One of the first ladies of contemporary British stage and cinema, Emma Thompson has won equal acclaim for her work as an actress and a screenwriter. For a long time known as Kenneth Branagh's other half, Thompson was able to demonstrate her considerable talent to an international audience with Oscar-winning mid-1990s work in such films as Howards End and Sense and Sensibility.
Born April 15, 1959 in Paddington, West London, Thompson grew up in a household well-suited for creative expression. Both of her parents were actors, her father, Eric Thompson, the creator of the popular TV series The Magic Roundabout, and her actress mother, Phyllida Law, a cast member of This Poisoned Earth (1961), Otley (1968) and several other films. Thompson and her sister, Sophie (who also became an actress), enjoyed a fairly colorful upbringing; as Emma later said, "I was brought up by people who tended to giggle at funerals." She excelled at school, was well liked, and went on to enroll at Cambridge University in 1978. It was at Cambridge that Thompson started performing as part of the legendary Footlights Group, once home to various members of Monty Python, who provided a huge inspiration to the fledgling comedienne. Unfortunately, Thompson's studies and her work with fellow Footlights members Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry were interrupted when her father had a debilitating stroke. Thompson went home for a few months, where she taught him how to speak again. After her return to Cambridge, she graduated in 1980 with a degree in English, and she got her first break working for a short-lived BBC radio show.
Personal tragedy struck for Thompson in 1982 when her father died of a heart attack. Ironically, it was in the wake of this turmoil that her professional life began to move forward: she got a job touring with the popular satire Not the Nine O'Clock News and worked with co-conspirators Fry and Laurie on the popular BBC comedy sketch show Alfresco. This led to Thompson's biggest break to date when she was picked for the lead in a revised version of the musical Me and My Girl. Coincidentally featuring a script by Fry, the show proved popular and established Thompson as a respected performer. She stayed with the show for over a year, after which she got her next big break when she was cast as one of the leads in the miniseries Fortunes of War (1988). The other lead happened to be Kenneth Branagh, and the two were soon collaborating off-screen as well as on. Following Thompson's BAFTA Award for her work on the series (as well as a BAFTA for her role on the TV series Tutti Frutti), she helped Branagh form his own production company, Renaissance Films. In 1989, the same year that she starred in the nutty satire The Tall Guy (which teamed her with Black Adder stalwarts Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis and Mel Smith)
and in a televised version of Look Back in Anger with Branagh, she appeared as the French queen in Branagh's acclaimed adaptation of Henry V.
Following the success of Henry V, Thompson had a droll turn as a frivolous aristocrat in Impromptu (1990) and then collaborated with Branagh on the noirish suspense thriller Dead Again in 1991. The film proved a relative hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and it further established the now-married Branagh and Thompson as the First Darlings of contemporary British theatre. The following year, Thompson came into her own with her starring role in Merchant Ivory's Howards End. She won a number of awards, including an Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globe for her portrayal of Margaret Schlegel, and she found herself an international success almost overnight.
After a turn in the ensemble comedy Peter's Friends that same year, Thompson starred as Beatrice opposite Branagh's Benedict in his adaptation of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in 1993. That year proved an unqualified success for the actress, who was nominated for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars, the former for her portrayal of a repressed housekeeper in Merchant Ivory's The Remains of the Day and the latter for her role as Daniel Day-Lewis's lawyer in In the Name of the Father. Although she didn't win either award, Thompson continued her triumphant streak when -- after starring in Junior in 1994 -- she adapted and starred in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility in 1995. Directed by Ang Lee, the film proved popular with critics and audiences alike, and it won Thompson a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. She also earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination, a BAFTA Best Actress Award, and a Golden Globe for Best Adapted Screenplay.
1995 also proved to be a turning point in Thompson's personal life, as, after a much-publicized separation, she and Branagh divorced. Just as well publicized was Thompson's subsequent relationship with Sense and Sensibility co-star Greg Wise. The somewhat tumultuous quality of her love life mirrored that of Dora Carrington, the character she played that year in Carrington. This story of the famed Bloomsbury painter was not nearly as successful as Sense, and Thompson was not seen again on the screen until 1997, when she starred in Alan Rickman's The Winter Guest. The film -- which featured the actress and her mother, Law, playing an estranged daughter and mother -- received fairly positive reviews. The following year, Thompson continued to win praise for her work with a starring role in Primary Colors and a guest spot on the sitcom Ellen, for which she won an Emmy. In 1999, Thompson announced her plans for semi-retirement: pregnant with Wise's child, she turned down a number of roles -- including that of God in Dogma -- in order to concentrate on her family. The two married in July 2003.
In the years that followed Thompson would still remain fairly active onscreen, with roles as a frustrated wife in Love Actually (which found her BAFTA nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and a missing journalist whose husband (played by Antonio Bandaras) is looking for answers in Missing Argentina (which marked the second collaboration, after Carrington, between Thompson and director Christopher Hampton) serving to whet the appetites of longtime fans. For her role as a respected English professor who is forced to re-evaluate her life in Mike Nichols' made-for-television drama Wit (2001), the renowned veteran actress and screenwriter would earn Emmy nominations for both duties. Following an angelic turn in the HBO mini-series Angels in America, Thompson essayed a pair of magical roles in both Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Nanny McPhee - in which she potrayed a governess who utilizes supernatural powers to reign in her unruly young charges.
Thompson then joined the cast of Marc Forster's fantasy comedy Stranger than Fiction, which Columbia slated for U.S. release in November of 2006. She plays Kay Eiffel, an author of thriller and espionage novels suffering from a massive writer's block. The central character in Eiffel's book (an IRS agent played by Will Ferrell) hears Kay's audible narration and - realizing that she's planning to kill him off - tries to find a way to stop her, with the help of Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman).
She appeared opposite Dustin Hoffman in Last Chance Harvey, and in 2009 had a memorable turn as the head of the school in An Education. In 2010 she wrote and starred in the sequel Nanny McPhee Returns. In 2012 she had a hand in tow big hits, playing Agent O in the third Men In Black film, and voicing the mother in Pixar's Brave. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi