• Golden Globe Awards

Out of the Archives, 1998: Emma Thompson on “Primary Colors”

Emma Thompson, two times Golden Globe winner out of ten nominations, spoke to the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press in 1998 about Primary Colors directed by Mike Nichols, where she played a political wife modeled after Hillary Clinton opposite John Travolta as Bill Clinton. The film is about the 1992 Presidential campaign, but the actress also addressed the 1998 impeachment trial that was explored in the 2021 series Impeachment: American Crime Story. Thompson played a recently widowed woman in the sex comedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022).
The British actress revealed that she did not use Hilary Clinton as a model for her character in Primary Colors, she consulted the 1996 book by Joe Klein, Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics, and the screenplay by Elaine May: “I actually tried to keep away from that, it was an artistic choice that I made. It was more interesting to me to imagine this other person, so you could look at any kind of political wife. I mean, Cherie Blair, Tony Blair’s wife, is probably closer to this Susan Stanton than Hillary Clinton is, because she’s a lawyer and a very independent, free-standing piece of furniture. I haven’t seen Hillary Clinton much on television because I don’t live in America, I live in London, so I thought, ‘Let the chips fall where they may. I will take my character from the book and from the screenplay, that’s where I’m going to work from,’ and that’s what I did.”
She praised her costar John Travolta for his sense of humor and his insightful interpretation of Jack Stanton: “The surprising thing about John is the fact that he appears to have retained a kind of innocence, because he’s been very famous for a very long time and it doesn’t seem to have damaged him, which is quite unusual. He’s a lovely man to work with and very funny, it was surprising to me how witty he is. I would describe his portrayal of Bill Clinton as unvarnished yet sympathetic, because sometimes, when you look at that character, you think, ‘What a pig.’ I mean, literally, not just his behavior but his physical quality was wonderfully louche sometimes; then there are moments when his absolute compassion for people takes your breath away and you think, ‘Please, let him be President. Now.’ So John was curiously a wonderful choice for this role and you don’t know that until it happens, because all the best casting happens accidentally.”
Emma Thompson did not understand why people criticized Hilary for standing by her husband, despite his infidelities, during the 1998 Impeachment trial: “I am absolutely astonished at the number of men, only men, who are puzzled by a woman who stays with an unfaithful man. Hello, everybody, this has been going on forever, so I’m puzzled that people find that odd. Marriage as an institution was not invented in order to keep men faithful, but to keep women within the bonds of patriarchy. We know that men, generally speaking, are not faithful, in fact, statistically, they’re far more likely to be unfaithful than not. So it is not surprising but very common that women stay with unfaithful men.”
She thought there were other reasons to explain why Hillary supported the President and his politics: “The other more important issue with regard to these two people is the fact that she stays with him because she’s completely committed to his best side, and she knows that one side doesn’t come without the other. It’s the same quality of compassion and empathy that he puts into practice in his politics and his actions towards his constituents and other human beings. That’s what holds her true and steadfast and creates a very specific bond of trust between them, so his sexuality is outside the loop. And it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have the power to wound her, it clearly does, but it’s not the issue. I felt inspired by Hillary, because she’s got such a wonderful mind and I love the fact that it’s so contradictory that she has this intelligence, but she’s also vulnerable to all sorts of very ordinary wounds. She’s a curious combination of powerful and vulnerable, and I like that very much, I find it very true to life.”
As a British citizen, in those times before #Me Too, Thompson was appalled that in the United States a President could be publicly tried for consensual sex acts with a young woman who worked in his office: “When this first came out about the Clintons, I thought it was most odd that it should be allowed, it actually seemed to me to be immoral, a scandalous waste of public funds and a form of entrapment, as far as I could see.  I think it’s pretty revolting and most unedifying, and I’m encouraged by the fact that the American public seems to think so too.”
Emma Thompson learned a lot about American politics while researching the film and rehearsing the scenes with director Mike Nichols: “We did rehearse quite a bit, the whole film, we sat down for the first two days and had some of the most memorable discussions I’ve ever had in a rehearsal room or anywhere else about politics and life and people and power. It was absolutely fascinating because Mike’s got a brain the size of whales and he’s endlessly interesting anytime he opens his mouth on any subject. So that was a great treat, and I am much more interested in American politics now because I know more about it. I learned a great deal very quickly in order to feel informed enough to play this character.  When Mike Nichols offered me the role, I thought I could attempt this quintessentially American personality, and if it had been a different kind of person I wouldn’t have tried it, but I felt very connected to her; so I started to read about the American political process, about the inception of the government. I got some university books out and taught myself about it.”
She did not believe that the increased rate of divorce is always bad for women, even though it allows men to abandon their wives and children: “Yes, it is true, I’ve known this to happen. There are a lot of men who leave their families, and I should be lined up against the wall and shot if I were not bitter about it.  But there’s a counterpoint to that, which is that now it’s also more possible for women to leave unhappy marriages, which is very important. It’s a tricky question. I don’t have the brainpower right at this minute to examine the sociological implications of the rise in the divorce rate, because you need a few statistics at your fingertips, but off the top of my head, I would say that there is that balancing factor, which is that it’s not just the men who are leaving their families, it’s also the women, and therefore, that choice is there. It’s not great, but again marriage wasn’t invented for women, and we know that divorce is no more invented for women than marriage.  So maybe we should start thinking about what marriage means, full stop. Obviously, it’s one of the big questions that faces all of us at the end of this century.”