

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