As Sophie Thompson prepares to return to the London stage, she chats to Matthew Amer not about her famous family, but about being voted a bitch, Fruit Pastilles and unemployment.
Actress Sophie Thompson – daughter of actors Phyllida Law and Eric Thompson, sister of Hollywood star Emma – is possibly the least controversial person I have ever met. Happily married with two sons, her language is peppered with endearingly inoffensive words like ‘golly’, ‘prickly’ and ‘minty’ where others might use much stronger, less perky expletives. For a member of such a high-profile acting family, you don’t see her wading into political arguments or taunting the paparazzi at drunken parties every other week. In fact, if you passed her in the street, you probably wouldn’t give her a second look.
Yet, when it comes to making career choices, Thompson seems drawn, certainly recently, to more controversial subjects and projects. Her last stage outing, The Female Of The Species, ruffled feathers by poking fun at feminism, she played a child abuser in EastEnders, and her new play, Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, explores racism, political correctness and how these have or haven’t changed in half a century.
“We spent the first week [of rehearsals] just really talking about it and trying to understand it,” Thompson explains as we sit around the edge of a cluttered rehearsal room hiding at the top of a West London church. “We didn’t get to the bottom of anything, because you sort of don’t; nothing is resolved, it’s not that kind of a story, it’s just throwing things up in the air and it’s fascinating how they fall. It’s exploring all those awkward crevices of all of our feelings.”
“It’s exploring all those awkward crevices of all of our feelings”
The latest play by Norris, whose The Pain And The Itch played at the Royal Court in 2007, is set in two distinct time periods. In 1959, the sale of a desirable two-bed house to a black family causes discontent among the neighbourhood’s cosy white urbanites. In 2009, the same house is once again being sold, this time to a couple who plan to raze it and start again. But are the same issues festering?
The balance and style of the play’s two halves have proved an interesting proposition for Thompson and the rest of the cast; while they explore similar topics, the language and rhythm of the characters are very different, separated, as they are, by 50 years. The interval, says Thompson, feels like the end of the play: “You’ve got to ratchet yourself up again because the second half is equally as charged, just in a different way.”
Every word Thompson utters arrives with a breathy excitement. She constantly sounds eager and a little conspiratorial, though little she says is in any way secretive or inflammatory. The closest she comes to letting slip anything even a little dangerous is to say of the Royal Court, where Clybourne Park is being staged, “I’ve always thought I’m far too shallow to work anywhere like that.”
“It’s one of those theatres that there’s just something about,” she continues. “It’s just got a sort of aura to it. I’ve always been slightly, not scared exactly, but whenever I go there I’ve always felt a little bit intimidated by it. I think I still do. Maybe I won’t after this.”
It seems a little odd to me that an actress who grew up in and around the industry and who admits that she knows nothing other than the acting life should be intimidated by any theatre. The Royal Court does have a reputation for producing challenging, thought-provoking work, though more importantly for Thompson, it doesn’t sell Fruit Pastilles. “I’ve got to get a flapjack or something in the bar,” she laughs.
“I’ve always thought I’m far too shallow to work anywhere like [the Royal Court]”
Thompson, it turns out, is very particular about her theatregoing habits. She still loves taking in a show, but unlike the majority of audience members, prefers to go alone. “I don’t have to chat to people in the interval or talk about it straight afterwards. I just like going in, seeing a show and scurrying into the night and thinking about it.”
As we sit and chat – the rest of the cast eating lunch in the kitchen, director Dominic Cooke wandering in and out – I mention that I enjoyed Thompson’s last London outing, Joanna Murray-Smith’s comedy The Female Of The Species. I am surprised just how enthusiastically my admission is met. The reaction of a few people to the production, which questioned and poked fun at some aspects of feminism, seems to have stuck in the actress’s mind.
“People were quite minty about it, I think we put a few backs up. I felt that the world was ready to make a few jokes about certain areas of the women’s movement and all that. That’s all very well for me to say, but I wasn’t part of the vanguard of that, I just reap the benefits. It’s nice that there was a controversy, it’s just that a lot of people genuinely didn’t like it that these issues were being spoken about in what they felt was a slightly underhand way. I thought it was funny and uncomfortable and all the things a good play should be really.”
With the addition of EastEnders’s child abusing lawyer Stella Hopkirk, which saw Thompson crowned Inside Soap’s Best Bitch in 2007 – an accolade she ensured made it into her CV “because I want it to be in one of those highbrow Royal Court programmes” – the latter half of the past decade has involved more than a little controversy.
It is delightful, then, that among all this, she found time to take on the least antagonistic of jobs, a role in the penultimate Harry Potter film. Sister Emma has been a regular in the successful franchise that brings the tales of the young wizard to the big screen. Sophie had to make do with playing a worker at the Ministry Of Magic impersonated by one of the schoolboy wizard’s best friends Hermione (played by Emma Watson). “I felt a bit like I was Emma’s costume,” she laughs.
“I thought it was funny and uncomfortable and all the things a good play should be really”
You would think that pottering around on the set of the largest kids film franchise of all time might impress the next generation of Thompsons, sons Ernie and Walter. Sadly not: “I went home and said I was chased by dementors today at work and they weren’t really that bothered. They just wanted to know what was for tea.” If wizards, magic and the world’s most popular film stars don’t impress these youngsters, what will? “Free popcorn, they’re always pleased about that when you get to go along when they open the film.”
Complimentary confectionary might well be as starry as Thompson gets. She repeatedly tells me that acting and performing are all she knows, but for a profession that is so often reportedly disconnected with the real world, Thompson is absolutely aware of her privileged position. “You’re lucky, aren’t you,” she says, “if you have something that you want to have a go at and you get to do it. That’s what I am very grateful for, that I have managed to, with long periods of being very unemployed, keep going over the years.”
It seems odd to talk about unemployment with a Laurence Olivier Award-winning actress of such pedigree – she collected the statuette in 1999 for her performance in the Donmar Warehouse’s Into The Woods – but that is the temporary nature of her profession; when one project comes to an end, there is not always another one waiting. Again, this is the only life that Thompson knows, but when we chat about it, she doesn’t dally long thinking about herself, but rather looks at it from the perspective of the current economic climate: “It must be awful when you have a proper job and then you don’t have it. That’s just rubbish. With us, at least we have a kind of on-off thing anyway. It’s all I know.”
When Clybourne Park finishes its run at the Royal Court in October, Thompson will once again be unemployed and job-hunting. “Available for panto always,” she laughs. “Put it in at the end.” She has been so polite and eager, that it would seem churlish of me not to.