Oscar-winning actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson, 46, trades corsets and curls for padding and a monobrow in her new film about an ugly but magical child minder, Nanny McPhee. Over tea, the Briton tells TIME's Rebecca Winters Keegan why Mary Poppins got it wrong, why becoming a parent at age 40 requires a bit of extra effort and why she stores her Oscars in the loo.
HAIRY MOLES, A SNAGGLETOOTH--DID YOU ENJOY PLAYING A HAG? This look took an upsettingly short time to achieve. It took longer to get dressed up for bloody Sense and Sensibility.
THE MORAL OF NANNY MCPHEE SEEMS TO BE THAT CHILDREN CAN HANDLE HONESTY FROM ADULTS. IS THAT WHAT YOU BELIEVE? They're miles more O.K. with the sort of rigors, tragedy and innate chaos of life than we are. This understanding of chaos is something we lose as we get older. It's a shame, because it makes us much more rigid.
MARY POPPINS WAS PRETTY, AND SHE SANG. WHAT HAS NANNY MCPHEE GOT ON THAT? She has a magic stick. She makes space. She's the opposite of Mary Poppins, who turns up and shows off and starts pulling things out of her carpetbag. This movie is a western. There is a situation of chaos. Then a stranger rides in and--using unorthodox methods--sorts out the situation, restores balance and then has to leave. People say, "Is it like Mary Poppins?" Actually, it's like Shane.
YOU WROTE THIS SCRIPT AS WELL AS SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. DO YOU HAVE ANY RITUALS WHEN YOU WRITE? No. My husband restored a barn in Scotland where we partly live, and he made a space at the top and said, "That'll be where you write." I haven't written a bloody thing there because it was designed for me to write in, so of course I can only write in the toilet. I write longhand. I find computers so overwhelming. They seem somehow more adult than me.
WHAT'S YOUR PERSONAL TAKE ON NANNIES? I had a nanny when my daughter was younger. She's 6 now. The nanny was a third pair of hands. You both get so knackered. But I would say to people, For heaven's sake, if you're going to have kids you've got to put the work and the time into it. Otherwise, there's no point. Once you're a mom, you're not just you anymore. You're split. It is a completely different human state. I noticed that more because I had my child when I was 40. My tectonic plates had slid into place. Having to shift them again is something you notice.
WHAT ARE THE LIES WE TELL ABOUT PARENTHOOD? That it's so wonderful. There's no question about that. But it's also difficult, tiring and boring.
YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND HAVE ALSO ADOPTED A RWANDAN ORPHAN. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT? Well, we haven't officially adopted him. We work with refugees in London, and one day we met this wonderful Rwandan lad who was 15 at the time. He had been through some awful things. He's 19 now. I don't like nuclear families. I think it's very good to look beyond your tribe.
MOST ENTERTAINERS LIKE TO TALK ABOUT THEIR CHARITABLE WORK. BUT YOU'RE ALMOST SHY ABOUT TOUTING YOUR INVOLVEMENT IN HIV/AIDS AND REFUGEE CAUSES. WHY? Sometimes it seems an aggrandizing thing to talk about it. I do think Live 8 and all that was excellent and people do become much more aware. But engagement is where it's all going to change things.