The legendary actress on finding fulfillment through trial and error — both on and off screen.

By Kristin Scott Thomas as told to Sarah Cristobal
Updated Mar 12, 2020 @ 9:00 am
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Toga jacket with scarf. Etro shirt and pants. Sara Robertsson earrings. Ring, her own. Jimmy Choo boots. Photo: Tung Walsh/2DM Management

Growing up in England, I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and the word “ambition” was bad, almost sinful. To want something better than what you already had was not OK. And so, up until I made The English Patient [in 1996], I stifled my ambition to be an actress. That may sound crazy, but it’s true. These days my principal ambition is to get satisfaction and excitement and nourishment from work and also leave enough space for a fulfilling family life. As a woman, I find that to be a very tricky balance, but when you do hit that stride, things fly. Everyone’s happy. Your family is happy, you’re happy, people at work are happy. It’s a nice feeling.

I’m so glad that my success happened little by little and that my first film, Under the Cherry Moon [directed by Prince], was a failure. It was an enormous turkey; it was terrible. It was also completely surreal because Prince and I were absolute children — we were in our 20s. And yet, because he had this insane talent, people would treat him as an otherworldly saint or something. That was a weird thing because people got quite sycophantic around him. But the good news was, after that film, I was able to try again. I started from the bottom, worked up, and practiced until I was ready to have a big role. In the current culture you see so many people rise to stardom really quickly and then run out of steam. I was lucky to be able to get experience and make some bum films.

It’s easier for me to say what I’m ashamed of, but I’m not going to do that. It’s been a mixture of luck and instinct that has allowed me to do some pretty good projects. I’ve made some films — Four Weddings and a Funeral, Gosford Park — that kind of lurk around for decades, and that’s something to be proud of. And, actually, the past few years have been really interesting career-wise too, starting with The Party, which was a sort of political comedy, and then Darkest Hour, and then Fleabag. Phoebe [Waller-Bridge, the creator and star of Fleabag] is so clever. When I got that script, I literally jumped for joy. And I have Military Wives coming up, which was a wonderful experience, all about women enriching and supporting each other. I would say that I’ve hit a sweet spot. Fortunately, as I have got older, the work has got better.

Toga jacket with scarf. Etro shirt and pants. Sara Robertsson earrings. Ring, her own. Jimmy Choo boots. Photo: Tung Walsh/2DM Management

For a very, very long time, I felt that being an actress wasn’t particularly useful, and I felt frustrated by it. I would think, “What’s the point of doing this all?” But I’m beginning to see the point now. When you realize that the work we do in the theater or in the movies can have an influence on the way people behave with each other and how people think about things, even in a small way, that gives you purpose. And my role as the honorary president of the Women’s Forum [for the Economy and Society] has given me a responsibility to help women who don’t have a voice. It made me realize that this is what feminism means — wanting to change things and being able to drive things forward by partnering with other like-minded people.

In May I turn 60, and it is a bit of a shock to realize that you’ve got to this number that feels very daunting ahead of you. I remember when I got my driving license, when I was 18, I was told that I’d have to retake the test when I’m 63 or something. Back then the 2020s seemed like space age. It was science fiction. But it’s not — it’s here. It’s amazing that I actually got to this point. I feel like I’ve got a whole new life ahead of me, and I’m enjoying myself.

This past January I went to the Dior Haute Couture show, and seeing those beautiful clothes, there’s part of me that remains a sort of 12-year-old girl who thinks, “Gosh, I’d love to wear that dress.” I can just imagine myself floating along, wearing it. And I cherish that part of me, because I think it’s really fun to dress up. I’m also just as happy in my Bella Freud boilersuit that I’m wearing now, which makes me look like a car mechanic. There is room for both — perhaps just not at the same time!

My beauty mantra as I’ve got older is, Maintain rather than repair. Who knows, I may succumb to temptation, and if I do, good luck to me. But it’s not in the cards. I think people’s idea of what is aesthetically acceptable changes. And it depends on what country you’re in too. I know that the canons of beauty are very different in France, where I live. In general, everybody wants to look healthy and happy. If you do, then that’s half the battle.

Most days I do feel good, but occasionally I still get the heebie-jeebies. Recently I was at a party, and it was a completely different environment for me. I thought the people there were all a million times cleverer than me, and I really just wanted to go home. I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I try not to care what anyone else thinks, but I think there is a limit to how much you cannot care.

Now that my children are grown and making their own homes, I do feel like I have a new lease on life, which is a really great thing. I’m planning to take that time and turn it around and make it an opportunity, get stuff done. I’m actively looking to direct a film. I want to get more involved with the Women’s Forum and help move that along. I think I’ve been incredibly fortunate, and there are still plenty of things I want to do. I’ve just got to get my skates on now and do them.

Scott Thomas stars in Military Wives, in theaters March 27.

Photography: Tung Walsh. Styling: Vanessa Coyle. Hair: Jon Chapman for Carol Hayes Management. Makeup: Louise Constad. Location: Haymarket Hotel, London.

For more stories like this, pick up the April issue of InStyle available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download March 20.