Date of Birth
April 15, 1959
Place of Birth
Paddington, London, England, UK
5′ 8″ (1.73 m)
Greg Wise (29 July 2003 – present)
Kenneth Branagh (20 August 1989 – 1 October 1995)
Gaia Wise & Tindyebwa Agaba
Thompson was born in Paddington, London, on 15 April 1959. Her mother is the Scottish actress Phyllida Law, while her English father, Eric Thompson, was involved in theatre, and was the writer–narrator of the popular children’s television series The Magic Roundabout. Her godfather was the director and writer Ronald Eyre. She has one sister, Sophie Thompson, who also works as an actress. The family lived in West Hampstead in north London, and Thompson was educated at Camden School for Girls. She spent much time in Scotland during her childhood and often visited Ardentinny, where her grandparents and uncle lived.
In her youth, Thompson was intrigued by language and literature, a trait which she attributes to her father, who shared her love of words. In 1977, she began studying for an English degree at Newnham College, Cambridge. Thompson believes that it was inevitable that she would become an actress, commenting that she was “surrounded by creative people and I don’t think it would ever have gone any other way, really”. While there, she had a “seminal moment” that turned her to feminism and inspired her to take up performing. She explained in an interview in 2007 how she discovered the book The Madwoman in the Attic, “which is about Victorian female writers and the disguises they took on in order to express what they wanted to express. That completely changed my life.”[ She became a self-professed “punk rocker”, with short red hair and a motorbike, and aspired to be a comedian like Lily Tomlin.
At Cambridge, Thompson was invited into Footlights, the university’s prestigious sketch comedy troupe, by its president, Martin Bergman, becoming its first female member. Also in the troupe were fellow actors Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, and she had a romantic relationship with the latter. Fry recalled that “there was no doubt that Emma was going the distance. Our nickname for her was Emma Talented.” In 1980, Thompson served as the Vice President of Footlights, and co-directed the troupe’s first all-female revue, Woman’s Hour. The following year, Thompson and her Footlights team won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for their sketch show The Cellar Tapes.
In 1982, Thompson’s father died as a result of circulatory problems at the age of 52. The actress has commented that this “tore [the family] to pieces”, and “I can’t begin to tell you how much I regret his not being around”. She added, “At the same time, it’s possible that were he still alive I might never have had the space or courage to do what I’ve done … I have a definite feeling of inheriting space. And power.”
– [on her role in the Harry Potter film] I have a nervous breakdown in the film and in one scene I get to stand at the top of the stairs waving an empty sherry bottle which is, of course, a typical scene from my daily life, so isn’t much of a stretch.
– I am who I am and there is nothing I can do about that.
– I have periods of intense activity, then stop. My ideal is to work hard in the morning until I pick Gaia up from school. Just putting an empty square in my diary seems to make a space in my head, too. You have to be very good at saying no.
– My appearance has changed a lot over the years, but it has far more to do with how I feel about being a woman. I’ve never thought of myself as vain. When I was at Cambridge, I shaved my head and wore baggy clothes. What I did was to desexualise myself. It was partly to do with the feminism of that time: militant and grungy. That’s all changed now, though I don’t think it is liberating to get your tits out. I don’t hold with that. But I am much more comfortable with being a woman now than I was in my twenties.
– But when I lose my temper, I find it difficult to forgive myself. I feel I’ve failed. I can be calm in a crisis, in the face of death or things that hurt badly. I don’t get hysterical, which may be masochistic of me. But in small matters, I am not calm at all. My worst quality is impatience.
– Children are much more understanding of the suddenness and arbitrariness of death than we are. The old fairy tales contain a lot of that, and we’ve stolen from them, just as they stole from Greek myth, which has that same mixture of pre-Christian chaos.
– Acting simply cannot be about how you look. It would be very difficult to make a film where you have to be beautiful in every shot. You have to put so much effort into it; you have to hold your head at particular angles, put the light in a certain way and I don’t like acting like that. I like to act unconscious of how I look.
– I’m very lucky I write as well. I don’t see how I could be as effective a mother as I’d like to be if I had to go away and act all the time. So I’ve sort of pulled back from acting, which is fine, because I’ve found over the years – and this was a surprise to me – that I can get the same kind of creative satisfaction from writing as I have heretofore gotten out of acting. It’s very encouraging, really.
– [on working with Tom Hanks in Saving Mr. Banks (2013)] It was such fun. You can imagine. He’s a darling and such a good actor. We’ve known each other on a social level for some time and we always said “What can we do? What can we do?”. And this turned up and it was sort of perfect.
– [on her career moments] I said to my agent, “I need to earn money. Get me a job.” The first three that came up were a very, very old lady in a wheelchair, Bradley Cooper’s mother, and Mother Theresa. I thought, “Well, clearly I have to do something to turn around the Nanny McPhee image as it’s gone into people’s minds and stayed there.” In the end, other things turned up. It was very funny, but Mother Theresa would have just put the tin lid on it really.
– Books are like people, in that they’ll turn up in your life when you most need them.
– Films are like history, and I think as people get older, they’re so much more interesting. When you’re doing theatre, people see the play, go home and don’t remember it, but with film you can leave a lot of cannisters behind and can live in people’s memories.
– I never expected to be a film actress and I wasn’t terribly ambitious about it. And film acting and stage acting are not the same thing. In the theatre, you have to wear all your energy on the outside in order to project the character to the guy in the back row, but if you do that for film, it’s too much. You have to internalize because a thought can be translated by a muscle in your face, and a film audience will be able to read that.
– Attended and graduated from Camden School for Girls, and the all-women Newnham College of Cambridge University with an English degree (1982).
– She co-wrote, co-produced, and co-directed Cambridge University’s first all-female revue “Woman’s Hour” (1983).
– Speaks French and Spanish fluently.
– Read English Literature at Cambridge University.
– Good friends with Meryl Streep after starring with her in Angels in America (2003).
– Good friends with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hayley Atwell.
– She was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6714 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California on August 6, 2010. Among those who helped her celebrate were Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Laurie.
– Has been best friends with Simon McBurney ever since they were teenagers.
– According to a 2012 Guardian profile of Emma Thompson, in 2003, she and Greg Wise (who had already had their daughter, Gaia), informally adopted a teenage boy. Their son, Tindyebwa (“Tindy”) Agaba, was a former child soldier from Rwanda whom Thompson first met when he was 16 at a party for the charity organization the Refugee Council. Tindy’s family had died before or during the Rwandan genocide, and after he escaped from his forced child soldier-hood, he lived on the streets of London before receiving aid from the Refugee Council.
– Did an uncredited final polishing of the script for Paddington (2014).
– She was awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to drama. She is an actress in London, England.