Many film fans associate Emma Thompson with Jane Austen — the image of her traipsing through the English countryside as Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, or taking the stage at the 1995 Oscars to accept the Best Adapted Screenplay award for that same movie.
But Thompson also has a long history with another great British writer: Shakespeare. In the early 1990s, she starred in several adaptations of the Bard’s work, most memorably as Beatrice opposite then-husband Kenneth Branagh’s Benedict in Much Ado about Nothing. Until recently, Thompson hadn’t done Shakespeare on screen since, not that it was a personal choice. “Nobody asked,” she tells EW. “I never intentionally take a break from anything. It just happens, you know?”
Now Thompson is roaring back with a layered, ferocious performance as Goneril, the eldest of King Lear’s daughters, in a BBC adaptation of King Lear, which stars Anthony Hopkins in the title role and is set in a dystopian version of contemporary London. The film hit Amazon Prime stateside Sept. 28, and EW caught up with Thompson to get the details on what appealed to her about the role, what it was like shooting in historic locations all over Britain, and why the tale is particularly pertinent for 21st-century audiences.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What about this adaptation appealed to you? Were you gung-ho for its more modern setting?
EMMA THOMPSON: I was very pleased to be asked, and I would never have said anything but yes because I love Tony Hopkins so much. We had always said, “Whenever we get the chance, let’s do something else.” [Thompson won an Oscar for Best Actress opposite Hopkins in 1992’s Howards End.] Suddenly, this wonderful piece came along and we felt so fortunate. I know it sounds so odd because what we’re playing is so dysfunctional and tragic, but the process was extremely happy. Tony, who’s an extraordinary actor and person, was so generous and so wonderful to watch. Every take he would give everything that he had. Then he’d do it again when it came onto our shot, so he would never sit back on it because he’s just too, well, generous actually, but [also] professional and well-trained and all of that. Goodness me, it was an extraordinary thing watching him do it. I thought [director] Richard [Eyre’s] vision was so clever. Really smart. The Stalinist-dictator-style gave us all a lot to go on, particularly the children, who, of course, have been horribly abused emotionally.
What was it like filming in these stately homes and historic properties in Britain?
The 11th-century chapel we were shooting in at the beginning has never been shot in before. Honestly, when you were in there on your own, you really felt that any minute now [an apparition] of someone praying not to be beheaded would appear behind one of the pillars. It was so resonant and ghostly and amazing.
Goneril is so fascinating because she is vastly mistreated by her father, but then her response is so extreme. How do you calibrate a character like that, especially when it’s one that is commonly perceived as a villain?
The way in which Richard allowed us to play it made it quite clear that these women have just had enough of the abuse. They’ve had enough of him, his childishness. Everything about it makes it very, very clear that they’ve had it up to the eyeballs. We felt very clear about why they behaved the way they behaved. Yes, they’re very cruel.… When something makes emotional sense, there’s no problem with it, really. You can see her rage and her unhappiness make absolute sense. She wasn’t hard to inhabit in that sense. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh my God, I’m playing a monster.” She’s following suit, isn’t she? She’s been taught by masters. We’ve watched her father’s cruelty, and if that’s all you’ve seen and all you’ve learnt, than that’s how you behave in turn.
You’ve done both Austen and Shakespeare, two writers who vie for Greatest British Author in the popular imagination — do you have a preference? How do they compare?
They’re so different. I wouldn’t settle down in bed with a Shakespeare play. I’m unlikely to do that, whereas I am very likely to settle down with an Austen. There’s a big difference in the way in which you experience their writing. Because really, Shakespeare is best watched.
I really feel like King Lear is the play of the 21st century, and we have seen more adaptations of it in my lifetime than any other Shakespeare play. Why do you think that is? And why do you think it transitions so flawlessly to a modern setting?
Because we’re living in a massive dysfunctional family system at the moment, aren’t we? Our leaders are all over the place right now. Here [in the U.S.], you’ve got a very [monolithic] head of state in a sense, who’s really lost the plot almost entirely but isn’t about to give over power to his children anytime soon — though, of course, they’re right in there with him. And our country [the United Kingdom] simply isn’t being governed because no one knows what the f— they’re doing. As a portrait of a failed state, [King Lear is] very redolent of the crumbling of both this form of capitalism and this form of patriarchy, which are dying, hopefully more quickly than the planet will die. Because we’re really in trouble. So I suppose as a portrait of a deeply dysfunctional family and state, it does speak to us. In terms of relating it to any part of the 20th century, I always think of Lear as being quite Stalinist. There are so many corollaries, aren’t there? So it’s not surprising, is it? It’s a dark vision. But at the end when Edgar says we have to just get on with this now, and the young have to really listen and really act together in a decent way, it’s very important, that. All the more important now.