Much Ado About Emma

updated 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Thompson is devoted to her craft, her husband and Cheers

SHE HAS BEEN ACCLAIMED AS ONE OF THE GREAT ACTRESSES of modern times, she has helped redefine women's roles in contemporary film, and she won a 1993 Academy Award for her sharply drawn portrayal of strong-minded Margaret Schlegel in Howards End. Does that mean Emma Thompson's phone has been ringing off the hook since Oscar night? "No!" she exclaims with self-deprecatory emphasis, flashing her bold blue eyes and beguiling smile. "No one rang me! Not a sausage!" Not even Arnold Schwarzenegger, to offer her an image-transforming star turn in some apocalyptic epic? "He hasn't bloody well called either," Thompson deadpans.

Actually, Thompson confides over asparagus and champagne at an elegant Manhattan restaurant, she was once offered a shot at a very Hollywood role: It seems that director Paul Verhoeven invited her to read for what became the Sharon Stone part in Basic Instinct. "I went to see Paul about that part," she admits. "But I stay away from those roles, darling, because there's not a chance in hell that I'd ever be cast in such a thing." Then she goes on, thoughtfully, "There is a problem at this moment with women and their sexuality being demonized. I don't think there are many women out there thinking, 'Hey, I really want to be made to look stupid and take off all my clothes in a film' ".

In fact, Thompson has managed the neat trick—in 1989's The Tall Guy with Jeff Goldblum—of taking off all her clothes and looking quite smart. And it's not as if Holly wood's Decade of the Demonized Woman has been hell on Thompson. At 34, the English actress is truly at the top of her craft, and her dance card is bloody well full, thank you. She recently finished The Remains of the Day, her second film for the Merchant-Ivory team, following 1992's Howards End. Based on the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, Remains, which is due for release next November, features Thompson as a housekeeper for an aristocratic English family, opposite her Howards End costar Sir Anthony Hopkins, who plays the family butler and Thompson's love interest. She's currently filming In the Name of the Father, about a group of men falsely accused of masterminding an IRA bombing, on location in Ireland with Daniel Day-Lewis. During her spare; moments, she is putting the final touches on her first screenplay, an adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

And that's just the work Thompson's doing without her husband, actor-producer-director Kenneth Branagh, 32. This week Britain's royal pair opens across the U.S. in Branagh's exuberant film version of Shakespeare's bawdy Much Ado About Nothing (see review, page 19). The film offers a dazzling Anglo-American cast (Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves and Thompson's mother. Phyllida Law, among others), spectacular cinematography set in the 14th-century Italian Villa Vignamaggio (whose onetime owners, some believe, allowed Leonardo da Vinci to paint their daughter for a portrait that came to be known as the Mona Lisa)—and Thompson herself as Beatrice, Shakespeare's willful heroine with the face of an angel and the tongue of an adder. "It's one of the best roles ever written for a woman," she says.

Branagh chose to film Much Ado outdoors in the simmering heat of the Tuscany summer. "It's the only way to reduce life to a primitive passion where people live in the sun, eat, drink and have sex," he says. But when the cameras were not rolling, Branagh and Thompson saw to it that everyone was kept cool, calm, good-humored and well-fed. In the evening they would often have the cast and crew over for dinner on their terrace to share pasta, wine and laughter. "We were very happy over there," Thompson recalls. "I thought it was just fantastic how no one cared about their trailers. I thought they were the true definition of stars—people who just get on with it and don't fuss but are simply there to enjoy the work."

The play's the thing; that had always been the leitmotiv of the free-spirited Thompson household, headed by Law and her husband, actor-writer Eric Thompson. Emma and Sophie, 31, an actress who has played opposite her sister on British TV, grew up on a street in Hampstead, in northwest London. (Two years ago, Emma and Branagh bought a house on the same street, across the road from her mother and down the block from her sister.) Young Emma showed promise as an amateur comic at the Camden School for Girls and looked forward to nights when she would watch Monty Python's Flying Circus with her father. While Emma was studying English literature at Cambridge's Newnham College, her father suffered a stroke. Emma spent long hours at his side and taught him to speak all over again.

Her father died five years later, but Emma kept his flair for comedy alive. She joined the Cambridge Footlights, the revue that had spawned Pythoners John Cleese and Eric Idle. Her fellow Footlighter Stephen Fry has said of her: "She's brilliant and, like all great actresses, completely mad."

Graduating in 1982, Thompson decided she wanted to have her own TV comedy show. She came up with an unfortunate title: Sexually Transmitted. It wasn't. Nor did Thompson's Rabelaisian one-woman stage show, Up for Grabs, sit well with critics. Still, she got an early break in 1985 when she landed a plum song-and-dance role in Me and My Gal in London's West End. Two years later she won a part in the BBC miniseries Fortunes of War, where she met, she says, "a young lion" from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Irish-born actor Kenneth Branagh. "He's a very private man, like my father," says Thompson. "I think you tend to go for people who remind you of someone you loved early in life, even when you don't realize it." Says Branagh: "Em's been incredibly supportive of me, and what we've always had, which is nice, is a shared sense of humor."

They married in 1989 and have been nearly inseparable since. They did King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream in Los Angeles in 1990 and starred together on film in Henry V (1989), the film-noirish Dead Again (1991) and last year's Big Chill-type reunion movie, Peter's Friends. Offstage and off-camera, they flit between their home in Hampstead and her mother's cottage in Scotland, for relaxation, Thompson enjoys cooking "peasant food"—pastas and chicken—and then watching the telly (one favorite: Cheers).

When she won her Best Actress Academy Award on March 29, Thompson immediately ran to the telephone to call Branagh in England—though it was the middle of the night and he had been playing Hamlet onstage all evening. "I said, 'Yes, I did get it,' " Thompson recalls, " 'and no, you're not dreaming.' " Back home, Thompson ceremoniously placed the her downstairs bathroom. "It looks really good there," she says. "Because everybody goes there, I don't have to bother running upstairs every time someone asks to see it."

The couple will be separate professionally for a while, as Thompson does In the Name of the Father and Branagh works on his adaptation of Frankenstein, which will start filming in England this fall. (Branagh plans to direct as well as play the title role opposite Robert De Niro's Monster.) "You can't always play romantic leads opposite your husband," Thompson observes, "or you'll bore the audience." Incredibly, she frets about her acting future. "If you're over 30 and have a fully formed female figure and a butt," she declares, "you're out the window." Not bloody likely.

SUE CARSWELL in New York City

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