By Maureen Lee Lenker
May 20, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
Credit: Aimee Spinks

The beloved British motto "Keep calm and carry on" feels newly resonant in the midst of a global pandemic, and for Kristin Scott Thomas, it's an ethos shared by her new film Military Wives.

"We're having to find such resilience because of the situation we're all in at the moment," the actress tells EW. "It's very easy to slump and feel miserable and worried and frightened by all of this. But I think about the women in our film and how extraordinarily resilient and brave they are. If they can do it, we should be able to do it."

The film, which hits streaming platforms May 22, follows a group of women on a British army base who form a choir as a distraction while their spouses are deployed to Afghanistan. At its core, it's about people coming together to get through hard times, something all of us can relate to the moment. The film is based on the U.K. docuseries The Choir, which told the true story of a singing group similar to the one in the film.

The Oscar-nominated actress portrays Kate, an imperious woman who partners with the skeptical Lisa (Sharon Horgan) to lead the choir. While at first officious, Kate is, at heart, struggling with grief and using the choir as a coping mechanism. She also granted Scott Thomas a chance to send up the ice queen image she's honed in projects like The English Patient and Gosford Park.

We caught up with Scott Thomas while she was busy tending to her garden in the English countryside to discuss how much she relished the chance to poke fun at those self-serious women, why the film stirred up childhood memories, what her go-to karaoke song would be, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This film is inspired by the story of a real choir of military wives, which was the focus of a BBC series. How aware were you of their story going in? Had you watched the real choir at all when it was happening?

KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS: No, I didn't. Because I was living in France when that happened. Then this script arrived on my desk, and I read it and I enjoyed enormously, and I was describing it to somebody I knew and they said, "That's the thing about the military wives choir." And I said, "What choir?" They said, "Where have you been?" Well, France.

Your character isn’t an exact match for any one woman, but did you get the chance to meet with any of the women who inspired the film and talk to them about their experiences?

Not so much once we were going. I did ask quite a lot of people who I knew well, including members of my family, who'd experienced Afghanistan [and] Iraq what was it like having your nearest and dearest on the front line. What does it feel like? Which is a very difficult conversation, because obviously people want to put on a brave face and say, "Oh no, we just get on with it." To some degree there is that, but there is also just the human instinct, which is fear and dread — all these things that you try and overcome. You overcome them in the way that works for you, and the way that it works for Kate is to be incredibly bossy and try and keep busy.

Your father and stepfather were both military men, and you grew up not only around that culture, but with the awareness of the tragedy that can come with it. [Both men died in flying accidents.] Did that shape your approach to the role at all, or help inform what Kate is going through?

It was more a flavor of life on a military base. When we got to the place where we're shooting up in Yorkshire, it was very weird. It was like a time warp for me. None of these places have changed in the past 40 years; they're still exactly the same. The buildings were built to last, so the houses look identical and the color of the paint inside looks identical. It was a very interesting experience to go into a place that seems so familiar. And yet, of course, I hadn't set foot inside a house like that since 1966.

We’ve really never seen you sing to this degree before.

That's probably a good thing.

Was that daunting? What kind of prep work or training did it require?

I had to do a lot prep work. I could understand a tune and I can vaguely read music, but that is absolutely it. I'd had to sing once or twice for plays. But singing in a play wasn't really such a big deal. I was quite scared, and it didn't really matter because everyone was in the same state. [Director Peter Cattaneo] was very, very clever because the way he filmed it, he managed to eke out the practicing and the rehearsals and the filming of the rehearsals so that we gradually got better as we did in real life. At one point he had to stop us because he felt we were getting too good.

There’s a scene where Lisa tries to get Kate to do karaoke. What would be your go-to karaoke song?

I'm exactly the same as Kate. That's where fiction and fact become one, because I would rather drink ink than do karaoke. I can't think of anything worse.

You’ve talked a lot about the tendency for people to cast you in roles that might have an element of coldness or condescension, and there’s certainly an element of that with Kate, though we learn it’s really more born of her grief. Was that part of the appeal of the role for you, getting to play into that but also subvert it as well?

Definitely. Also the tone of the piece, because there was something quite farcical about her. Even though she doesn't see how ridiculous she is. I quite liked playing someone who just went a little bit too far. That was that was quite fun. She is ridiculous at times, but she's just so wrapped up in herself and in her own grief that she can't see how she's behaving. She just doesn't doesn't get it until right at the end. I did I enjoy being able to push it a bit, yeah.

This film predominantly stars and is about women, which frankly is pretty rare. Did that make the set or the work feel substantially different in any way?

To tell you the truth, not particularly, because we were working so fast. It was a tiny little film. It's one of these of magical things that come out of Britain from time to time. But what happens is, when there are only women on board, you get the sense of "Right, come on. Let's get this done." There is sort of an efficiency. But it was incredibly difficult to keep 40 pretend choir members under control. Because keeping 40 people quiet in a room is difficult, especially when they're all nervous about singing and they're all doing scales or all singing little bits or having a good laugh, putting on funny voices or whatever. Sometimes that got quite difficult for the people who were supposed to be wrangling us, but it was certainly a lot more fun.

The first scene where you really come together as a group is when you take a hike on the moor and a rainstorm forces you to take shelter, and the tunnel has these magnificent acoustics. Was that really what it was like?

It was really amazing. I can't tell you what a horrible day it was because we were in this tunnel and it was freezing cold rain. It wasn't really raining; they put fake rain, which was in coming down in buckets because there's much more [water in] fake rain than there is in real rain. You've got this sort of water thundering down, and the smell in the tunnel was quite something. So it was smelly, dark, freezing cold, and damp. We spent the entire day in that place, and the acoustics were absolutely magical. Everyone got sick afterwards, we were all coughing and sputtering. Now all we can remember is how those wonderful voices came alive in that tunnel.

Kate has a bit of an addiction to a home shopping network. Have you ever bought anything off one of those sorts of things?

No, I never have. I've never done that. Although now I am doing a little bit of online shopping. I've suddenly got an urge for a dress. When am I going to wear it? I do not know. I'm mostly in boots and jeans and a scruffy shirt that doesn't mind getting mud on it because I'm doing so much gardening. But anyway, we can dream. We can look forward to the future and a time when I will be able to wear the pretty dress and go out to dinner and go to a restaurant and have a lovely time.

The choir this film is based on released the song based on their letters, and they got a number-one Christmas single with it. Do you know if there are similar plans for your original song in this?

I think they are; there have been stirrings about that. I will put it this way: I haven't been invited to sing. However, you know, I'm available.

A version of this story appears in the June issue of Entertainment Weekly, which you can order now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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