Thursday, October 2, 2008

Acting in English and French

The Trib on Kristin Scott Thomas' parallel acting careers in English and French:

In France, where she began acting and where she has lived for the last 28 years, Kristin Scott Thomas is known as "la plus Anglaise des Parisiennes ou la plus Parisienne des Anglaises": the most English of the Parisians or the most Parisian of the English. She has said of herself that she is a Frenchwoman who happened to spend her childhood in England. In person, though, she sometimes seems less a citizen of either place than a refugee from an almost vanished show-business past. Now 48, she has the big, heavy-lidded eyes, the regal cheekbones, the Garbo-like self-possession of an old-fashioned star: so glamorous and mysterious that you wouldn't in the least mind sitting out a sandstorm with her, the way Ralph Fiennes did in "The English Patient."
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"So far there hasn't been much crossover between the French-language career and the English one, but maybe it will happen this time," Scott Thomas said recently, sipping a cappuccino at a coffee shop in Chelsea. On her finger was an enormous chunk of rhinestone, one of Madame Arkadina's baubles left over from a preview performance the night before. "People will now go to films with subtitles, you know," she added. "They're not afraid of them. It's one of the upsides of text-messaging and e-mail." She smiled. "Maybe the only good thing to come of it."

Some critics have suggested that Scott Thomas is virtually two different actresses, and that she's warmer in French, a theory she dismisses. "I suppose it's a bit more difficult in French," she said. "Sometimes I get nervous about pronunciation, or I used to. I think maybe I've conquered that now. The main difference is just that I get different roles in France. They don't make films about the 1930s in country houses there.

"When I speak English, I've been told, I have this patrician way of speaking that's very irritating. It's the whole class thing. But the French they have no inkling. Another thing is that your first success tends to mark you. In England the first time I was ever on screen I was playing an Evelyn Waugh character in 'A Handful of Dust,' and people loved it. But that sort of thing just grows, and people want to see you reproduce your own work. In France, thank goodness, they don't really get that."
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And it's true that, in the American imagination anyway, she lingers as an alluring, slightly frosty aristocrat. She's Fiona, Hugh Grant's jaded, sardonic pal in "Four Weddings and a Funeral"; she's the glittering Katharine Clifton, Ralph Fiennes's love in "The English Patient"; and she's Lady Sylvia, the bored, predatory hostess in "Gosford Park," with her cigarette holder, marcelled hair and appetite for young houseboys. In everyday life she's reserved but much less grand. It's as if she had turned down the wattage so as not to appear rude.
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When she was 5, her father, a pilot in the Royal Navy, died in a crash and so, a few years later, did her stepfather. So she grew up in a single-parent family, one of five children in a household that she recalls as frequently "squabbling" and dependent on the kindness of friends and relatives for things like school fees. Nor did family connections further her career. She attended Cheltenham Ladies' College, a secondary school for the brainy and well-bred, but never went to college.

She applied to the National Youth Theater of England and was rejected. She then enrolled in a teacher-training course at a London drama school, and when she tried to switch over to the acting program was rejected again. "They told me I had no talent, and that if I wanted to play Lady Macbeth, I'd have to join my local amateur dramatic society," she said.

She moved to Paris, became an au pair and while there was encouraged to enroll in the École Nationale Supérieur des Arts et Techniques du Théâtre, where she caught the eye of Marcel Bozonnet, a distinguished French actor who later became the head of the Comédie-Française. "He was a proper teacher," Scott Thomas said. "He was just a grown-up, very smart devourer of all things cultural, and I said to myself: 'Yes, yes, I want to be like him! I don't want to do kitchen-sink dramas, I don't want to be on telly, I want to do what he does.' "
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Scott Thomas, who is separated from her husband, a French physician, has three children, 20, 17 and 8, and they partly explain her odd bilingual career. After earning an Academy Award nomination for "The English Patient," she could have written her own ticket in Hollywood. But she starred in just two more big-budget movies — "The Horse Whisperer," with Robert Redford, in which she was a Tina Brownish editor, and "Random Hearts," with Harrison Ford, in which her American accent showed a few chinks — and then went back to Paris. She wanted another child, she said, and wanted to raise her family in France.

"My experience with these big, grown-up pictures is that they just keep you away from your family for too long," she said. So she told her agent she wanted a year off and would just see what happened after that.

What happened was that in 2000 she got a call from a French touring company asking her to play the title role in Racine's "Bérénice," probably the most demanding role in classical French theater and not a part casually handed out to nonnative speakers. But Scott Thomas, who except for student productions had never been onstage before, was a hit, despite a few sniffs over her pronunciation. The French actor and director Lambert Wilson said, "We are witnessing the birth of a great tragedienne."

The full article here.