Kristin Scott Thomas has lived in Paris since her late teens, but in the last decade that her appearances in French cinema have become as frequent, and often more engrossing, than the roles she’s played in her native tongue. In 2006, Tell No One became a surprise arthouse hit, and 2008’s I’ve Loved You So Long featured one of the most moving and committed performances in a long and accomplished career. François Ozon’s In The House is something else entirely, a light, yet typically twisted, comedy in which Scott Thomas plays a mildly dotty art-gallery owner married to Fabrice Luchini’s pedantic high-school teacher. The flipside of that character is on view in the recently salivated-over trailer for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, in which she plays some sort of mob boss/sex bomb. Yet the woman who greeted The A.V. Club in Toronto after In The House’s world première was neither, a poised but unassuming presence whose only affectation was a monogrammed handbag. She talked about switching languages, finally getting the chance to deliver jokes rather than be the butt of them, and going from performing Marguerite Duras plays in a field to working with Prince.
The A.V. Club: You seem to have a kind of gravitas, if not froideur, on screen, but your In The House character is more of an average middle-class woman.
Kristin Scott Thomas: More relaxed. More relaxed.
AVC: Was that part of the attraction for you?
KST: Yeah, kind of… just not to play anything arch. That was a part of the attraction, and to form a couple with Fabrice Luchini was part of the attraction, trying to get something sort of average going. I think it works really well, this averageness. Even though they think of themselves as being sort of elite, they’re pretty average.
AVC: He’s a failed writer—
KST: He’s a teacher! He’s a teacher with a vocation out of necessity. He’s intelligent, because he knows he’s not a great writer and the only way to survive is to become a teacher. She probably had more ambition than he did somewhere along the line, I don’t know. But they failed.
AVC: It seems clear we’re meant to understand that her art gallery—
KST: Is a disaster! [Laughs.] It’s very interesting watching the film—I’ve only watched it a couple of times—to see the choice of what she’s exhibiting is so sexual and yet there’s zero sexuality in that couple. She looks like a man, with the haircut; there was an audible gasp in the auditorium when I come on with this really short hair. But that’s all part of what’s fun.
AVC: They’ve stopped having sex, and he hasn’t even noticed.
AVC: In The House didn’t originate as a comment on the French school system; it started as an Italian play, and François Ozon thought about shooting it in England because they don’t have school uniforms in France. You’ve raised two children in French schools; did that aspect resonate for you?
KST: Not really. I haven’t had a great experience with the French school system. If you fit into the mold, then it’s great and you can do great things. But it’s a very broad spectrum of education, and that’s really great. It was very, very formal.
AVC: Children are encouraged to specialize early in the process.
KST: Yeah, and there’s not much fun involved. But it’s made my children very curious, and they left France to do university. It’s a big issue at the moment, the French education system, because they’re beginning to realize it’s not quite what they thought it was.
AVC: Just looking over your filmography, it seems like you settled into a pattern of going back and forth between acting in French and acting in English.
KST: God. You’re better than I am. I haven’t a clue.
AVC: You didn’t make a conscious decision?
KST: Well it’s the kind of decision life has made for me. How did it work? Twelve years ago I had another child, so that meant traveling was more difficult. Obviously, I could have emigrated and made more movies in America and followed that path, but I was married to a man who wasn’t able to move, and I didn’t want to split up the family like that. So I’d make movies around the corner, but they never are really just around the corner. I was supposed to be making a film in Paris, which ended up moving to Luxembourg, so I still won’t be sleeping in my own bed. The last two films that I’ve made in France have been in Paris, and it’s been fantastic. This one, In The House, and the Pascal Bonitzer film, Cherchez Hortense [Looking For Hortense], which has just been released in France. But it’s a very difficult job to try and stay at home. It just doesn’t really work.
AVC: In some ways, it’s easier. There are fewer distractions when you’re working away from home, whereas if you’re sleeping in your own bed, it’s harder to explain why you have to get up for a 4 a.m. call.
KST: Being on location is sometimes easier than being home and having to deal with homework and, “Why has my shirt gone pink? I put it in the washer, and it was white. Now it’s pink.” “What’s for dinner?” It’s much easier to be on a mountaintop in God knows where trying to concentrate on your work. That’s what people who work do, whatever job they’re doing. If you’re a lawyer, it’s the same thing; if you run a shop, it’s the same thing. Having children and worrying about school and having a job is complicated.
AVC: Is it easier to do these kind of smaller, more character-driven pieces?
KST: I was talking to the director about that yesterday. It’s much easier making films with very little money because you have no time to waste; you just have to shoot the damn thing. You go really fast, you make really quick decisions, and you don’t have the luxury to swan around and get your nails done in the trailer. It’s none of the nonsense. You have no time for the nonsense, and you just have to make the movie. I like shooting with smaller crews and tighter schedules.
AVC: Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long is another one in that mode.
KST: I’m making another one with him; in two weeks time, I start. In Luxembourg. [Sarcastically.] It’s miserable.
AVC: You play a woman getting out of prison for killing her own son—a fantastically wrenching performance. How do you prepare for that kind of role?
KST: I didn’t prepare for that. My preparation was minimal. I read some stuff about women that had spent time in prison, and that was it really. The rest was just instinctive gut reactions.
AVC: It’s a very restrained performance until we learn the truth behind her incarceration.
KST: Right. Till the penny drops. And that’s what a lot of people didn’t like about the film. A lot of the critics, in Europe especially, really hated that last scene. They wanted it to remain really dry or whatever. The thing that I really love about film acting is: “Don’t say it, show it.” It’s so much better not having to talk. It just makes life so much easier. And the reason I like working in the theater is that the words do all the work. If you do Pincher or Chekhov, those are pretty good words. That’s why I like it.
AVC: The production of The Seagull, which won you an Olivier award for your performance as Arkadina, ran for a long time.
KST: We did it twice. I think the thing about working on stage is that it really gets your acting muscles honed. So it’s easier to make a film after you’ve done a play because your brain moves quickly. The thing that was difficult [with In The House] was going from English to French; that particular instance was difficult. The film I made immediately after that, which was the Pascal Bonitzer film, was much easier. So there is kind of an adjustment period if I’ve been working a lot in English. I had to get into French gear, which was quite complicated.
AVC: You’re not playing native French speakers, so some of the onus is removed, but delivering dialogue written in another language, it’s not just a matter of pronunciation but also a different inflection, a different rhythm, even a different way of moving.
KST: Yeah, and that does take practice. I have realized recently that the films I make when I have been immersed in French for a long time are more… I feel the performances are better than when I’ve just come off something in English. When you’re talking about the actual language, it’s much easier when you’ve been there for a long time, which clashes against the fact that you were actually more subtle and everything is much easier to access when you’ve been on stage for a long time. It’s like, “Oh, you want some of that? Here you go.” It’s much easier, but the language is more complicated. That’s true. Working with Luchini was interesting, because he’s a very literary person. He’s a complete autodidact. He never went to university, he’s taught himself everything he’s ever read, and he’s a sort of expert on singing. But he’s known to the French as being a very literary actor. He manages to have great, long speeches, and he’s amazingly agile. So I felt very clunky with him, and there’s the comic timing as well. It’s not quite the same in English as it is in French. So that was a bit complicated.
AVC: Especially in a movie like this.
KST: I’m the straight guy, the one who sets up the jokes in comedies. It’s rare that I do a comedy where I’m the one doing the joke. I suppose in Salmon Fishing [In The Yemen] I was doing that, but otherwise, I’m the straight guy. I don’t want to measure or compare anything. Everything is always different and it always has its own challenges, depending on… the weather [Laughs.], what state of mind I’m in, where I’ve been. I think that’s something that a lot of people in my case have because you’re constantly the move; you’re constantly in different cultures. It’s not as easy as it may appear to be. I do have to work quite hard.
AVC: How do you look back on Under The Cherry Moon? It must have been disorienting to come out of drama school and do your first movie opposite Prince.
KST: Put it this way: It just feels like another life to me. It’s such a long time ago. I remember at the time, it just felt so insane. I had to pinch myself because it felt so radically unbelievable. I was doing a Marguerite Duras play in a field when I got the call. “Okay. You want me to go meet… MY GOD!” Because he was my God at the time. I was listening to “Raspberry Beret” on my Walkman en boucle, non-stop, on big headphones. I was listening to it all the time while I was doing the Marguerite Duras play. So suddenly to be called into this sort of court of this strange and peculiar and brilliant person who had chose me… I had no experience; I had never done a movie before. It was mad, completely mad.