Emma Thomson interview: Family Is The Centre Of Everything

She's a multi-award-winning actress, writer and campaigner, but Emma Thompson, 57, has never forgotten what matters most - her family.

When young people leave home they tend, whether by necessity or choice, to move a fair distance away from their parents. But when Emma Thompson flew the nest, she didn’t fly very far. In fact, she remained in a house in the same street as her mum – and, decades later, she’s still there. The idea of extended family all living close together sounds idyllic and is testament, perhaps, to the strength of the relationship between Emma and her actress mum, Phyllida Law, 84. Emma’s sister, actress Sophie Thompson, also lived nearby for quite some time.

Over time, Emma’s family has grown. It now includes her husband Greg Wise, daughter Gaia, 17, and the couple’s adopted son Tindy, 29, who’s a frequent visitor. But Emma seems to have remained as close as ever (physically and emotionally) to her mother. Phyllida has talked about this cosy arrangement often over the years: ‘I generally get a phone call at about six and all that has to be said is, “The bar is open” and I go across the road for dinner,’ she’s said.

Greg, Emma’s husband of 13 years, has also talked warmly about the way they all live:

‘Generally, there’s five, six, seven or eight of us every night for dinner,’ he said. ‘Then we hang out and talk and go through the day, by which time it’s washing up and then bed. That’s where real life lives – around the hearth and the cooker.’

When Gaia decided she wanted to leave school at 15, Emma and Greg agreed to her being home-schooled, even building her a specially constructed classroom in the garden. ‘She’s a product of people who aren’t part of the system,’ Greg explained. ‘We’re self-employed, very much on the fringes of what is seen as a proper job – and, having been brought up in that environment and questioning things, she just decided that she loves learning, but the system per se is not for her.’

Most impressive of all is the way this distinctly modern family seems to genuinely enjoy living in a way that some may consider rather old-fashioned. But Emma, a long-time campaigner and advocate of women’s rights, is no traditionalist. ‘I’m the main breadwinner,’ she says. ‘But in a marriage like ours, there has to be constant role negotiation. It can’t just be that the person who earns the money does what they want to do. You have to learn respect, and you must have that for the other person’s needs and desires.’

In recent years, everything Emma has touched seems to have turned to gold. She’s won two Oscars, three BAFTAs, two Golden Globes and an Emmy. Her portrayal of PL Travers in Saving Mr Banks (which tells the story of the making of Mary Poppins) was considered by many to be her best performance in years. Even smaller roles, such as her laugh-a-line doctor in Bridget Jones’s Baby (she also co-wrote the screenplay), are pulled off with great aplomb.

Emma has two films due for release in March. There’s Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Alone in Berlin, based on the true story of Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Elise (called Anna in the film), a working class German couple who protested anonymously against Hitler after their son died. Emma’s portrayal of the grief-stricken mother led one critic to note that she is particularly adept at portraying ‘suffering borne with poignant dignity’.

In real life, however, Emma doesn’t ‘do’ silent suffering, especially when she sees what she believes to be injustice. Whether she’s protesting about overfishing and sea pollution, of drilling for oil in the Arctic or the African AIDS epidemic, she always speaks her mind. And when it comes to talking about the people she loves, she is just as forthright.

‘Family is the centre of everything for me,’ she says. ‘But family is about connection, not necessarily about blood ties. It’s about extended family – and extending family.’

In 2003, Emma and Greg extended their family to include Tindyebwa (Tindy) Agaba, a former child soldier from Rwanda, who they informally adopted, after meeting at a party for refugees. ‘It felt like a natural thing; it’s not that I felt sorry for him – pity is one thing no one needs,’ Emma says. ‘It just sort of crystallised.’ Tindy himself, now a human rights activist, is a credit to them all and proof, perhaps, of the power of family itself.

‘Sometimes being friends is not enough,’ Emma says. ‘You need family.’