Dame Kristin Scott Thomas. It is a name that conjures many a synonym; glamour, class, talent, regality.
The last being particularly pertinent since the Olivier Award-winning star of films including The English Patient and Gosford Park is currently playing Her Majesty The Queen in the first revival of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed play The Audience.
It doesn’t strain the imagination too much to picture Dame Kristin as the head of a country, does it? The poise is there. The stately physiognomy is perfect. The stately gaze with which to hold any rabble-rousing subject is a given. Of course, when you consider Scott Thomas plays the head of state from her mid-20s in the 1950s to the current day and her 90th year, there’s more to it than simply being able to hold yourself correctly.
And the play is not about the real Queen Elizabeth II anyway, is it?
Yes, that took me by surprise too. Yet Scott Thomas explains it well as we grab a swift post-press night chat. “I think we all project like crazy onto the Queen, and any figures of royalty,” she says. “They’re heroes to some and hated by others, worshipped by some and disrespected by others. This isn’t a picture of the real Queen, this is a picture of how we fantasize the Queen. It’s a mish mash of who we [Scott Thomas, writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Daldry] think the Queen is, or who we’d like her to be. I’m not doing an impression of the Queen, I’m trying to tell a story about what it would be like to be in her position.”
That position, if you don’t know, is sat opposite an impressive selection of Prime Ministers recreating what may or may not have happened in the weekly chats shared between the pair of powerful humans during the monarch’s reign. It recently even had a scene added in reaction to the General Election result.
If it’s a plot that sounds familiar, that’s either because you’ve already heard about Scott Thomas’ London engagement or you remember the play from the first time around, when Helen Mirren won an Olivier for her performance as Elizabeth II.
That was, unsurprisingly, one of the reasons Scott Thomas took more than a little convincing to agree to slip into the iconic twin sets on the London stage.
“Helen had such huge success with it,” she tells me. “She’s a hard act to follow. She really does embody the Queen. I think some people even confuse them. The difficult thing is not doing an impression of Helen Mirren doing an impression of the Queen!”
Yet after starring in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in 2011 and Old Times in 2013, and unleashing her inner Greek tragedian in the Old Vic’s Electra last year, the lure of the stage, and Morgan’s writing in particular, was too much to resist, even if initially she was dubious about playing Her Majesty.
That initial concern appears to have gracefully exited like a swan on the Thames, leaving an enjoyment and appreciation that rather than baring her soul most painfully in a way that appears, on stage at least, to have become Scott Thomas’ thing, she get the chance to be – whisper it – light-hearted: “I’m finding such pleasure in giving people a good time and making people laugh,” she smiles. I’d like to do more of it… But at the moment I don’t want to do anything ever again.”
Hmmmm. That’s a little surprising from the actress who has been reported as loving her resurgence as a stage performer. But it’s a feeling that can be traced back to that plethora of emotionally challenging roles she has played in a relatively short time. One gets the feeling that as much as she enjoys returning to the stage – “I love the writing, I love the audience, I find the excitement of going on stage exhilarating” – it takes its toll on the actress.
She has no plans for after The Audience and doesn’t sound in a hurry to make any. “I really don’t worry about what I’m going to do,” she confirms. “I’m going to take a break for a while.”
If this is leading you to think about jumping to any conclusions about the Oscar nominee, a word of caution; don’t make snap judgements based on performances, characters, hearsay or what you read.
It is something Scott Thomas has fallen foul to a little too often. Though it is clearly irksome to her, there’s not a hint of weariness in her voice when we discuss it. If anything, it enlivens her as she tries to understand the bizarreness of it all. “When you have a strong identity as a performer, people like to claim to have experienced it in real life. It’s a weird thing. People make assumptions about you because of what they read in the papers or roles that you play. It’s nice to be able to surprise people with something they haven’t expected.”
… which is why she shouted “Boo!” at Gordon Kennedy’s Gordon Brown last Wednesday and goosed Sylvestra Le Touzel’s Maggie Thatcher at the weekend. I jest, of course, but it is why this Dame of the British stage is loving playing the Queen and why when she says she’s going to take time out when she finishes at the Apollo Theatre we should take it with a large pinch of salt. That’s just what she wants us to think so the next West End return will be that much more surprising.
The Audience is running at the Apollo Theatre until 25 July. You can book tickets through us here.