Influences: Emma Thompson

Photo: Nick Haddow/Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

In Stranger Than Fiction, you play a novelist who finds out that a character in her new novel (Will Ferrell) is actually alive. Have you ever identified with a character to an unusual degree?

I tend to identify with characters in books by Austen and Eliot and the Brontës. Oddly enough, I’m probably still vaguely Victorian. Moderns are just different. As a child, my mind latched onto a kind of Victorian morality, which I don’t necessarily think did me that much good, to be honest. It’s not ideal. I suppose there’s something spinal, there’s something that lives in your ganglia, that connects you to past moral models, and it’s very difficult to unhook yourself from them.

What else did you read as a child?

I’m a narrative junkie. I was obsessive about Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean. Of course those are very hero-driven, and that’s what’s been a big part of my life and my questions about life: What’s heroism? What’s heroic action for women? Where do we fit in to this mythologizing? I loved sci-fi too. I loved Ray Bradbury. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten into people like William Gibson and his book Neuromancer, which is such an extraordinary piece of imaginative literature. It’s about the collective unconscious, and I suppose it is connected to Jung in a sense. Those guys were pretty sci-fi in a way, weren’t they? And like Jung said, until we recognize the dark side and accept it as our own, we will never grow up.

At Cambridge, you became a comedian and a feminist.

It was an incredible moment for me. At college it was structuralism and Bakhtin and all that lot, and I found it all very masculine and backstab-y … There is no one more vicious than an academic. So my seminal moment in university, having grown up reading the Victorian female novelists, was discovering Gilbert and Gubar’s book The Madwoman in the Attic, which is about Victorian female writers and the disguises they took on in order to express what they wanted to express. That completely changed my life.

You and Simon McBurney [actor and founder of Théâtre de Complicité] ran around Cambridge together. I hear you even shaved each other’s heads?

Yes, we both had cropped punk short red hair. And dyed it together, and wore these leather jackets and went around on a Honda 250, and were probably very unpleasant. We did Artaud, we did the Feminist Review—and we did Footlights [the comedy-sketch revue Thompson would later act in with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry], even Simon, who was always going to be a total and utter original. Of course, I adored Théâtre de Complicité. Their first-ever show was called A Minute Too Late, all about death, and just brilliant. When Simon left university and went to study mime at the [Jacques] Lecoq School in Paris, I followed him and did a very interesting course with a French clown called Philippe Gaulier on his intellectualized notion of buffoonery, and I took that influence when I was playing the fool in King Lear. I invented a deformed creature who was brought up to amuse the court. We look back and say, isn’t it dreadful how we used to put people in the stocks and pelt them? I say, what the fuck do you think we’re doing now?

Is that how you see reality TV?

Yeah. I find it just desperate and desperately depressing and upsetting. Pull the television out of the wall and throw it out of the window.

I think the TVs are too big for that now. Besides, you had your own sketch-comedy show!

I always wanted to be a comedian. I wanted to be Lily Tomlin. American women were being funny way before our lot started. I remember sharing a bedroom with French and Saunders [the duo that created Ab Fab] at Edinburgh when we were all in shows, and I was desperately in love with somebody who lived with a ballet dancer. I said, “I can’t compete with a ballet dancer!” And they said, “But you’re funny, and that’s much, much more attractive.” And of course they were wrong.

Why Tomlin?

I think that female comedy is completely different in form to male comedy. If one can possibly use the orgasm as an analogy, the male comedy is always kind of going towards an end, there’s a punch line, and you laugh, and there’s release. With female comedy, it’s mostly circular, and character-based, and there’s a laugh here and a laugh here, and then a big laugh. The orgasmic analogy works very well, you know, and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that these two things are linked. Because laughing is like orgasming; it’s the same sort of set of muscles you’re using.

What about the British guys?

Oh, well, Monty Python was huge for me.

You did sketch comedy with Fry and Laurie for seven years. Do you remember a good one you wrote?

[Long pause] Okay, in one of my favorite sketches there are two people sitting with newspapers, and from behind the newspaper, the bloke says, “Did someone just say fuck?” And I say, “No, no,” and a long pause while we read the newspaper. Then he says, “Someone just said fuck, I heard them,” and I say, “No, no,” and a long pause. And he goes, “Did someone just say bugger?” And it goes on with him going, “I just heard someone say bugger, shit, fuck, cunt, shit, motherfucker … ” And the last line of the sketch is “Well, it’s mostly you, dear.”

Stranger Than Fiction, Sony, November 10.

Influences: Emma Thompson