With her ability to combine humor and poignant despair – often within the same character – actress and writer Emma Thompson rose from the London stage to become known internationally for her illustrious film and television work. She made an initial impression in popular British period dramas including “Howard’s End” (1992), for which she earned a Best Actress Oscar, and “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), where her screenplay adaptation earned her a second statue. The actress was soon tapped for American productions where she brought her trademark sparkle and sophistication to acclaimed dramas like “Primary Colors” (1998) and HBO’s “Wit” (2001), which she also adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play. Thompson’s versatile character actor approach enabled her to flow from the family-friendly “Nanny McPhee” (2005) to the existential whimsy of “Stranger Than Fiction” (2006) without audiences batting a collective eye. It seemed that wherever Thompson landed, the critical accolades were always forthcoming.
Born on April 15, 1959, Thompson was raised in the Paddington section of West London. With stage director, actor, and television producer Eric Thompson for a father and Scottish actress Phyllida Law for a mother, Thompson grew up well-versed in the entertainment business, surrounded by creativity. Her first pursuit was writing, but while studying at Cambridge, she joined the school’s famed Footlights sketch comedy group where she wrote and performed alongside future big names Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. She also appeared with the university's all-female troupe, Woman's Hour. Thompson, Fry and Laurie landed a short-lived TV variety show, "Alfresco" (1983), and when Thompson struck out on her own, she won rave reviews for her West End musical debut opposite Robert Lindsay in the 1985 revised version of "Me and My Girl." She co-starred with Kenneth Branagh in the World War II-set drama series "Fortunes of War" (BBC, 1986-87) and with Robbie Coltrane in the cult classic about a Scottish rock band, "Tutti Frutti" (BBC, 1987). She wrote and starred in her own highly enjoyable 1988 BBC comedy-variety TV series, "Thompson," and made her film debut as Jeff Goldblum's leading lady in the underrated "The Tall Guy" (1989).
Thompson married fellow thespian Kenneth Branagh and the pair joined forces in the Renaissance Theatre Company, appearing in "Look Back in Anger," "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Such was the pair’s chemistry and acclaim, they began earning comparisons to the former first couple of British theatre, Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Branagh cast her as princess Katherine in his 1989 film "Henry V" and as an amnesiac haunted by nightmares of a past murder in the 1991 romantic melodrama "Dead Again." Her strong performance as the forthright heroine of the Merchant-Ivory production "Howards End" (1992), however, catapulted her to stardom, sans Branagh. More than holding her own against strong actors Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Helena Bonham Carter, Thompson received a Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe Award, coming out of seemingly nowhere for American audiences. The following year, she earned dual Academy Award nominations as Best Actress for her turn as a housekeeper in love with a repressed butler (Hopkins) in another Merchant-Ivory adaptation, "The Remains of the Day" (1993) and a Best Supporting Actress nod for her no-nonsense barrister representing a youth accused of involvement in an IRA bombing (Daniel Day-Lewis) in "In the Name of the Father" (1993). The same year, she and Branagh threw sparks as Shakespeare's witty and warring lovers Beatrice and Benedick in Branagh's adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing" (1993). In an unsuccessful attempt to bank on Thompson’s positive reception among U.S. audiences, she was cast in a comic lead opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny De Vito in "Junior" (1994), but the sub-par material failed to launch her as a mainstream American commodity.
Returning to period dramas, Thompson followed up with back-to-back starring roles – first in "Carrington" (1995), which cast her in the title role of the Bloomsbury painter who had a long platonic relationship with writer Lytton Strachey. "Sense and Sensibility" (1995) was a dream project for the actress, who had long talked of penning the screenplay. Directed by Ang Lee, the results proved it as one of the year's best films, earning Thompson a Best Actress Academy Award nomination and a statuette for her witty script. Amidst rumors of professional egos clashing, Thompson and Branagh divorced shortly thereafter. The actress spoofed her image on a memorable episode of the sitcom "Ellen" (ABC, 1994-98), playing a lesbian British actress named 'Emma Thompson,' who decided to disclose her homosexuality at an awards banquet. The laughs came when she revealed she was not really British, but from America's heartland and had only acquired the accent from "watching Julie Andrews' films." Thompson next co-starred in Alan Rickman's directorial debut, "The Winter Guest" (1997) with her mother, actress Phyllida Law. Her performance as a photographer grieving the death of her husband and coping with her mother's interference was a strong one, allowing her to display aspects of her talents that had not yet been seen onscreen before.
Mike Nichols tapped Thompson to play the ambitious wife of a womanizing presidential candidate in the critically praised "Primary Colors" (1998), after which she reunited with Rickman to play an FBI agent in the thriller "The Judas Kiss" (1998). After time out for motherhood and a chance to concentrate on her writing, Thompson made a triumphant return to the screen playing a rigid college professor stricken with cancer in the HBO adaptation of "Wit" (2001). Additionally, she collaborated with director Mike Nichols on the script, based on the Pulitzer-winning play, which earned Emmy nominations for both. In one of her more successful contemporary comedic offerings, Thompson was part of the large ensemble cast of writer-director Richard Curtis' multi-story romantic comedy "Love Actually" (2003), where she played the sister of the British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) whose husband (Alan Rickman) contemplates straying. The actress next earned enormous praise for her role in the ensemble of the acclaimed HBO miniseries "Angels In America" (2003), playing the multiple roles of The Angel of America, Nurse Emily and The Homeless Woman. She was ultimately nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries. Thompson also enjoyed an amusing, if all-too-brief, turn as the prescient but preoccupied Professor Sybil Trelawney in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (2004).
In “Nanny McPhee” (2005), a children’s fantasy Thompson adapted from Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matilda book series, Thompson starred as a snaggle-toothed nanny with magical powers who arrives at the stately home of a recent widower (Colin Firth) who has problems disciplining his seven troublemaking children. “Nanny McPhee” received strong praise from critics, particularly in regards to Thompson’s clever and appealing script, but the film did middling business at the box office. The following year, Thompson gave an outstanding performance in the offbeat “Stranger Than Fiction” (2006), where she co-starred as an eccentric novelist whose work-in-progress turns out to have a real-life counterpart – a staid IRS agent (Will Ferrell) whose life is disrupted by the author’s narrations in his head. Following a cameo as a doctor in the Will Smith blockbuster “I Am Legend” (2007), Thompson donned the prosthetics to play an elderly Lady Marchmain in a British film version of “Brideshead Revisited” (2008), which received positive notices but enjoyed only limited release stateside.
Continuing her strong run of performances, Thompson reunited with “Stranger” supporting player Dustin Hoffman in “Last Chance Harvey” (2008), a romantic drama that found the pair cast as unsatisfied middle-agers whose lives change after a chance meeting at an airport bar. Once again in her illustrious career, Thompson found herself in award contention after her performance earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical category. Thompson’s next pair of releases were both 1960s-set British comedies – the Nick Hornby-scripted “An Education” (2009) and “The Boat That Rocked” (2009), a look at London’s once-thriving offshore pirate radio stations.