From page one of the script, Emma Thompson knew she wanted the part in “Stranger Than Fiction,” the Will Ferrell tale about a meek man suddenly able to hear an unseen narrator’s voice chronicling his life — and impending death.
“One immediately flicks to the page where it says ‘an incredibly beautiful woman walks into the room,’ which of course, I can’t do that,” Thompson said in an interview at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “Stranger Than Fiction” premiered.
“Luckily, this one said, ‘completely destroyed, suicidal writer.’ I thought, ‘Oh, no acting required.”’
Thompson, 47, said she’s never had thoughts of ending her life, but she’s often been caught up in the agony of the writer’s lonesome life. A best-actress Academy Award winner for 1992’s “Howards End,” Thompson won a second Oscar three years later for her screenplay adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” which also earned her a best-actress nomination.
Her writing credits include last year’s family hit “Nanny McPhee,” in which Thompson played a frumpy, grumpy, wart-infested caretaker whose appearance magically improves as she slowly succeeds in bringing order and joy to a home of unruly children.
In “Stranger Than Fiction,” Thompson plays Kay Eiffel, a disconsolate author who has struggled for a decade over her darkly tragic novel “Death and Taxes,” about meek Internal Revenue Service auditor Harold Crick.
Kay is unaware that Crick (Ferrell) actually exists in the real world and can hear in his head her narration as she hurtles him toward doom, setting her protagonist on a scramble to track down the author and change the ending of her story.
No stranger to weeping under desksSo how close was Kay’s distraught character to Thompson’s own?
“Oh, very close. I’ve never been suicidal, but I’ve certainly been depressed. Clinically depressed,” Thompson said. “I don’t ever feel like I’m playing myself. I think that’s a terribly difficult thing to do, and unhealthful, because you’re not that person. ...
“But of course, there are parallels, and as for writing, we all know what that’s like. It’s solitary and lonely and often quite miserable. I’ve written all my life, all my adult life. And a lot of the time I have spent under desks weeping, because it is hard, especially when you’re writing comedy. Kay’s lucky because she’s writing really tragic things that end in violent death. I think as with acting, writing serious things is much easier than writing funny things.”
Directed by Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball,” “Finding Neverland”), “Stranger Than Fiction” co-stars Dustin Hoffman as a literature professor who guides Crick, Maggie Gyllenhaal as a bakery owner being audited by the IRS and Queen Latifah as Kay’s no-nonsense assistant.
Though a comedy, “Stranger Than Fiction” is far more sober and subdued than Ferrell’s usual broad hijinks. He got a lesson in serious acting as he and Thompson prepared for the big scene where Harold confronts Kay in person for the first time.
“That night we were talking about, I don’t know, just the stupidest stuff, non-sequiturs, whatever, joking about this and that,” Ferrell said. “I was like, wait, I’ve got to focus here. And Emma would just turn her back and be right in the scene, tears welling up in her eyes. I would be like, my God, she’s a witch. She is insane.”
‘It’s a brilliant performance’Thompson, who also had acting Oscar nominations for “The Remains of the Day” and “In the Name of the Father,” could be in line for another, co-star Hoffman said.
“It’s rare for me to say what I’m going to say, but I think it’s a brilliant performance, and I think she’s going to get rewarded for it,” Hoffman said. “I think she’ll certainly get nominated. I don’t want to jinx it. Granted, it’s a supporting part, but it’s a heavyweight piece of work. The comedy is there, but I thought that the internal, desperate aspect of it was really personalized and naked.”
The daughter of British theater director Eric Thompson and actress Phyllida Law, Thompson got her start in comedy, though she later became known for serious drama.
Thompson co-starred in former husband Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations “Henry V” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” and she appeared in three film and television projects with director Mike Nichols, “Primary Colors” and the stage adaptations “Angels in America” and “Wit,” sharing screenwriting credit with Nichols on the latter.
Next year, Thompson reprises her role as a disheveled divination instructor in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Thompson also is writing the script for a followup to “Nanny McPhee,” which was adapted from the “Nurse Matilda” children’s stories.
“I don’t know. I love words, and I love working with words, and actually, to be honest with you, I do need that solitary profession as well as the garrulousness and gregariousness of the acting profession. I think the two things go together very well,” Thompson said.
“It’s never about the writing. That’s why it’s so true when people say inspiration is the act of drawing up the chair to the writing desk. I think there’s never anything more true been said about writing.”