Emma Thompson talks ageism, future projects – and why women are treated worse in acting today than ever before

The actress plays a 77-year-old hooker in The Legend of Barney Thomson - but she's only 56...

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Most actresses spend their lives trying to look and play younger than they really are. But Emma Thompson has always been a bit different. In her latest film, she plays a 77-year-old prostitute.

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“It is a bit ageist,” concedes Thompson who turned 56 this year. “It would be really nice to get someone who is actually 77 to play her, but it’s a wildly comic role and I couldn’t resist.”

There is an outsider quality to Thompson, whose four-decade career has brought her success on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s something she shares with her director/ co-star in The Legend of Barney Thomson, Robert Carlyle.

“Outsiders tend to remain capable of independent thought. Let’s face it, that is not true of everyone, especially when you are surrounded by a press that is predominantly deeply reactionary and homogenised. And when you are surrounded by a magazine culture that really beggars belief in its vacuity, and the pernicious nature of what people think is acceptable. Our questioning natures really do have to work very hard at the moment to get above the thick layer of sticky, oily old ideas and ways of being that are peddled daily.”

The actress, who has never been shy of voicing her opinion, is planning on taking her 15-year-old daughter Gaia to this summer’s Edinburgh festival for the first time to watch a couple of her mates, Lily Bevan and Jessica Butcher, who are both performing one-woman shows. “It means a lot to me because that is what I did and I want my daughter to have a look at that and say, ‘Oh, that’s one way of expressing what you need to express.’

“I think she looks around at the prevailing culture and thinks, ‘None of that really applies to me and I don’t get it’ — the magazines, the ‘figure’ culture and the handbags, it’s just absolutely meaningless. So I can’t wait for her to see these women writer/performers. “When I was younger I really did think we were on our way to a better world and when I look at it now, it is in a worse state than I have known it, particularly for women and I find that very disturbing and sad.

“So I get behind as many young female performers as I can and actually a lot of the conversations I have with them are about exactly the fact that we are facing and writing about the same things and nothing has changed, and that some forms of sexism and unpleasantness to women have become more entrenched and indeed more prevalent.”

Despite acknowledging that her role in The Legend of Barney Thomson (in cinemas from today, Friday 24 July) may have deprived an older actress of a job, she bemoans the ageism and the dearth of opportunities for women in her industry. “I think it’s still completely s***, actually,” she says of the status quo. 

“I don’t think there’s any appreciable improvement and I think that for women, the question of how they are supposed to look is worse than it was even when I was young. So, no, I am not impressed, at all,” she says.

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That doesn’t mean that she wouldn’t want her daughter following in her footsteps. “I have no idea if that is what she will want to do,” says Thompson, who is the offspring of actor parents. “But if she does, she absolutely has my blessing. It’s a case of ‘whatever makes you happy’. ”