This seating simply won’t do.
Kristin Scott Thomas, the Oscar-nominated actress, has just plunged into an oversized chair that threatens to completely envelop her slight, 5 foot 6 frame. With a slightly imperious air, she insists we relocate to a sectional couch a few steps away to talk about why she left Hollywood, her on-and-off love affair with the movie business, and “The Darkest Hour,” the film that’s brought her back into the spotlight.
“The Darkest Hour,” the story of the war cabinet crisis that threatened Winston Churchill’s prime ministry in the early days of World War II, is Gary Oldman’s show. He’s already considered to be the favorite to bag a best actor Oscar, but Scott Thomas should not be overlooked. In a few key scenes she etches a fully lived in portrait of Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife and emotional ballast during those troubled times.
“It was a partnership,” says Scott Thomas, looking chic in a white button down shirt and glasses. “I really don’t like that cliché behind every man is a woman or whatever it is, because it’s diminishing in some way. But he couldn’t have done it without her.”
As the film makes clear, Clementine kept Winston in line, telling him when he was being boorish, preaching the virtues of fiscal restraint to her free-spending husband, and rousing his spirits when he threatened to plunge into what Winston called the “black dog” of depression. To capture Clementine on film, Scott Thomas talked to one of her surviving secretaries and her grandchildren. She also pored over the couple’s voluminous correspondence (they would write to each other every day, even when they were in the same house).
“I just wish someone would make a film about her,” Scott Thomas says with a laugh. “She had this incredible elegance and she was very sort of nervy and sharp. A lot of people were terrified of her and didn’t like her. She knew that and would play with that a bit. But people who loved her, loved her absolutely.”
Director Joe Wright has been careful to provide Scott Thomas with a few key moments to fill in Clementine’s backstory and illustrate her steely character. In one sequence, she poses in Red Cross garb for the camera, clearly aware of the image of English resolve that she must project, but slightly uncomfortable as the center of attention. In another, she toasts her husband on his rise to 10 Downing Street, while using her remarks to remind him of the sacrifices those around him have made to put him in position to lead.
Scott Thomas says Oldman, who, thanks to extensive makeup and his chameleonic talents, is utterly transformed into the doughy, slightly stooped Sir Winston, was a wonderful scene partner. When she took the stage this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “The Darkest Hour” screened, she was struck by how different he looked.
“I long to work with him again,” she says. “He’s the most amazing, generous actor. For a start, you don’t really know you’re working with Gary Oldman. It was Winston Churchill opposite me.”
Her experience on “The Darkest Hour” along with her work on Sally Potter’s “The Party” has partly restored Scott Thomas’ taste for screen work. A few years ago, she says she had grown tired of working on camera, preferring to devote herself to a series of acclaimed stage performances in works by Sophocles or Harold Pinter.
“I just got fed up with filming,” she says. “It’s taken Sally Potter and Joe Wright to give me the taste again. I’m actively looking for the things that I want to do.”
It’s not the first time Scott Thomas has turned her back on a big screen career. Following her Academy Award nominated turn in 1996’s “The English Patient,” Scott Thomas found herself in demand. She scored a series of coveted roles opposite Robert Redford in “The Horse Whisperer” and Harrison Ford in “Random Hearts.” But as the ’90s ended she turned her back on Hollywood, preferring to make a life for herself raising her three children in Europe with her now ex-husband François Olivennes, a French gynecologist.
“When I was a younger actress, when I had this sort of golden opportunity to pick up a Hollywood career, it wasn’t appropriate for my life at the time,” she says. “I had children, I was living in Europe and a husband that was unmovable. He was working in a hospital and you can’t move the hospital. That was a life choice.”
On stage Scott Thomas commands top billing, but on screen she is usually offered supporting roles. That can lead to some frustrations.
“Nowadays I tend to take a backseat in film and play small characters that don’t have so much screen time, which means you have less opportunity to kind of develop things,” she says. “You have to be much more precise and much more efficient.”
In the case of “The Darkest Hour” that meant that much of what she knew of Clementine, from her challenging marriage to her charity work, never made it into the finished project.
“I remember feeling at the end of shooting this film, I had so much more information,” she says. “I got quite frustrated about all this stuff I still wanted to do. On stage I’d have been able to do it.”