Emma Thompson says she 'wasn't sexy enough to play a cougar' in her 40s

31 May 2019, 17:59 | Updated: 1 June 2019, 09:34

Emma Thompson has recently been in the news, but for matters other than acting.

The two-time Oscar winner joined last month's Extinction Rebellion climate protest, adding her celebrity voice to the London sit-ins, the centrepiece of which was a pink tugboat.

She was immediately criticised for flying back from Los Angeles (a trip of over 5,400 miles (8690km)) to attend the event.

So does Thompson regret speaking out? Quite the contrary.

She tells Sky News: "I've stuck my head above the parapet since I was 19 and had s*** thrown at it since I was 19.

"When it first happened, I was protesting the Gulf War at which point the press called me 'Saddam Hussein's best friend'. If you protest about anything, you have to be prepared for whatever slings and arrows."

The 60-year-old actress is currently playing the role of late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury - a character who is equally as fearless as Thompson herself.

Unfortunately, this is a purely fictional scenario - in real life, there is no such thing.

Late-night US chat shows are a male-dominated affair, only briefly interrupted by Joan Rivers for a few years in the late '80s.

In the UK we don't tend to care for too much late-night chat full stop. And when we do (stand up Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton) it is again, a male-only gig.

The late Caroline Aherne's creation, The Mrs Merton Show, is a close contender, but of course she had to fictionalise her 70-year-old female host to make her palatable for mainstream TV.

Even in the fictional world of her new movie Late Night, a woman at the helm of her own show is a hard pill to swallow, and Thompson's Newbury quickly finds herself fighting for her job.

An up-and-coming, and somewhat misogynistic male stand-up artist is lined up to take her role.

In the film, it is this crisis point which reignites Newbury's passion for her job and teaches her to play to her own strengths.

The character is, as she summarises, "an English woman who's never watched a Superhero movie".

To help her save her job, her all-male, all-white writing team is shaken up with the addition of "diversity hire" Molly, played by Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the film.

So what is the reality of being a woman over 50, working in Hollywood?

Quite simply, Thompson is clear she is not. A woman working in Hollywood, that is.

"I've always lived in London… And I rarely work in Hollywood."

That aside, she admits she had a "real bald patch" in her 40s, where the only interesting roles she was offered were the ones she'd written herself.

"I got offered an awful lot of wives who were saying to their husbands, 'Don't go and do the brave thing, stay here with me'.

"So I said no to loads of that stuff. And I wasn't sex'cougar' - style roles. I wasn't ever going to get those. So, I was in between two stools.

"But once I turned 50, I started playing things like Robert Carlyle's serial killer mother who was 77. And I got that fantastic Saving Mr Banks."

She says the Disney role, playing Mary Poppins author P L Travers, was one of her favourite roles to date, alongside this one.

Both are strong women, who don't necessarily foster a smooth working relationship with their colleagues.

Newbury is a woman who has reached the top of her game, but who is not an ally to her female colleagues down below.

So where does this propensity for women to hate other women come from? Or at the very least not go out of their way to help sisters in need?

Mindy Kaling says it's a natural reaction against the struggle to succeed.

"When you've worked so hard to break through a male-dominated industry and you finally have succeeded, it's easy to think, 'My presence here is enough. That's it. That's how I am a feminist that's how I'm contributing I can't do anything more'."

But she insists: "That isn't really real. You have to do more than just be an example."

Thompson agrees: "It's our job to be representative of the human race, to have fun and to make wonderful stories about humans. Let's just include everyone."

"We've been at the bloke's party for centuries, it's time that we evened it out."

Kaling has first-hand experience of this.

She was not only the first woman, but also the first person of colour on the writing team of the US version of the Office.

So how many of the film's cringy moments came directly from her experience on that very male and very white writing team?

Kaling admits she has to be careful on this topic, as she still counts many of the writers as good friends.

But she does say the situation "was pulled from my life and the panic that I felt was also directly from my own heart".

So, did she ever have to sit on a rubbish bin during a meeting (as her character Molly does near the start of the film)?

No, but she did once work for a company where each chair was allocated to a team-member but no-one would tell you where you could actually sit.

"You'd think, 'Well someone surely is going to tell me where I should go', but no one does. So, you're just left to sit on a radiator or something".

During the movie, there's a joke about Planned Parenthood - and whether it's too controversial a gag to put in the programme.

With the recent Alabama ruling, banning abortion in cases except those where the mother's life is at risk (inclusive of situations of incest or rape) - does that now seem eerily timely?

Kaling admits: "At the time of writing, I was worried that the joke was going to seem crazy in this era, ie Is Roe v Wade even something that's going to be overturned? But now it seems horrifyingly prescient. I'm sad about that."

Late Night is in cinemas from 7 June.