English rose at home in Paris
Kristin Scott Thomas has adopted French nationality, and France has adopted her
DESPITE the enormous difference in size between the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel, Britons are more used to watching their homegrown stars receive Oscars than French Césars.
But Kristin Scott Thomas is as likely to be nominated and attend award ceremonies in Paris, as the Baftas in London or the Golden Globes or Oscars in Los Angeles.
Stereotyped into the role of the haughty, upperclass British women, Scott Thomas has used her French connections to expand her career and acting horizons in French cinema and theatre.
This month she is nominated in the Césars' best actress category for her role in Elle s'appelait Sarah (making a hat-trick of nominations, after 2009's Il y a longtemps que je t'aime and 2010's Partir), a performance that has already won her a Globe de Cristal.
The story follows an American journalist, married to a Frenchman, investigating the Vel'd'Hiv, the round-up and deportation in 1942 of about 13,000 Jews in Paris. The film switches between the modern-day Scott Thomas and 1942.
She says she is more aware of the Holocaust and the events in France than is her character, having spent 18 years married to a French, Jewish gynaecologist, François Olivennes.
Her competitors for the César include Isabelle Carré, Catherine Deneuve, Sara Forestier and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Now 50, the actress said crossing the Channel helped her career, not only allowing her to break out of her upper-class mould, but, as years passed, by offering more opportunities for female characters aged 40 and over.
"The film-makers here just love women who have been around a bit longer; they make those wrinkles look beautiful. In English or American films, they just want you to be old and shut up," she told the New York Daily News.
February saw the release of Contre Toi, in which she plays a hostage whose kidnapper gradually falls in love with her. Later this year she will appear in Bel Ami, an English-language film starring Robert Pattinson and Uma Thurman. While the UK adopts the slightly pejorative term "cougar" to describe older women in relationships, French cinema and culture appears a lot more relaxed about the idea. In Contre Toi, her kidnapper is 26.
There is a real-life echo after the actress struck up a year-long relationship with Tobias Menzies, an actor 14 years her junior, whom she met while performing Three Sisters.While the papers in Paris kept quiet, those in the UK were less inclined to silence.
"The roles I am offered in France are more interesting than those in English. Here I'm offered adventures, more difficult journeys, but more interesting," she told L'Express (for example, a lesbian in Ne le dis à personne, or an exconvict in Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, compared to the number of times she has played an English aristocrat).
She holds both French and British nationality and her acting qualifications are French. While the teachers at Central School of Speech and Drama in London told her she would never be any good, over in Paris she graduated from the École nationale supérieure des arts et techniques du theatre. At 19, she secured her first role, starring opposite the popstar Prince, as a French heiress in Under The Cherry Moon.
Since then she has hopped from France to the UK to the USA, and finds herself in a good position to make comparisons. For a start, US filmmakers rarely ask you to take your clothes off, whereas in France it is almost de rigueur. Actors in a America movie reveal nothing of themselves when at work, she says, as opposed to those in Europe who are less inclined to bring such blank, office-like, professionalism on to film sets.
Her appearance in a French film can often be a coup for the producers, as it is far more likely to be screened outside France. However, the arrival of her English films in France bring her up against one of her few gripes against French cinema: dubbing.
"Dubbing is nearly always botched. I see actors arriving in the studio without knowing anything about the script. It's not their fault; they have to work at such a fast pace," she told a French magazine, adding that, where she could, she dubbed her own parts in French.
Despite her quintessentially English upbringing at Cheltenham Ladies' College and Saint Antony's Leweston School for Girls, France is her home. She still lives in Paris, despite the break-up of her marriage in 2005, and raises her three children, Hannah, Joseph and George.
The French press has readily adopted her. L'Express, while referring to her "quasi-subliminal" accent and British elegance, describes her as a true Parisienne. For Le Figaro, her délicieux accent anglais complements her style, looks and on-screen performance. For Elle in France, she is quite simply "La plus frenchie des actrices britanniques".
Her medals cupboard demonstrates a foot in both camps: she has an OBE and is a chevalier of the légion d'honneur. Interviewers in Paris note her continental tastes, such as black coffee and raw or undercooked meat dishes. She even has her tips for surviving the capital's traffic, telling The Times: "The trick is not to look at who's coming at you and just keep on going."
The Franco-Anglaise has hosted the Cannes Film Festival twice, in 1999 and in 2010. While the French press musters around the word élégante, the Daily Mail compared photographs of Scott Thomas from her role in the English Patient in 1996 and as host in 2010 and concluded, horrified, that, over 14 years, she had aged.
Given her positive press reception in France, compared with the UK's, which, while not bad, usually includes the words "frosty" or "cold" (she does admit to the occasional actress "strop"), it is not surprising she chose Paris for her first stage performance.
After decades in the cinema, in 2002 she took on the title role in Racine's Bérénice, performing entirely in French and winning appreciative reviews.
She once revealed that she like to do things that scare her, so perhaps this career change was a daredevil manoeuvre, rather than a retreat into a comfort zone.
The actress learnt as a child to be wary of high expectations. Her father, a Royal Navy pilot, was killed in an aircrash when she was five and, after her mother re-married, her step-father died in similar circumstances six years later. She grew up in Dorset and her family has links to the ill-fated Polar explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott.
Her theatre career has blossomed and in 2008 she won best actress at the Olivier Awards, proving that, while France has drawn her proudly into her bosom, the British establishment is not willing to let go either.
1960 - Born in Redruth, Cornwall
1964 - Father killed in aircrash
1970 - Step father killed in aircrash
1986 - Graduates from École nationale supérieure des arts et techniques du théâtre. Stars in first English film as a French heiress.
1994 - Shoots to fame with success of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Nominated for Bafta and Oscar.
1996 - Stars in The English Patient
1999 - Hosts Cannes Film Festival
2001 - Gosford Park
2005 - Divorces François Olivennes
2008 - Wins Olivier Award