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Emma Thompson's movie mission

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Emma Thompson
Award-winning actor Emma Thompson has won Oscars both for her performances and her screenwriting.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Emma Thompson is on a mission. The celebrated actor, known for doing everything from Shakespeare to television comedy, wants to make movies that will really appeal to all ages.

 Thompson not only stars in her new film "Nanny McPhee Returns," which opens this weekend - she wrote it too.

Emma Thompson is very brave. She's ignored W.C. Fields' caution to never appear with children or animals, going so far as to work with young pigs. 

Piglets are pivotal in "Nanny McPhee Returns," so some joined Thompson's entourage which descended on the Wild Rumpus bookstore in Minneapolis. 

The humans were relatively quiet. The pigs on the other hand regularly gave voice to their feelings through high pitched squeals.

Thompson came to talk about her new film and book, but the subject of movie-making with noisy pigs was inescapable.

"They were great, and they are very, very clever, and they were easy to train," Thompson said. "But they had to have a little bit of make-up put on them and the noise they made was like that, but a lot like a bucket of very angry babies. They are emotionally rather labile, shall we say?"

Piglets
Piglets play a pivotal role in "Nanny McPhee Returns" - and they made their presence known during Emma Thompson's visit to the Twin Cities.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Thompson intones in a mock upper class accent. 

Worse than actors?

"Oh yes," she says with a very Nanny McPhee smile.  

Nanny McPhee, is a stern, and somewhat magical being who comes to the aid of unruly families. She cuts quite a startling figure, with wiry hair, huge nose and ears, and a snaggletooth.

In "Nanny McPhee Returns" she arrives on the doorstep of the Green family in a thunderstorm.

"Good evening Mrs. Green. I am Nanny McPhee."

"Oh you're it. I mean her," says the frazzled Mrs. Green. "I mean, who are you?"

"I am Nanny McPhee. Small 'c.' Big 'p.'"

Emma Thompson says playing Nanny McPhee is like working with masks.

"You can do so much with very, very small gestures and looks, and I love the economy of that," Thompson says. "And I love her mystery and her wit and the fact that she is quite subversive, and funny, but also very wise." 

Nanny McPhee
Emma Thompson says playing Nanny McPhee is great fun in the way she can make a tiny gesture extremely meaningful.
Image courtesy Universal Pictures

Thompson begins to talk about the way Nanny McPhee changes physically as the children in the family come to terms with their troubles and responsibilities, but she's interrupted again by the pigs.

"They are investigating your bag" she tells the horrified reporter. "And sliding around on their trotters, because it's a slidey floor. It's all go round here ladies and gentlemen, I don't mind telling you," she cackles in a cockney accent.  

While Emma Thompson is best known in the U.S. for her acting, in Britain she is also famed  as the daughter of Eric Thompson. 

He created a cult television show in the 1960s called "The Magic Roundabout." It was supposedly for children but drew millions of adult viewers, too. He added an English storyline to a French stop-animation series. The resulting shows were wryly funny, and very topical. 

"And I was influenced in the sense that he never wrote them for children. He wrote them for everyone," she says. "He was the sort of bloke who used to shake hands with a baby and say 'why should I speak to children like they come from some other planet? They are the same as us, they just haven't lived as long.'" 

Wild Rumpus
Emma Thompson speaks to a capacity crowd at the Wild Rumpus Bookstore in Minneapolis. Not only did she write the screenplay, she also did the novelization of the film, which includes a daily diary of shooting the film.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Now it's Emma Thompson who is writing scripts. While Nanny McPhee is based on the Nurse Matilda character created by English novelist Christianna Brand in the 1960s, Thompson has written new stories. She says it's not an easy process because she too wants to appeal to young and old.

"It's making sure that it's funny, but also dramatically convincing, and therefore emotionally convincing," Thompson says. "So it has to be multi-layered and that's why the screenplays take a long time." 

Thompson says she wants adults to be as excited as children about a new Nanny McPhee film.

"And not, 'Yes, that's fine. Maybe I'll take some knitting.' Which is what I do when I get taken to a children's movie because so many of them are, I'm sorry, lazy and patronizing," she said. 

After someone corralled the pigs, Thompson went down to meet the large crowd of fans gathered in the Wild Rumpus bookstore. Thompson has also written the novel of "Nanny McPhee Returns," which includes a diary she wrote during the filming.  

The questions came thick and fast. One young reader wondered if Thompson was inspired by that other magical nanny, Mary Poppins.

"No," replied Thompson to great laughter. "But not because I don't like Mary Poppins. I love Mary Poppins. But I think she's a bit of a show-off. You know 'I'm perfect. La! La! Look at me! Look at me. I'm singing.' I wouldn't want her in my house. That's all I'm  saying."  

Emma Thompson says to took 10 years to write the first Nanny McPhee script, and five for the second. She hopes she'll be filming the third in the series the year after next.