Not a speck of ice. Not even a dusting of light frost. Kristin Scott Thomas winces at the mention of the word ‘icy’ – the word many have used when trying (and usually failing) to describe her elusive quality as an actress. She’s a rather grand ice-maiden on the outside and a ribald scarlet woman on the inside, isn’t she? It’s a perception that has fascinated French and European directors, and even the odd (odd) American like Prince, who discovered her all those years ago during a routine casting call in Paris.
For Prince she did vampy heiress and sex kitten with a comedy British accent in Under the Cherry Moon; her performance got nominated for a Golden Raspberry. It could have finished her off, but it didn’t. She discovered formality, distance, complexity. Since her subsequent turn as Lady Brenda in A Handful of Dust there’s been a certain froideur to some of her performances, a sense that her leading men, from Harrison Ford in Random Hearts to Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, or Sean Penn huffing and puffing at Up At the Villa, might suffer from freezer burn at her every touch. Their lips might stick to her beautifully chiselled face and creamy rose-petal skin like fingertips on an ice-box. The executives of Fox studios thought as much when they clashed with Anthony Minghella over her casting in The English Patient. He went elsewhere.
It’s a perception that doesn’t go away after all the years. Ice and tears. Seriousness, being seized up, the odd vivid thaw of pain and grief. Her fellow thesps sometimes haven’t exactly helped. There’s that ambiguous comment from Hugh Grant that she needed ‘warming up’ every morning after he’d acted with her on Four Weddings and a Funeral and Polanski’s underrated Bitter Moon (when of course it’s his apnoeic, strangulated acting that needs the chilli sauce).
But now she’s truly fed up with the tag. She rolls her eyes at the mention of the word (‘I don’t think I’m particularly icy,’ she complains quietly). It distresses her. She’s known for falling silent for five minutes in interviews, or getting bored and leaving, so I have to be careful not to mention it too directly.
Besides, she doesn’t strike me as icy at all. She’s quite animated and chatty. She’s endlessly self-deprecating. She laughs a lot. People read too much into her immaculate pronunciation, and read it as aloofness. It’s certainly rather old-fashioned for her age-group, even for someone who attended Cheltenham Ladies College. I have a friend who was there two years below her. She certainly doesn’t speak in the same way.
There’s more. People sense, intuitively, there’s more to her that meets the eye. That the clipped accent is a shimmering disguise and the porcelain face a mask. What is it? Perhaps there’s a touch of madness there - the connective tissue between her light and dark sides, her hot and cold. She’s suffered in the past from clotted, heart-palpating depressions that lasted for months. Tragedy lurks in her family background (father and step-father both died in plane crashes, school an alienating experience precipitating an early exit to France, and marriage, never to return).
She would probably be a lot less English if she lived here. She’s been gone for over twenty years and lives in Paris with her obstetrician husband and three children. She’s like one of the colonial English that stayed on in India after its emancipation, and never changed, while England did. Not so long ago Jeremy Clarkson more-or-less made this point in an otherwise disagreeable attack on the actress, noting how she had complained in some newspaper that Britain was stuck in the 1950’s and how we’re all ‘fat, acquisitive telly addicts’. Clarkson, necessarily protecting the Top Gear demographic that pays his inflated wages, was outraged that this emigrant minx, once an object of his lust, could be so scathing of old blighty. Anthony Burgess once remarked how we do hate our own who go and live abroad, the writers and actors, whatever the lifestyle makeover shows might say.
Her candour is refreshing. She says what she thinks. She’s famous for not towing a Hollywood line, of being indiscreet. When an American PR suggested she had plastic surgery around her eyes (at 44 she looks very good indeed), she didn’t have plastic surgery, she sacked the PR. This is not the behaviour of an ice-maiden, one could argue.
There’s a change in the air. Are we about to meet more of the playful Kristin Scott Thomas who briefly lived and died in Under the Cherry Moon? During my conversation with her it became obvious that her films in post-production reveal a retreat from the arctic towards – wait for it - comedy.
Arsène Lupin is the time-hopping 19th century tale of a jewel-thief with a roistering plot recalling The Da Vinci Code (it even involves an art-related murder in the Louvre). She plays an ageless being, one minute ghoulish and murderous in monk’s cowl, with a whiff of the grave about her, the next minute svelte as Audrey Hepburn on a yacht wearing a black polo-neck, or her face covered and veiled in a horse-drawn carriage. Though she has been in better films, you get the sense that she’s enjoying herself. She’s vamping it up a treat, recalling some of the great actresses and performances of Hammer Horror (Ingrid Pitt springs to mind). She looks fantastic – scary, sexy, tricky. She looks like one of those busty types she’s been dismissive of in the past. The camera loves her. Adores and is infatuated by her.
I accused her point blank of having a streak of camp in her soul. This was a high-risk strategy. To her credit she drew herself up to a great height and in a commanding autocratic voice, quivering like Lady Bracknell saying ‘a handbag!’ in The Importance of Being Earnest, boomed out ‘how daaaare you!’.
What of herself is in this character, I wonder? ‘When I read it I thought that teenagers will really love this film,’ she enthuses. ‘I love all the jewellery, the fabulous costumes, the ridiculous – not, not ridiculous – wicked things she does and the knives she conceals about her person. I loved all that! Fun to be able to imagine something so far-fetched, yet my job was to make her believable. That’s what drew me to playing the part. We don’t know whether she’s a figment of people’s imagination. People accuse her of being a witch don’t they?’
It’s a return to the vamp of Under the Cherry Moon, I venture. How was it working with His Purpleness? ‘People are never going to stop asking me about that,’ she sighs. ‘I was a freshly graduated drama student doing a play in a field in Burgundy and I drive back to Paris and I heard about this casting. And then they said would you be interested in auditioning for the lead opposite Prince? So suddenly I was in limousines, and getting phone calls asking me whether I would be bringing my own stylist and make-up artist.’
I was intrigued to know what she thought of Prince, then at the height of his career. She whispers like a naughty girl, conspiratorially. ‘Very very small and very very extraordinary – a bit bonkers. Terribly gentle. At the time everyone was terrified of him, but then they always are, terrified of the boss. He fired the director and rang me up in the middle of the night and said he was going to take over the directing role as well. He asked me if that was all right. What was I going to say?’
Did you find him sexy? ‘He’s a popstar, an idol, and there’s something fascinating about that. You have to be quite careful to keep your hands in the right place and I think I managed to.’ You could have gone quite showbiz, surely? ‘I did try!’ she wails. And failed? ‘Dismally! The film was an absolute – what they call a – turkey in America. I had the worst line I ever had: you’ve painted my life as a picture and now you’ve given me the frame – ghastly! I rather naively and pathetically threw myself at all the newspapers and they wrote the most appalling things and printed my picture. I don’t do that anymore. But you know, Prince gave me my first job. He was the first to say she’s good – fantastic!’
Did it make you realise what you didn’t want? ‘Yes it was defining in that way. Are we going to sit around and feel slightly shabby or are we going to start again? So basically I started from scratch again.’
I was interested to know what role she was first proud of, and it turns out to be her Lady Brenda in A Handful of Dust, the Charles Sturridge adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s bitterest and most personal novel based on the break-up of his marriage. It set the template for her future roles. ‘She was the first in a long line of unsympathetic characters that I fall in love with because I want people to love them because they’re not as horrible as they appear’. So you want to persuade the audience to love them? ‘Yes it’s sad isn’t it,’ she giggles nervously. ‘It’s something I’m guilty of, making judgements about people in a few seconds and then finding out that I’m mistaken. I like to take on someone who is prickly and make people understand what is going on. I quite like that’.
Her career really isn’t bad for someone who has claimed in the past to live on ‘planet Kristin’ and whose career has ended and been revived twice (drama school in England a disaster, and then the debacle of Under the Cherry Moon). At some point or another she’s always asked whether she feels more English or French. She met her husband aged only 21 in Paris, while an au pair going to drama school for the second time, and has joined that select group of smart English-Parisian refugees that includes Charlotte Rampling and Jane Birkin. ‘We’re the three witches of Paris,’ she jokes.
I could see her in a manor house in the Cotswolds, I mention. ‘In my dreams,’ she says. ‘The older I get the more I feel drawn to this country. Driving down country lanes with high hedges either side. But I’m not sure I’d want to live here because life is so good in France’. Haven’t they just given you the Legion D’Honneur, topping your OBE from a few years back. For the first time in our encounter she looks uncomfortable. ‘I don’t know what to say about it really. I’m flabbergasted’. Don’t you think you deserve it? ‘I don’t know!’ she wails with genuine distress. ‘It’s all a bit frightening’. You don’t feel you deserve an OBE and the Legion D’Honneur? ‘I think we’d better talk about something else,’ she announces, briskly. She’s completely spooked. She feels a fraud, I can see.
The way to soothe her, I discover, is to talk about comedy. She’s just done two. One of them, Keeping Mum, features her living with Rowan Atkinson, a vicar (‘I think he has his own kit now – he does a good line in vicars’) and considering running off with golf coach Patrick Swayze. Then Maggie Smith arrives, with an agenda. ‘I’m unsure about comedy because I don’t really know about comedy. Bursting into tears I’m very good at. Recently I did a tour with the Racine play Berenice and it was incredibly difficult and draining and went on for such a long time. By the end of it I was thinking about my career. It gave me lots of time to think. Do I really want to spend my life weeping for camera? I’m more interested in being happier’.
We return to the subject of camp. ‘I don’t know how to say this without sounding completely idiotic,’ she ventures, ‘but I’d like to do things like the Pirandello play [a Jonathan Kent production scheduled for later this year] and acting in comedies. But then I’d also like to make a serious thing from time to time. I don’t want to get too camp too quickly’.
I realise the key to Kristin Scott Thomas isn’t her perceived iciness, or defensiveness, but her very English fear of passion. The way she filters, controls, deflects and uses her extraordinarily passionate personality is what makes her quite so remarkable. She is, as Harvey Weinstein has observed, one of the great actresses of her generation.