• Golden Globe Awards

Nominee Profile 2020: Emma Thompson, “Late Night”

Her big-screen credits include box office smash Junior, holiday perennial Love Actually, the Nanny McPhee movies (for which she also wrote the screenplays), as well as such under-appreciated curiosities as The Tall Guy and The Love Punch, but Emma Thompson’s comedic prowess is a lesson that seemingly needs to be rediscovered every several years.Perhaps it’s a function of the exquisitely crafted dramas which served as her introduction to many viewers – movies like Henry V, Dead Again, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day, the latter two resulting in the first two of her ten Golden Globe nominations. Perhaps it’s Thompson’s inherently self-effacing nature and propensity for sharing the spotlight rather than leaning into public attention. Or maybe it’s a function of a culture that for too long has overlooked and undervalued funny female performers, and crafting vehicles to properly showcase their talents.Regardless, Thompson’s latest film, Late Night, an acutely sketched exploration of barbed mentorship from screenwriter/co-star Mindy Kaling, thankfully reminds viewers of her unique gifts. Katherine Newbury (Thompson) is a brusque, once-legendary TV talk show host whose program is lagging in the ratings. With rumors swirling that she’s about to be replaced by a younger, hipper male host, Katherine finds herself reluctantly teaming up with a new staff writer, Molly Patel (Kaling), in an effort to not just save her job but reinvent herself and become relevant once again.If the movie seems like a hand-in-glove fit for Thompson that shouldn’t be too surprising, because the 60-year-old, award-winning multi-hyphenate actually got her start in stand-up and sketch comedy, even hosting a short-lived British variety TV series. “The shot of me doing stand-up comedy in the movie? That’s actually me, doing stand-up when I was 23,” says Thompson in a special conversation with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. “I worked in sketch comedy until I was 27, and then I started to act. So, Katherine’s genesis was very like mine, actually – I was in those comedy clubs where women found it very, very difficult to engage with a room that was largely masculine, and often a bit contemptuous. I can remember writing my own stuff, doing my own shows in Edinburgh and on television, and the shit that got thrown at me when I was young you cannot imagine.”For Thompson, though, Late Night – which she was cold-pitched via email by Kaling, who scripted it specifically for her- works so well because of the way in which it blends together the universal with the idiosyncratic. “This is in fact a comedy about the workplace, simple as that,” she notes. “But because it’s an authentic comedy, it’s about women’s actual experiences, it brings up what is called ‘issues’ by some. Except actually they’re not issues for us (women), they’re just real life.”To prepare for the role, Thompson watched an old video of Johnny Carson and David Letterman – the latter, she says, because she thought Katherine shared his mixture of intellectual snobbery and high standards. “Letterman’s staff were terrified of him, so that was quite a good key,” she shares. “And it was absolute bliss playing someone who is a bit rude, too, because I’m pathologically polite,” she adds with a laugh.Still, even though Late Night is full of jokes and inarguably propelled forward by its sense of playfulness and humor, Thompson was keen to ground it in relatable psychological motivations. A big part of what attracted her to Kaling’s script, in fact, was that it was seeded with a bit of edginess, melancholy, and even anger. “I think people who are comics and performers are often depressive, and Katherine certainly has a darkness inside her,” asserts Thompson. “I always imagined she had a very powerful father who completely refused to acknowledge her existence, and that there’s this hole she’s trying to fill. We’ve all got something like that – some trauma from our childhoods or adolescence, whether it’s with a little ’t’ or a big ‘T.’”Thompson’s nuanced performance reestablishes her yet again as a “big T.” Let’s hope more creative kindred spirits take note like Kaling – or that Thompson, who most recently penned this holiday season’s Last Christmas, leans heartily into the spotlight, and writes herself a big, front-and-center starring vehicle.