Emma Thompson has won Oscars for both writing (“Sense and Sensibility”) and acting (“Howard’s End”). She has played a character based on Hillary Clinton (“Primary Colors”), a Hogwarts faculty member in two Harry Potter films, and last year alone, Dustin Hoffman’s love interest in “Last Chance Harvey,” a stern headmistress in “An Education,” and a former hippie in “Pirate Radio.”
This week, she plays the title character in “Nanny McPhee Returns,” the sequel to the 2005 film she wrote and starred in about a nanny who has a special — you might say magical — knack with naughty children.
Nanny McPhee says that when she is not wanted but needed she must stay but when she is wanted but not needed she must go. Is it a challenge to teach children the difference between wanting and needing?
Of course but you must understand I don’t make these films to teach people lessons — that would be awful. I make films to delight them and make them laugh and have a really wonderful time and then they’ll think about stuff if that’s what they want to do. Internally, some of the stuff that goes on in those movies is that it’s very true that when need people but don’t particularly want them that’s when they have to stay and help out, but when you are desperate for them to stay but don’t need them, that is when you have to let them go. So, yes, that’s very true but the message is carried very subtly. More importantly, she’s there to say to children, “You can solve your own problems. You don’t need an adult to solve them for you.” That’s even more important.
One of the pleasures of a movie like this one is the vicarious enjoyment of being naughty like the children in the film. Were you a naughty child?
I was profoundly obedient. I was brought up in a rather austere London by a Scottish Presbyterian. You weren’t very naughty. I do remember drawing on the bathroom walls with pencil and having to rub it all off, which took hours, sobbing gently. But I wasn’t naughty.
Is it fun for you to put on a false nose and teeth and make yourself look ugly?
Yes it is good fun and a relief from that rather fascistic insistence on glamor and you’ve got to look this way and be this shape and so there’s a small rebellion in the act itself.
How does the costume help create the character?
The costume was designed in the first instance by Nick Ede, a wonderful designer. We worked very hard on how big she was going to be, whether we would trim it with jet which is how she is described in the book, what her silhouette is like, when to introduce a waist. It was great fun and the costume and make-up is everything really. It does so much work for you. Actors often say they don’t feel like the character until they have the costume on.
Is this movie based on the books?
The first movie has a lot of story that isn’t in the books. They’re really based on a character rather than adaptations of the books. They’re wonderful books but there’s a lot of repeat behavior and the second film is an entirely new story.
Why did you decide on a WWII setting?
I was wanting the father to be absent for some reason or other. I was in Berlin when I was thinking about the story, and I thought maybe I can have this father absent because of war. I already knew I wanted it to be about two sets of children who came from different backgrounds and hated each other and fought.
Will you do another one?
I hope so. It all depends on how this one goes. Market forces will decide that for us, but I am thinking about a third one, certainly.