Kristin Scott Thomas was on her way to a meeting about playing the Queen on stage when she got a text message from her agent telling her that Buckingham Palace had been in touch.
They wanted to know if she would accept a damehood. “I thought it was a joke,” says the perfectly poised actress. “My agent knew I’d just left this very grand lunch and was going to meet Stephen Daldry, the director, to talk about playing the ultimate grandee in The Audience, so I thought she was just pulling my leg. I didn’t bother to reply.”
Needless to say she accepted without hesitation once the offer was proven to be genuine.
This week the actress is being given time off from rehearsals to go to Buckingham Palace and kneel before the very woman she is impersonating on stage. Matthew Byam Shaw, the producer of The Audience, jokes about it being useful research.
“There are very few actresses in the world that can play Elizabeth II because the audience has to be able to accept her,” he says. “Kristin Scott Thomas is one of them. She has the poise, the strength and the stature to do it.”
There is something naturally regal, even haughty, about Scott Thomas. Someone who once worked with her told me she’s “quite grand like one of those Hollywood stars of the 1940s, who walks around in dark glasses and designer coats”.
I carry this image in my head as I go to meet her in a London hotel that reeks of old-fashioned glamour. She’s curled up on a sofa, wrapped in a long, dark, elegant coat. I’m not sure if she’s cold or the coat is a notional safety blanket. I suspect the latter.
When I ask Scott Thomas about playing the Queen, she admits to feeling very scared “because of Helen, she has so much more experience of playing her than I do”. She’s referring to Helen Mirren, who starred in The Audience when it first opened in London in 2013 and is now taking it to Broadway. It’s a hard act to follow.
But the reason we are meeting is to discuss Scott Thomas’s latest film role. Suite Française is a British adaptation of a French novel set in 1940 during the German invasion of France.
Its Jewish author, Irene Nemirovsky, was a popular novelist and Catholic convert, but died at Auschwitz in 1942. Her daughter discovered the manuscript over 50 years later in a suitcase. It was finally published in 2004 and became an international bestseller.
With her hair pinned up and a slash of red lipstick across her pale, pinched face, Scott Thomas plays Madame Angellier, a wealthy, embittered widow in a small town in occupied France. But when I describe her as a bit of a bitch, Scott Thomas leaps to her defence.
“I think that’s wrong. Madame Angellier is in agony not knowing if her only son is dead or alive. She is also very conscious of her status in the town and is trying to maintain her dignity. I met women like her when I first moved to Paris in the 1970s. Bourgeois women, always impeccably dressed in navy blue but cold and tough.”
As she says this, I almost wonder if she’s describing herself. She did, after all, live in France from the age of 19. I put it to her that she comes over as quite aloof.