COVER STORY : Emma Thompson, Sensibly : The levelheaded actress turns screenwriter with her adaptation of Jane Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility.' (And please, let's have no mention of you-know-who.)

Jan Stuart is a staff writer for Newsday.

Emma Thompson is pausing to have a conniption.

This is the real McCoy, an up-from-the- gut bellow of exasperation. Her forehead, usually a creaseless plane of goodwill, scrunches up like a vexed accordion. Smoke rises, the invisible kind that occurs when boundaries have been trespassed.

The Oscar-winning empress of high-tea cinema ("Howards End," "The Remains of the Day," "Carrington") is in a snit because she has come to talk about Exhibit A and has been asked about Exhibit X. Exhibit A is "Sense and Sensibility," Ang Lee's ebullient screen version of the Jane Austen novel in which Thompson both stars and makes a formidable screenwriting debut (it opens Wednesday). The incendiary Exhibit X is her October separation from actor-director Kenneth Branagh after six years of marriage.

At that time, Thompson dispensed with a hovering media by making a press statement outside their home. Dressed in a to-hell-with-it ensemble of sweats and sneakers, she managed to inject a wry note into an otherwise strung-out scene. It was classic Thompson: Throughout "Sense and Sensibility," as in her own life, Austen's adapter is careful to deflate any potential bathos with an artfully placed zinger.

Six weeks later, wrapped in the cocoon of a Park Avenue hotel suite and looking thoroughly modern in a black pantsuit, the 36-year-old actress is asked how she is feeling in her singleness. A line has been crossed--probably for the umpteenth time in a publicity-packed weekend--and she will have none of it.

"I can't begin to discuss it," she begins quietly. "I didn't approve of being invaded by the press and don't appreciate being asked what it's like by people I don't know, because I wouldn't dream of doing it in return. It's rude. And it's not meant to be rude and I understand why it's done, but I just think that the only way of dealing with it is by reiterating again and again that my personal life is not for public consumption. It is not reasonable to require that of me. And if my life continues to be invaded in this way I will. . . ."

*

Time out. It should be said that these are not the rantings of a prima donna who revels in bringing the rank and file to her knees. One would be extremely hard-pressed to think of an actor who is as adored, accessible and aware of her humble niche in the cosmos as Thompson. When informed that an elderly gentleman who had come to interview her was told, with Jeeves-like propriety, "Emma Thompson will see you now," she was mortified. Recalling the incident, she whoops hysterically.

Thompson's plea for privacy (say it with a short "i") is especially poignant when considered in the context of her new film. The early 19th century English society of Jane Austen's heroines Elinor Dashwood (played by Thompson) and her younger sister Marianne (Kate Winslet) is a fishbowl environment in which very little goes unnoticed. Gossip is the daily bread for her idle gentry: One can hardly eat or breathe, let alone carry on a courtship, without its being observed and commented on. In short, "Sense and Sensibility" offers an oblique metaphor for the world of a film celebrity.

While Thompson pleads ignorance about that connection, the Cambridge-bred performer does have quite a bit to say on the subject of Austen and the novel's double bind: love and wealth. In her screenplay, Thompson has quite deliberately heightened the social reality implicit in the novel, which is that women in that culture--especially women without money--could never hold the guns.

"I had to make it clearer," she says, pleased that her intentions have come through, "because it's rather difficult to explain to the audience who isn't completely up on the mores and manners of that period that women of this class would not just go and take a job. In 'Emma' there is all that discussion about Jane Fairfax desperately trying to get the job as a governess, which was of course a ghastly position because you were neither a member of the family nor one of the servants--you were in between the two echelons.

"And Austen, even though she's not remotely feminist or writes from that point of view, does give Anne Elliott that speech in 'Persuasion' in which she says that it's all right for men to go off and do things, we just have to sit at home and wait. And that's what they did.

"There is a tremendous realism to Austen, because she was a spinster of the parish, dependent on her relations. And although I don't think she ever felt the pinch, she's very realistic about the fact that love is all very well, but if you've got somebody who loves you and you don't really have the 'competence,' the money to live on, don't think he wouldn't give you up for somebody who does. And you're going to blame him? It's very mordant. And even though it strikes one as all so very romantic, finally it isn't."

Thompson was anxious that this realism would register in her screenplay.

"Must avoid twee," she wrote in her just-published diaries of the filming. "Oh, please don't let any of it be twee. I'll die. I'll be assassinated by the Jane Austen Society." Abetted by the director's own disdain for sentiment (Ang Lee most recently directed "Eat Drink Man Woman"), his "Sense and Sensibility" is riddled with such touches as storybook knights on white horses.

*

The actress' own preference for the dry approach points to one of many fine distinctions--if not contradictions--in her complex makeup:

* She projects great confidence in her own strengths yet is vulnerable to frequent bouts of insecurity. ("I feel unattractive and talentless," she writes in another journal entry. "I look like a horse with a permed fringe.") Looking at the Vogue-svelte actress who would appear to be entering her blond period, I am reminded that Marilyn Monroe also winced at her own image during sneak previews.

* She is effortlessly chummy (within moments of my arrival at her hotel room I was plied with a brimming plate of cookies and found myself pounding her collarbone to help clear her throat) and facile at what some might call prurient conversation--yet fiercely protective of her personal domain. (The respectful absence of Branagh in any of the diary entries is diligent to a degree that borders on the painful.)

* She is not a sentimentalist but something of a sap. After a restive night's sleep during filming, a bleary-eyed Thompson came upon two lambs in a road and endeavored in the morning's chill to get them back to their mother. You get the sense that, like Elinor Dashwood, she is often left alone on the hallway landing holding the tea tray after ministering to the needs of others.

Don't confuse her with Elinor, though, whom Thompson describes as "a witty control freak--just the sort of person you'd want to get drunk, just to make her giggly and silly." The actress, who bows at the shrine of Monty Python as much as at that of Austen, is fiendishly witty. But control freak? Too selfless for that role.

Revealingly, Thompson's rendition of Elinor suffers fools with far greater patience than Austen's. Although it doesn't take an Aesopian leap of the imagination to surmise that Thompson would make a helluva drunk.

Emma Thompson has never been a slave to acting lessons. Like another theater-family brat named Vanessa Redgrave, she emits a natural luminescence on screen that can be passed down only through the genes. (Her parents are actress Phylidda Lloyd and the late actor-director Eric Thompson.) To watch Redgrave and Thompson flash their teeth at each other in the early scenes of "Howards End" is like bearing witness to a rare celestial eclipse: One feels a stirring sensation that denotes the older star passing the mantle to the younger as they brush past each other.

Commenting on the subject of legacies, Thompson owns up to a sobering realization. "My father died when I was 22," she says slowly, "and I can't begin to tell you how much I regret his not being around. At the same time, it's possible that were he still alive I might never have had the space or courage to do what I've done. I think the parent dying is a very powerful event, especially a parent that you've adored, who represents something. To me he represented wit, and words. I'm very intrigued by what happens to people when their parents die--how much space and baggage they inherit. Because I have a definite feeling of inheriting space. And power."

The power and tradition she inherits are significantly different from that of, say, the earnest Redgrave. With her armor of irony, independent spirit and unfussy patrician beauty, Thompson is the closest moviedom has come to a new-generation Kate Hepburn since the Calla lilies came into bloom again.

She also exudes a Hepburn-style frankness, no more so than when discussing the sexual demands of her current role as Dora Carrington, the Bloomsbury artist who carried on a multiplicity of relationships before committing suicide at age 38. In Christopher Hampton's "Carrington," Thompson is put through more carnal aerobics than she is in any film since her naked free-for-all with Jeff Goldblum in "The Tall Guy." How does one handle those scenes with the director, crew and spirit of one's father bearing down?

"With tremendous sang-froid," she says without hesitation. "And humor. If you get po-faced about it, then you make everyone uncomfortable. The way to get through those scenes is to laugh a great deal and enjoy them and allow the energy to take you along." Thompson describes a sweaty shipboard encounter between Dora and her lover Beakus Penrose, played by Jeremy Northam. "Nick, one of the construction boys, was down on his hands and knees two feet away from our genitalia, opening and closing a door with a piece of wood; me and Jeremy were hosing each other down with a spray gun and squealing with laughter.

"I took advice from all the boys as well. I said, 'Well, I'm coming to the last sex scene, Steven Waddington [the blond Adonis who plays Dora's husband, Ralph Partridge], what sort of orgasm should I have?' " Thompson repeats his response, dropping her voice to an aristocratic Waddington baritone, " 'Oh, a silent one.' "

While filming sex scenes may be the chastest of professional activities, Thompson concedes that the emotional and physical intimacy of acting can generate something akin to an erotic frisson :

"Definitely, there is a charge. It isn't necessarily sexual--it's a particular charge in the ions. And, as far as I can see, it only works when you are not in fact remotely involved with the person you are performing opposite. I found it actually very difficult to play romantic leads with Ken after we were married--it's very difficult to reproduce.

"It's always a tremendous mistake for actors to get involved with someone they're working with--it can be very confusing. What is so exciting to me about acting is that you can have this wonderful charge, this connection, with somebody and then say, 'Ni-night! See you in the morning!' It's like borrowing a child for a half-hour: You can enjoy the best bits and then you don't have to take them home."

Despite her pragmatic approach to delicate acting tasks, Thompson tends to be an old-fashioned girl when it comes to screen eroticism: "I've always thought that less is more. The great trick is to withhold visual information. One of the most erotic scenes I've ever played was the moment in 'The Remains of the Day' where I try and get that book off Tony [Hopkins] and there is that strange feeling that something could happen. That's sexy!"

When asked if she thinks Carrington's love for gay writer Lytton Strachey (played by Jonathan Pryce) was masochistic, she nods.

"Yes, I think so," she says. "The only reason she was able to fall in love with Lytton was that he didn't threaten to invade her physically--that was part of the attraction. I think a lot of women fall in love with homosexual men precisely for that reason. There is a tremendous empathy, yet there is also a safety, a camaraderie. I think that is beginning to change as homosexual men gain power and stakes within society. Not so much with gay women. They've been so sidelined." As in "Carrington," which manages to avoid the artist's own bisexuality.

"Which is a real shame," she says with a sigh, "but try fitting another relationship into that film."

As one considers the arc of Thompson's film career since "Henry V" and "The Tall Guy" in 1989, it is possible to feel grateful that the actress was waylaid from her university ambitions to become a comedian. Upon graduation, Thompson toured Australia with her Cambridge partners in crime Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry doing comedy sketches in their "Footlights" revue, then wrote a comedy series called "Thompson" for the BBC that was "mutilated" by critics. The six installments nevertheless caught the fancy of a Hollywood producer named Lindsay Doran, who would shortly afterward ask the actress to write the screenplay for "Sense and Sensibility."

Throughout those postgraduate years, a politically passionate Thompson would express her views through benefit performances. At this point in her career, the blurring of politics and show business inspires ambivalence.

"There is something very uncomfortable about taking this strange, ephemeral thing called fame and plunking it in some other arena and shaking it about saying, 'Look at this, look at this.' When Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins used the Oscars to say there was something they really believed in, I didn't take it amiss, but others were deeply offended. I protested about the Gulf War at a time when I thought my country had literally lost its mind; I was castigated both by the press and people I knew and got a tiny, tiny taste of what folks like Vanessa Redgrave have gone through.

"At the same time I confess to being deeply, deeply uneasy by celebrity politics. I'm a member of the Labor Party and I'm constantly asked for endorsements. It makes me feel peculiar. I think I'm a brave person and have never ever not stood up to be counted, but to be a performer and then to step sideways into a political arena somehow feels wrong. If I was to do that, I would want to do what Glenda Jackson has done so extraordinarily--she's my member of Parliament. When she became MP, she didn't plug into 'famous actress, two-time Oscar winner.' She took everything very quietly at first. She's fantastic--a deeply compassionate woman and a serious politician."

Could she see herself in that role?

"I suppose so. It's a very hard life. I don't know whether I've got the stamina. And also I value my privacy, truly. I'm not surprised Colin Powell decided not to run [for president]."

If anything is currently missing from Thompson's career, it's a snarly, get-down, rotten-to-the-core character. ("I'd love to add malevolence to my dance card," she coos, citing Nicole Kidman's role in "To Die For.") As it stands, Thompson wants to stop the cameras and live for a while, confessing that "too much fiction is bad for you." She relishes the thought of vegging out at her London home, within steps of her mother's and sister's flats.

"I used to think that I would never grow up if I didn't move," Thompson says. "But I don't think it's where you live that makes you grow up. In some ways, it's accepting staying where you come from, and then moving up from there."

One last question. If she could hold a seance and were able to channel Jane Austen, what would she want to ask?

With a steeliness that would please the author of "Sense and Sensibility," she quickly retorts: "What percentage she wants of the gross." She pauses, ponders the question a bit further, then shrieks with laughter. "Oh, God, it's so pathetic," Thompson moans through tears of shame. "I suppose I'd ask her about her personal life."

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