Kristin Scott Thomas can thank lockdown for one thing: it’s made her stay put. But now she is craving the bright lights and buzz of a film set…
Kristin Scott Thomas: ‘I want to go to the theatre with friends. Even more, I want to be in a show.’ Photograph: Matt Holyoak/Camera Press/Bafta
If you went for a stroll in Rutland during the early days of lockdown, enjoying your daily dose of exercise in England’s tiniest county, you might have been interrupted by the sight of a strange woman ranting about her antiques shop and a dying neighbour. It was Kristin Scott Thomas, rehearsing her lines for an Alan Bennett Talking Heads monologue hurriedly commissioned by the BBC when production on other shows had to stop. Nicholas Hytner, former director of the National Theatre, has revived the series of one-actor plays, in which Scott Thomas plays Celia, a woman approaching retirement age with a struggling business and an accidentally cunning plan for how to make some cash.
“The script was quite difficult to learn, actually, so I’d go on very long walks, and anyone coming across me in the lanes here would find me shouting with a piece of paper in my hand. Or people would roll down the car windows: ‘Are you lost dear?’ Did they recognise me? Oh I don’t think so – I’m not sure I have much of a fanbase in Rutland,” says Scott Thomas with a wry smile. Or rather, with a Kristin Scott Thomas smile, the one that suggests that the actor has been in on a magnificent joke for much of her 60 years, and that it hasn’t stopped being discreetly amusing yet.
We are speaking over video from our laptops, she in a bedroom of a house she describes as being “in the middle of nowhere”, where she sometimes lies back languorously on her bed as she talks, sometimes sits up on it, and sometimes stops to wonder why her screen has gone dark. Somehow, her smart yellow dress remains immaculate throughout, as does her dignity when I ask if she is living in this rather random part of the country alone, or with a partner, and is this her own bedroom, with the matching set of landscape paintings in gold frames on the walls?
I know the Paris chapter of her life and her marriage to a French doctor ended some years ago, their three children now having grown up and made her a grandmother. But Scott Thomas’s magnificent smile suggests that she will not lay out any further details of her love-life. She will say that this is her home, that after constantly travelling and working in different places, lockdown has made her realise “that I really am here now. And I think, I have been for quite a while, actually, but in denial. I try and make one French film a year. Do you know, I figured out that I haven’t stayed in the same place for more than two weeks for about 10 years? It’s just, my life – it got totally out of control.” So aside from her “heebie jeebies” about the virus, “doing this enforced keeping still has actually been incredibly beneficial to me personally, but my God was I terrified when it started.” Then she adds that she’s “got to go and open some windows, because the fire alarm’s just gone off and there’s the smell of burned toast, so God knows what’s going on”. Later, she says something that makes her sound exactly like Celia, her Talking Heads character, and admits that “my boyfriend always says I’m turning into her!” So there we go.
The Talking Heads monologues were originally broadcast on BBC1 in the late 1980s (with a second series in the late 1990s), having been written by Alan Bennett in the days when putting plays on television wasn’t such a strange idea. Julie Walters, Maggie Smith and Patricia Routledge all performed, as did Bennett himself. Of course, under lockdown the idea has been revived, with the National, among other theatres, streaming recordings of their hit plays on YouTube, while other actors and comedians try to revive the art of monologue from home and even The Archers attempts to use the medium. (Fleabag began as a one-woman show, so there is recent precedent.) But Talking Heads became an instant classic of its day. I studied the scripts for Drama GCSE in the 1990s.
Now, 10 of the 12 originals are being revived with a new cast (along with two new ones, also written by Bennett) thanks to Hytner, who has enjoyed a long working relationship with Bennett, and who came up with the idea of getting certain actors to come into a studio and do a socially distanced performance. The part of Celia, in a piece called The Hand of God, played in the original by Eileen Atkins, required a shop, “which we created in the most extraordinary place in the world,” says Scott Thomas, with some excitement, “on the set of The EastEnders!
I suddenly found myself on Albert Square – in the hairdressing salon, made into a very nice antiques shop. I’m years out of date with the show, but it’s still iconic, it’s still oh my God, pinch pinch pinch,” she says, jabbing her arm, as the sun streams through her Rutland window. “There is a member of my family I should not mention by name who is obsessed. So much more impressed than by me working with Robert Redford.”
But what were the logistics of working on a socially distanced set? “It was hellish, because how are you going to get hair and makeup done when you can’t get near each other? Now, we happened to use a very dear friend of mine for that, Naomi Donne, who is a star makeup artist, but I had to do my own face with her telling me to put a bit more here and a bit more there. Jonathan [Kent] the director was sitting behind a curtain miles away, and the script supervisor was in yet another place, and the only people within eyeball distance were the camera operator and the boom man, and occasionally a costume person would come in and tell me to set my scarf right. We spent about 10 minutes trying to fish a bit of fluff out of my hair, because, of course, they could see it, and I couldn’t, and even with the mirror, every time you pass the mirror you have to wipe it down. It’s laborious to say the least.”
She laughs. In fact, she was thrilled to get out of isolation and back near a stage, if only to play a character experiencing her own form of isolation. Scott Thomas drove down to the studios. She has been worried about catching Covid-19, and won’t go to the local shop “without looking like a total lunatic because I’m covered. I’ve got a mask on, I’ve got a headscarf on, I’ve got glasses on because I just don’t want to get sick and I’m still terrified of catching it. Horror. A lot of the older people in the shop here don’t really understand social distancing, so there’s a lot of, ‘Excuse me love can I just get that cabbage?’ So I’m covered up. And a friend of mine did get it and ended up in hospital, ICU, for 10 days or something. Terrible. I know so many people who have had it. And you know, because I’m, I’m getting towards the age group of people who are more vulnerable myself…” She puts on a funny voice. “Slowly tiptoeing towards it,” she adds, sounding in character once again.
We discuss how good Alan Bennett is at writing these older females; she believes he is partly responsible for British culture revering such women. She says that when America does the same they tend to be cute and funny, like Shirley MacLaine, or Jane Fonda in Grace and Frankie. Whereas here, there is huge dramatic reverence for Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith. “We think of these ladies as being iconic. We’ve been hugely successful in our celebration of the important old ladies. It’s actually very encouraging. And possibly because we’ve got an amazing Queen, I don’t know. But I do think part of that has to do with people like Alan Bennett, who write these incredibly generous-spirited pieces where you kind of fall in love with the character. I think that’s very specific to this country. When Glenda Jackson does Lear, you know, that is a very extraordinary event. When Maggie Smith did her one-woman show at the Bridge Theatre it was amazing. When Judi does anything we all fall over in awe.”
So is it time to bury the lie that there are no roles for older women? “Well it’s not a lie – these are seniors. It’s the inbetweenies who are in trouble,” she says, going on to reference the stand-alone brilliance of Lesley Manville in the comedy series Mum.
As for Celia, who befriends a dying neighbour for reasons that may not be as benevolent as she wants to think, is she a wicked woman? “She sort of falls into it, rather than is wilfully wicked. I think she just trips. This is what I love about Alan’s writing: all the tumbling that happens. His people tumble and they kind of catch themselves, and they do that in the language, and I think that’s what is going on with this woman who has found herself in a certain situation. If she stopped to think about it, she’d be mortified, but she’s managed to convince herself that she’s being a good friend. And I think that that’s why we’re all so drawn to these characters, because they make mistakes. You can’t really blame them for their mistakes, even though you feel a bit shifty about them. You can’t really condone them either. I think people identify with them so much, because he’s so generous with them. There’s always a little something in there you can recognise as being a human trait. It’s like Chekhov, he writes the most appalling characters and they do the most appalling things, but you can’t help but love them. You have compassion for them. You feel, ah yes, I know you.”
Has she met Alan Bennett? She shakes her head furiously. “No, I’m way too shy to. I’ve been in the same room as him, but I’m way too, kind of, gobsmacked to be able to speak to him. I mean, why would he be interested? You know that thing, when you don’t dare speak to people?” I’m surprised. I tell her I thought she’d dare speak to him. She sighs. “I know.” She pauses. “People think that about me, too. They don’t dare speak to me either. It’s all silly, just human. I can’t stand it. I’d love it if people thought they could talk to me. Because… ugh… I don’t know. I have heard it said about me, you know, ‘You’re too grand,’ or ‘You’re too this’, or they admire you too… whatever it is.” She admits she has the same “totally natural inhibition” towards others, “which is, you know, what have I got to offer this person?”
Of course, it is at this moment that my daughter wanders into the room and starts talking to the nice lady on my screen who doesn’t seem remotely daunting to her, all friendly with her shiny gold jewellery on, asking my little girl if she likes going to the theatre, too, and saying, “Oh, sweet!” when she finds out she is only eight. When it transpires we have all started growing vegetables for the first time in lockdown – and after my child has wandered off again – Scott Thomas muses on whether she could now make smalltalk with strangers about her newfound hobby of “potting”.
“I got the seeds and I just thought, God, these aren’t going to work, so you just plant gazillions of them. And then they all worked!” She sounds truly delighted. “So I’ve been busy handing them out: ‘Would you like some spinach? How about 10 broad bean plants?’ It got completely out of control. I had to leave a pile of them at the end of the gate. But watching something grow, corny as it may sound, from a tiny little unidentifiable seed into a plant, is just the most amazingly encouraging thing. And it did help me feel less anxious. Because you see that things are carrying on regardless. Nature is stronger than us, it really is.”
Has she been going downstairs in the morning and then tiptoeing out to see how the beans are doing?
“Cup of tea in hand, in a woolly hat! Completely perfect Alan Bennett character. It’s totally terrifying.”
Secretly, she is ready to get back on to a film set now, though. “Because we’re not going to live on monologues for much longer! Endless monologues. People looking into their cameras like this, people looking at Zoom like this. I want action, I want deserts, I want camels, I want 600 extras. Oh, apparently we’re going to have to CGI in the extras as well, according to this article I read this morning. And they’re going to try to encourage the leading actors not to face each other.” She is whooping with laughter now. “It’s going to be nonsense! How are we going to make movies? I’ve got things that are supposed to be shooting now, and I keep getting told by everybody, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry it will happen.’ Yes, but when?”
The only people who have given her a clear answer are at the National Theatre, where she was supposed to be fulfilling a lifelong ambition and playing Phaedra this December. It is cancelled, but she hopes only postponed. In fact, she laughs when realising that this monologue with Nick Hytner is the first time she’s worked with him. “I was so glad when he asked me to do something at bloody long last! I’ve known him for years and years and years. I was always saying why can’t I come and work at the National, why can’t I? Rah rah rah. He had to leave the National before I got asked to do anything. And now it’s cancelled.”
But for now, she is landlocked in Rutland. “I’m basically a country person anyway. I spent my entire childhood in a tiny village until I was 18. And then I went to London. And then I went to Paris. I’ve always longed for this and now I’ve got it by accident. And really, really got into it.”
She does admit that she’s fed up and longing for a night out. “I want lockdown to end so that I can go to the theatre, so I can see friends. Sit me in the dark with a whole load of other people experiencing the same message in different ways and taking it all in. I want dinner with my friends and a show. And even more, I want to be in a show. I want to do some acting now. I’m bored with being beany.”
Talking Heads is on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Tuesday 23 June from 9pm