August 19, 2010 / 3:19 PM / 9 years ago

A Minute With: Emma Thompson as "Nanny McPhee"

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Emma Thompson is no stranger to success, but when her movie “Nanny McPhee,” which she wrote and starred-in, turned in $122 million in global ticket sales in 2005, it surprised many industry watchers.

Emma Thompson drinks a pint from the pub her star is in front of as she poses with Monkey the Pig after being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, August 6, 2010. REUTERS/Gus Ruelas

Friday, the two-time Oscar winner (adapted screenplay for “Sense and Sensibility” and lead actress in “Howard’s End”) again puts on the scary-looking makeup for the tough-minded nanny who whips kids into shape for “Nanny McPhee Returns.”

The new movie has McPhee turning up at the door of the Greens. The father has gone to war, the mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is beside herself trying to take care of their two kids and the family farm, and just when she thought she couldn’t take anymore, two more youngsters from the city show up, touching off childish battles among the kids.

Thompson, 51, spoke to Reuters about her writing and the “Nanny McPhee” movies, which are loosely based on books about another stern nanny, Nurse Matlida.

Q: Did you read the Nurse Matilda stories as a kid?

A: “I did, and then I happened to be dusting the bookshelves in my library — well, it’s not a library, it’s a room with lots of books in it — and I found this little book. I’d just finished ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ and I had a feeling there was something very cinematic about this character (Nurse Matilda) because her face changes from the beginning to the end — although she doesn’t change internally — to the kids?

“We are bound, at the moment, by an insistence on very shallow beauty and having things that are supposed to make you look a particular way, which I find deeply worrying and which hasn’t contributed to the sum human happiness in any way, at all. To me, she’s a great rebellion against all that.”

Q: Nanny McPhee is not Mary Poppins. Poppins was spoonful of sugar. McPhee is all about tough love. Why is that better?

A: “Extreme liberty is too difficult for us, especially when we are growing up. We need — not even rules — but boundaries and confines. Of course, it must be loose and you must be allowed to be brave and make mistakes, hurt yourself and all that. But there must be boundaries, otherwise we become miserable.”

Q: Why feel the need to write stories, as opposed to just being an actress? They are both creative, but very different.

A: “I like writing. It’s hard and there are a lot of times when I don’t like it and I don’t want to do it. But the satisfaction I got from watching ‘Sense and Sensibility’ come to life was so enormous that I thought I’d like to feel that again. I love writing my own stuff. I just enjoy doing that.”

Q: Is it because you have something to say — in the case of “McPhee” about raising children — and you must say it?

A: “I’m not the kind of person to use a story necessarily for that purpose. I tell stories to delight and entertain. That is my primary function. But because of the way I feel, those stories are going to necessarily contain a particular kind of emotional content. That is why I don’t shy away from fear of loss, from divorce, from death, from all the things that affect children one way or another, whether we like it or not. It’s very important that they have stories address that and not have issues resolved by magic powers or by adults or, in some cases, have issues that are left unresolved.”

Q: Along that line, war is a backdrop for “Nanny McPhee.” In Hollywood, most producers would stay away from war in a family film. Why go against movie convention?

A: “The possibility of a person coming back from war is very real and the possibility of them not coming back is very real. It’s a constant tension, so what I could begin with, was knowing we had a family where somebody was absent and they might not come back. That adds to people not being able to deal with something else in their lives — in this case, two very unpleasant people arriving and invading territory that is already under siege, emotionally.

“I was very keen, as well, on examining the thing of being a single mom, and while Mrs. Green is not single in the sense she’s married, she is alone, for all intents and purposes.”

Q: You chose Maggie Gyllenhaal to be that mom. She’s known for gritty, independent films, not family films. Why her?

A: “I met her on “Stranger than Fiction,’ and we got along very well. Lindsay (Doran, the producer) and I talked about it and said, wouldn’t she be great. She’s become a mom. She’s a really, really seriously good actress, so she can pretty much do anything. We thought, wouldn’t it be lovely to see her do something that is very different to the sort of very modern, kind of hard edge stuff she’s been doing. And she just knocked it out of the part. She took it on with such gusto, with two hands and made it her own.”

Editing by Patricia Reaney

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