For Emma Thompson, love means having to say you’re sorry. Quite a bit, as it happens.
She frequently apologizes to daughter Gaia, 10, for missteps in motherhood.
“I always say to Gaia, ‘I got that wrong. I’m very sorry. That was badly judged, but next time, I’ll do it this way.’ The point about great parenting is that you know if you get it wrong, you can try again and get it right,” says Thompson.
Her friend and colleague Maggie Gyllenhaal, mother of 3-year-old Ramona, approves of Thompson’s tactics. “That’s great. It’s defensiveness that kills you, with every relationship,” she says.
Thompson is a riot, an opinionated, candid woman full of witty asides and killer zingers. Gyllenhaal is softer-spoken and more reserved, but just as spirited. Together, they are disarmingly outspoken and honest about the rewards and travails of raising kids. Thompson groans playfully, hanging her head in mock exhaustion. “God, it’s terrible being a parent!”
Try being a single mom during wartime, with no money, three unruly kids and a farm to run. In Nanny McPhee Returns, opening Friday, Thompson plays Nanny McPhee, the mythically wise and tough caretaker who helps Mrs. Green (Gyllenhaal) deal with her lovingly rowdy offspring and the uptight niece and nephew who come stay with her. Did Thompson, who wrote the screenplay, craft it with Gyllenhaal in mind?
“Say yes!” orders a laughing Gyllenhaal, 32.
Well, sort of, explains Thompson, 51.
“Absolutely. I was in the process of writing it, and then I met Maggie, who was a new mum and, at that time, slightly kind of …” Thompson stops talking to tear her fingers through her hair and demonstrate what “frazzled” looks like. “When you’re just trying to survive. A lot of that is absolutely Mrs. Green.”
The typically blunt Thompson shared her observation with Gyllenhaal when she had the younger woman over for Sunday lunch at her London home. “You gave me the script at the lunch and said, ‘Mrs. Green should look exactly how you look right now,’ ” Gyllenhaal says, chortling. “I must have made some effort to be presentable!”
Their connection is obvious. Gyllenhaal and Thompson are most animated when discussing motherhood. Gyllenhaal and her husband, actor Peter Sarsgaard, and Ramona, are based in Brooklyn. Thompson and her actor husband, Greg Wise, and Gaia are based in London and Scotland, along with their Rwandan son, Tindyebwa Agaba, now 23, who came to live with the couple in 2003.
Thompson takes a minute to compliment Gyllenhaal’s parenting style, as witnessed during the Nanny shoot. “You kept saying to (Ramona) in various subtle, kindly loving ways that she didn’t have to perform for people. She didn’t have to smile. I thought that was genius,” she tells a smiling Gyllenhaal. “She’s getting a first-rate emotional education, and that’s the most important education of all.”
Says Gyllenhaal: “I’m kind of most interested in that.”
Concludes Thompson with finality: “You’re really good at that. I watched that carefully.”
The two are vivacious and droll together. And their relationship is genuine, says Nanny director Susanna White.
“They’re very close. Emma has huge affection for Maggie and admires her as an actress and really sees her as a friend. Maggie would look to Emma for advice on life-work balance, because Emma has spent time trying to work that out, and Maggie would listen to her,” says White.
“Emma is so frank and clever. She says what she thinks, and everything that comes out is wise and clever and funny. She’s very confident and knows exactly who she is. And Maggie is just so warm. She was really like a mother with those kids. She spent a lot of time playing games and snuggling with them.”
In an interview earlier this year, Gyllenhaal told USA TODAY that she wanted to be Thompson when she grew up. The comment now elicits giggles from the two women, as they sip proper English tea on an early, overcast Monday morning.
“Now, Maggie is actually quite resentful of me,” Thompson says with a chuckle.
Gyllenhaal leans back in her seat and admits jokingly that “I’d rather not be Emma.”
And Thompson responds with a laugh. “She’s so fed up with it.”
The two first got to know each other while shooting the 2006 dramedyStranger Than Fiction in Chicago. Thompson and Gyllenhaal didn’t have any scenes together, but their work overlapped by a few days, so they had drinks one evening.
Next, they reconnected on Thompson’s home turf in England, when Sarsgaard was shooting the Oscar-nominated 2009 drama An Education in London.
Thompson had a cameo in the film, so she invited Sarsgaard, Gyllenhaal and Ramona, then just a little older than 1, to her home for the aforementioned lunch where, recalls Thompson, they “played silly games and ate.”
As a mother, Gyllenhaal saw plenty to love in the character of Mrs. Green, particularly in her unaffected, honest way of dealing with her reality.
“Mrs. Green is totally at wits’ end and foundering and flailing and failing sometimes, but she’s still a heroine and still a great mom. To be both things at once is such a contemporary idea,” she says.
Thompson is of the same mind-set. “It’s a really good point. Mrs. Green hears her children.”
During the nearly four-month Nanny McPhee shoot in both London and the English countryside, Thompson, who produced the movie, kept thanking Sarsgaard, says his wife.
“Thank you for coming, thank you for letting us have her and taking care of Ramona. It’s hard to be away for a long time, especially with a child,” recalls an appreciative Gyllenhaal. “Emma was so aware of that.”
Thompson, who has been married to Wise for seven years, gets it.
“It’s just being aware. So often, the person left behind doing the looking-after is taken for granted. Greg and I do the same thing, so we really understood,” she says.
Granted, both women live privileged, well-remunerated lives. But beneath any red-carpet glitz, they deal with the same issues as other professional moms: how to have a satisfying work-life balance.
To take more control of her career, Gyllenhaal is going behind the scenes — she optioned the book Mating by Norman Rush, and her mother, Naomi Foner, is writing the script.
Gyllenhaal says it’s tough to turn down tempting projects that conflict with motherhood. She and Sarsgaard try to take turns on movie sets, “which is all well and good, but if you’re not Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, you can’t just say, ‘I’ll go do that but only starting Aug. 14 and only in New York City,’ ” she says. “You do have to sacrifice sometimes.”
Thompson nods. “Absolutely. And when people say you can have it all, it’s bollocks. You won’t lie on your deathbed thinking, ‘Gee, I wish I’d made more movies.’ You’re just going to be thinking, ‘What a nice time we had when we spent that time in the summer together.’ Those are the memories,” says Thompson. “Making movies is lovely. But I’m aware of what position it has to take in life.”
“Yes,” sighs Gyllenhaal, who earned her first supporting-actress Oscar nomination for playing a newbie journalist in last year’s Crazy Heart.
It’s all a balance, sums up Thompson crisply. “It’s like literally saying, ‘There’s a lovely job, and oh God, I’d love to do it and it would make me so happy as an artist, as an actor. But I can’t.’ And then you just put it away, and that’s it. You forget about it,” she says.
Thompson won a best-actress Oscar for 1992′s Howard’s End and a screenwriting Academy Award for 1995′s Sense and Sensibility. She’s currently drafting the screenplay for the remake of the classic musical My Fair Lady. Plus, she’s involved in the global anti-poverty group ActionAid.
“When I found that I couldn’t have any more kids — I couldn’t keep on doing IVF because I was too old, and it’s a brutal process, as anyone who has done it knows — I thought, ‘Well, if I could do something useful, that would make me feel better.’ So I decided to go to Africa to do the first trip with ActionAid,” she says.
Her first visit, recalls Thompson ruefully, coincided with her daughter, then nearly 4, starting school. “It nearly killed me. I stayed and started her off, but I went away three weeks into her term, which was too soon,” says Thompson. “I should have been there.”
Gyllenhaal interjects that she just turned down a movie that would have cut into her daughter’s first day in the classroom.
Thompson nods her assent. “That’s a good decision. (Everyone says) children are so adaptable. Yeah, but at what cost?”
Timing, both women agree, is everything in life. For Gyllenhaal, “it’s about thoughtfulness.”
“It’s true with friendships and everything,” agrees Thompson. “You can have a proper discussion without the heat. It’s true with parenting, as well. Shouting … doesn’t work.”
Not even for sharp-tongued Nanny McPhee.