The English Patient star talks about her big breakthrough, bad reviews – and why her worst performance is always screening on cable TV
What first drew you to acting?
Wanting to be somebody else. As a child, I played dress-up with great conviction. I’d walk to the village shop wearing my mother’s clothes, pretending I was somebody different.
What was your big breakthrough?
There are the obvious ones, like The English Patient or Four Weddings. But on a more personal level, it was when I played Bérénice at the Avignon festival [in 2001]. I hadn’t done any theatre since drama school. God knows what the performance was like, but to be able to go out on stage independent of any machinery was incredibly powerful.
Do you suffer for your art?
Frequently – though I’m talking “suffer” in inverted commas. You do get lonely; you’re torn in every direction. And if you’ve had a long career, like me, you’re constantly being compared to others. You’re either adored or criticised.
Did you have a plan B?
No, and I still don’t. I would love to be able to stop – the problem is, I have no idea what I’d do. I’m just stuck.
How would you compare the French and British arts scenes?
The cinema is a much bigger industry in France – and there’s not the same addiction to America, to pleasing wider audiences, that we get in Britain. French theatres are usually run by a single director, and are heavily subsidised. They have a captive audience, which can get a bit stifling.
What are you most proud of?
A full house on a Wednesday matinee.
What’s the greatest threat to theatre today?
Star turns. I think I’m OK now – I’m counted as a theatre actor, rather than a cinema actor who just turns up for six weeks then buggers off. I was very nervous of that when I started. With Bérénice, I signed up for an eight-month tour to all sorts of godforsaken places in France. My American agents were going crazy.
What’s the worst thing anyone ever said about you?
A review of my first film, Under the Cherry Moon, said, “Kristin Scott Thomas is a better cure for insomnia than a glass of warmed milk.” To be fair, he was right: I was appalling. That film’s always on cable – when you’re zapping channels, bored, with jet lag, you’ll suddenly see me in black-and-white with a lot of makeup, being utterly unconvincing.
What work of art would you most like to own?
I’d like to have been painted by the artist Meredith Frampton in the 1930s. His subjects are very smooth and doll-like, with a disturbing, burning energy.
Is there anything about your career you regret?
Lots of things – but it would be cruel to mention names. It’s a job; sometimes I have to do things I don’t want to do. But I’ve discovered that if you stop, everything churns on without you. So you have to keep pedalling, really.
Born: Redruth, 1960.
Career: Films include The English Patient, Four Weddings and a Funeral and I’ve Loved You So Long. Stage includes several major roles in French productions, and at the Royal Court and London’s West End. Performs in Old Times at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London SW1, until 6 April.
High point: “Doing the camera test for The English Patient. I felt that playing that part was going to be so important for me – and it was.”
Low point: “Every time I make a film and think, ‘What on earth am I doing?'”