Kristin Scott Thomas, Coming Into Her Own

Kristin Scott Thomas has had a varied career.
Kristin Scott Thomas has had a varied career. (By Lucas Oleniuk For The Washington Post)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008


You recognize it as soon as she walks into the room: a woman, late 40s, thin, stylish, her un-plasticized face aglow. Having long since passed proving herself, she radiates a secret kind of joy, propelled by a benevolent second wind. This is what a woman looks like when she's comfortable in her own skin, at once in charge and in bloom.

This is Kristin Scott Thomas.

Or at least that's the persona she conveyed within moments of meeting her at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where she'd come to help promote the movie "I've Loved You So Long," written and directed by Philippe Claudel. The film, which opens Friday, emerged early on as a festival favorite, and by the time she plunged into the scrum of press and red-carpet promenades, the Oscar drumbeat was well underway.

There's no doubt that Scott Thomas, 48, seems finally to have found a role perfectly suited to talents that in recent years looked destined to be squandered on toothsome but too-brief supporting parts. Just days after Toronto, she made her triumphant Broadway debut in Ian Rickson's production of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull." New York critics used words such as "glorious" and "perfect" to praise her portrayal of the vain actress Arkadina (a performance that already earned Scott Thomas raves -- and an Olivier Award -- in London).

And she has contentedly plunged into life as a singleton, having ended her 18-year marriage to a Paris physician three years ago. (She has three children, aged 20, 17 and 8.) So often typecast as the stereotypical Englishwoman at her most brittle and humorless, Scott Thomas seems, above all else, happy.

"I love where I am right now," she said in Toronto, settling into a restaurant banquette, the sun at her back. Dressed in a sheer blouse and skinny jeans, with coral-colored toenails peeking out from rope-soled wedge sandals, she was the picture of effortless chic. Her smile came easily and often, her mouth and eyes crinkling into what on other women would be wrinkles but on her are just the facial equivalent of a few grace notes. In a later phone conversation, she elaborated: "I'm independent. I'm able to do the things that I choose to do, because I've crossed that barrier where I don't feel the fear of never working again. I've become more confident as an actress. And thanks to Philippe, who gave me this role in this film and cast me against type, really, he has opened doors for me in all sorts of places."

So un-typecast is Scott Thomas in "I've Loved You So Long" that some audiences haven't recognized her at first. As the film opens, she appears in close-up, her face a tight, expressionless mask, devoid of the barest traces of warmth. It's a shock to see Scott Thomas -- so often cast because of her soft, delicate beauty -- looking so utterly blank and desiccated. (It turns out that her character, Juliette, has been in prison for several years and is reuniting with her little sister, played by Elsa Zylberstein, who is virtually unknown to her. As "I've Loved You So Long" unfolds, the sisters' relationship deepens, Juliette warily makes her way back into society, and the mystery of her crime is revealed.)

When Claudel told her she wouldn't be wearing any makeup for her role, Scott Thomas recalled, "I said, 'Great, I'll do it!' It's very exciting to do something where no artifice is required. The only artifice is going to be your pretending to be that person. You're not going to have any other physical props, nothing to make you more attractive. Because attractive isn't the issue here."

And for Scott Thomas, "attractive" has been the issue for most of her career. She made her feature film debut as a topless socialite in the Prince vehicle (and bomb) "Under the Cherry Moon." But it took nearly 10 years for her to become famous, first in the 1994 romantic comedy "Four Weddings and a Funeral," then in the 1996 World War II epic "The English Patient," for which she received an Oscar nomination. It was Scott Thomas's luminous portrayal of "The English Patient's" doomed adulteress, Katharine Clifton, a performance redolent of the ripe, slightly tragic glamour of Ingrid Bergman, that set her up as a go-to actress for romantic roles calling for a classically beautiful leading lady. Roles like Annie MacLean in "The Horse Whisperer," which Scott Thomas jumped at as a chance to work with her co-star and director, Robert Redford.

"I learned so much from Redford," she recalled. "He taught me how to be more generous with my character, to show a generosity of spirit. And to show the nice sides of the character as well as the grim side, because I'd always kind of gone for mean. I'd always tried to find the fault lines. He showed me you can make someone attractive and appealing, and it doesn't [suggest] you are in denial about anything in that character. He taught me how to be that attractive and appealing person."

By this time, the offers were flowing from Hollywood, but Scott Thomas resisted the pressure to move to Los Angeles. With a busy practice in Paris, her husband was "unmovable," she had two young children "and I wanted to raise them in Europe." By the time she made "Random Hearts" with Harrison Ford, released in 1999, "I'd spent longer in America than I had at home, which felt completely insane. So I went home."

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