Kristen Scott Thomas


If I were to tell you that one of the two people participating in this interview with Kristin Scott Thomas was foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, lewd and decidedly scruffy, you would probably assume it was me. But you’d be wrong.

Okay, so Scott Thomas is not exactly Liam Gallagher, but considering what I was expecting (the sophisticated, fearlessly elegant English belle from such period pieces as A Handful of Dust and The English Patient), she is definitely a challenge and constantly a surprise.

Her open irritation at the fact that I am late (by 10 minutes – thanks for to the Paris traffic) is actually quite impressive, considering the way most stars these days are obsessed with maintaining good PR. Nerves visibly frayed, she is already on the mobile demanding to know where the hell I have got to. Nor had I expected her to use words such as ‘bullshit’, ‘arse’, ‘piss’ or ‘fuck-up’ quite so casually, restoring their shock value by means of the royal tone with which she languidly drops them into the conversation. (Piss elegantly, in fact.)

Amid this, there are demonstrations of the kind of casual snobbery and haughty demeanour you would expect, or perhaps hope, to see from Scott Thomas.
“The Dior was completely impossible,” she sighs wearily, referring to the previous day’s haute-couture show. When she raves about Lynne Ramsay’s film Ratcatcher – “God, that woman is completely brilliant” – her tone is so superior that she actually sounds disgusted.

But once the veneer of frosty maiden aunt has been dispensed with, she is unashamedly raunchy.

At one point, when she talks about “getting my kit off” and “not having to do that orgasms-against-a-wall-type stuff any more”, old French men in the bar in which we’re sitting start spluttering into their coffee with shock. She seems to revel in it, and continues to talk about herself lying around in bed having just been ravaged, “with my pearls still on. I love that touch. A real slut… a quick shag, and then shampoo-and-oysters time.”
She’s talking about her film roles, but even so…

I had been looking for the fabulously mannered English actress who is so immaculately striking and superior on screen that even suitors of the calibre of Robert Redford, Ralph Fiennes and Sean Penn have been left swooning in vain. But Scott Thomas, I am relieved to say, is much more complicated and difficult than that.
“Chilly charm and cheekbones” is how she puts it. However, I prefer “Extra Posh Spice, with brains.”

Although it is a shock to find I am better dressed for the interview than Scott Thomas, the difference, it has to be said, is pretty marginal. Except that while I am wearing the best clothes in my possession, she is wearing her worst. Clad in nondescript greens and browns, with mousy-looking brown hair and minimal make-up enhancing her intense, birdlike features, it seems she has been determined to make herself appear as unglamorous as possible.

“It’s a bit of a disguise, actually,” she confesses. “Because in Paris the moment you do your hair and put on nice clothes and a bit of slap, people look at you. Whereas if you look as scruffy as hell, everybody averts their eyes.”

She goes on to describe the occasions when she has been recognised “lolling around with her feet up”, when her hair has been “all grubby”, even when she has been “covered with zits.” (I am mortified.)

“I take the kids to school in the mornings and sometimes I just don’t feel like washing my hair and putting on make up,” she continues. “I just don’t want to do it… I can be fairly slovenly, actually.” (I am crushed.)

“I’ve had people gasp when they recognise me,” she announces, proudly. “I shouldn’t be saying all this really, should I ?” she muses, obviously enjoying being so shocking. “I should be saying I’m always super-glamorous.”

As it turns out, of course, she is exaggerating. It is something of a relief to discover that Scott Thomas’s idea of “slovenly” is a Calvin Klein cardigan and khakis, and shoes and handbag from Tod’s, although her scarf, which looks like Missoni, turns out to belong to one of her children.
“If I’m going out as ‘KST, film star’,” she says, reassuringly returning to her grander persona, ‘then I always make an effort.”

I make a speech bemoaning the lack of glamour in the world and the way today’s celebrities pretend to be more ordinary than they are and make a point of telling you they travel by Tube.

“Oh, no, I don’t get the Tube,” she says, with evident disdain. “I get stared at. I don’t like it. It makes me really uncomfortable.”

We deplore the way in which the Sunday papers denigrate the rich and famous by printing pictures of them in ill-fitting grey tracksuits and jogging in the park, looking red-faced and ropy.

“Oh, I don’t jog,” she trills immediately, sounding like Lady Windermere. “It breaks my heart when I see that. Or when they have a picture of someone showing her knickers as she gets out of a car. It makes me really upset.”

Just as I’m feeling I have the measure of her, she brings up “the way photographers take pictures of you unwittingly pulling a horrible face,” and promptly screws up her beautiful features into a grotesque mask by way of demonstration. Mentally, I start banging my head on the table.

This, then, is the central difficulty with interviewing Scott Thomas: trying to pinpoint where the similarities between the real woman and her image start and end. Refreshingly, she just isn’t that easy to read. On first impressions, she is an interviewer’s nightmare, twitchy about being put on the spot and so hopeless at making small talk that she hides behind a glacial frostiness and dry superiority that would make even the most inquisitive interrogator despair.

People might label KST (it’s how she refers to herself, sounding rather like a refugee from an Evelyn Waugh novel) as the romantically unobtainable, quintessential English aristocrat, but, truth be told, she isn’t like that all.

She is openly insecure about whether you are being serious, and actually seems to prefer it if you aren’t.

“Oh, you’re teasing me. That’s a relief,’ she smiles. “I never know when interviewers are or not.”

In addition, she always grasps the chance to send herself up. Her perfect role, she offers eagerly, would be Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds, “strings and all.”

Her life mirrors her art in that her best-known characters are much more interesting and complicated than they seem at first glance using their elegance and refinement as a façade for more personal or private dilemmas.

Her latest role in Up at the Villa, a meandering Forties murder mystery adapted from a Somerset Maugham story, is no exception.

“People see the immaculate hairstyles and the gorgeous dresses first, but there is more to it than that.”

Surely she fears becoming typecast ?
“Not especially. I love all that period stuff, so why not? I do it well and that’s what people want me to do, I suppose.”

Despite her Quintessentially English demeanour, she hasn’t lived in this country for 20 years. She shares a Paris home with her husband François Olivennes, a distinguished French fertility specialist she met when she was studying drama at the city’s Ecole Nationale des Arts, and their two children, Hannah, 11, and six-year-old Joseph.

The eldest of five children born into a “not particularly privileged” family, she grew up in Dorset and fled England at the age of 19. I would guess that she felt she was always going to appear an outsider, marked by the deaths of her father (a naval pilot) and her stepfather, both in flying accidents, when she was aged five and 11.

In interviews, she closes the subject by dismissing her loss as “The Tragedy.”

“A lot has been made of it and it gives the impression that my life was one big misery, which it wasn’t. It was a perfectly normal childhood and things happened and children just deal with them.”

I theorise that outsiders find it more comfortable to live in big cities such as Paris, where all they are is a foreigner. “Maybe that’s what I am – a pariah,” she jokes. “I can certainly remember being in London and completely hating it.”

London was where she worked as a temp ( “I was constantly being sent home because I was so pathetic”) and in the Ladies’ Separates department of Selfridges, selling pink polyester shirts.

“I was completely and utterly miserable,” she says. “I ran away to Paris on the bus. It was never really my plan to stay. My plan was just to get out.”

Her endemic insecurity stems from drama school and the feeling she did not belong because she “was not one of the cool people.”

Incredibly, she was told that if she wanted to play Lady Macbeth, she should take up amateur dramatics.

“I was met with nothing but disdain,” she recalls. “I’d done nothing to deserve it. I’d never considered myself anything but totally ordinary.”

She continues, with some pathos, “I don’t know that I am particularly aloof. Everybody always assumes that I am. I’m not aloof, just… careful. Because otherwise I rush into friendships that can become exhausting.”

At the same time, she admits with endearing frankness that even now, after two decades in Paris, it’s only in the past two or three years that she has made any friends.

She can’t help telling me, laughing, how her hairdresser and even her own children “take the piss out of me something rotten – they are super-embarrassed by my accent. And these boots [green ponyskin, to match her handbag] – they think they’re the ugliest things they’ve ever seen in their lives. They’re so conventional. They want everything to come from Gap.”

Perhaps it’s no wonder she has come to specialise in playing edgy, icy, independent beauties – “very vulnerable, very clever, very controlling – nothing to do with me, of course !”

One of her first directors told her: “You take everything sideways, every line, from another tack.”

“It was neither criticism nor compliment,” she explains. “They just meant I did it systematically.”

I find it unusually difficult to predict how she is going to view things. Kristin Scott Thomas is definitely one of the last actresses I would expect to see frolicking in a full-frontal nude scene (as she did with Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient), but she has come to accept “the dreaded love scene” as inevitable and doesn’t bat an eyelid.

“Ralph Fiennes was much shyer than I was. I cannot really see the difference between full frontal, upside down, you name it,” she shrugs blithely. “Because, basically, naked is naked.”

I was expecting her to shy away from the subject, but when she is talking about love scenes she is actually at her most effusive.

“Everyone on set is really nervous,” she grins. “People tease you about it. They go: “Today’s your big day.” Everyone’s embarrassed. No one dares look at you. Then you have to have make-up put on your bottom, which is humiliating.”

Her husband, she knows, isn’t so blase.
“I don’t think it can be particularly pleasant for him. When he watched The English Patient, I had to leave. I couldn’t bear the thought of being next to him while he watched it. But on the other hand,” she grins with a knowing flourish, “he’s a gynaecologist, so…”

I remind her of her view “by the time your children are 22, they’ll be spending hours talking about you in therapy.”

She shrugs, saying that, one way or another all children feel their parents have failed them.
“You have to accept that idea from day one,” she says cheerfully. “You know that it’s going to be a fuck-up, basically, and that they’re going to hate you for at least 10 years.”

Then, immediately contradicting herself, she insists it was having children rather than career success that gave her confidence.

“You get incredible death anxiety at the beginning. I was convinced that everything was going to kill me – being run over by a bus, falling off a cliff – and I’d be unable to care for my child. But once you see them growing up, it’s so… amazing. It’s like: ‘Look what I’ve done !’ It’s just so great and the love for your children is something that nothing compares to. Ever.”

It’s endearing to see the rather gutsy enthusiasm with which Scott Thomas, a genuine outsider and oddball, strives to overcome her neuroses. Simply being part of a team – be it family or film crew – provides her with some relief from her insecurities.

“I love filmmaking. I complain like mad, of course, but I love it – the sound men, the camera people, hanging out with all the 22-year-olds, smoking cigarettes. I only smoke when I’m around riggers. I hate staying in my trailer,” she grins, like a naughty schoolgirl. “I’m always sticking my head out and saying ‘What’s going on ?’”

She finishes by making things – and herself – seem as if they could not be more straightforward.

“The thing I love is standing on set in front of the camera, pretending that I am the character. I love talking about angles, shots, hitting the mark. I love having to act for a camera. Something just… happens. When I get in front of the camera, I just sort of beam and I’m happy.”