TERRY GROSS, Host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Kristen Scott Thomas, stars in the new movie "Sarah's Key." It's about a chapter in French history that the French are not proud of and is not well-known.
In 1942, during the Nazi occupation, the French police rounded up over 13,000 Jews and held them at an indoor cycling arena called the VÃ©lodrome d'hiver or the Vel d'Hiv. From there, the Jews were sent to death camps.
"Sarah's Key" alternates between the past and the present. Kristin Scott Thomas plays an American journalist in France, working for an English-language magazine. She's researching and writing an article about the roundup when she discovers the home she's about to move into was once occupied by a Jewish family that was deported in the roundup. Flashbacks tell that family's story.
In this scene, Thomas is an editorial meeting. When the editor suggests a story on the Vel d'Hiv roundup, the younger journalists at the meeting have no idea what he's talking about. Thomas explains.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SARAH'S KEY")
KRISTEN SCOTT THOMAS: (As Julia Jarmond) On the 16th and 17th of July '42, they arrested 13,000 Jews, mostly women and children. They took 8,000 of them, put them in the Velodrome d'hiver, in inhuman conditions.
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Imagine the Superdome in New Orleans, only a million times worse.
SCOTT THOMAS: (As Jarmond) A million times worse, and then they sent them to the camps.
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) You seem to know your stuff.
SCOTT THOMAS: (As Jarmond) I covered the 60th anniversary for Time magazine. I wanted to do a feature, and they gave me half a page, which is why you're going to give me 10 pages.
SCOTT THOMAS: (As character) Ten pages? No, Julia, I can't give you 10 pages.
SCOTT THOMAS: (As Jarmond) Why not? Readers love history. Most of them haven't even heard of it. Look at these guys.
Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) Apologies from the youth of today.
Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) (Unintelligible), it's an old indoor cycling track. It should be beautiful. Where is it?
SCOTT THOMAS: (As Jarmond) Torn down 50 years ago.
Unidentified Man #6 (Actor): (As character) Any photos?
Man #1 (Actor): (As character) None. That's the point. Over 10,000 people squeezed together for days, no beds, no toilets, barely any water and not one image exists.
SCOTT THOMAS: (As Jarmond) Well, there's one. There's a wide shot looking down over some buses outside. That's it.
SCOTT THOMAS: (As character) It's weird. I mean, normally they were really good at that. They documented everything, the Nazis. That's what they were known for.
SCOTT THOMAS: (As Jarmond) Mike, this was not the Germans. It was the French.
GROSS: That scene from the new movie "Sarah's Key." Kristen Scott Thomas is an English actress who has lived in France since the age of 19. She's best known in America for her roles in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "The English Patient," "The Horse Whisperer," "Gosford Park" and the French films "I've Loved You So Long" and "Tell No One."
Kristen Scott Thomas, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you describe the roundup of the Jews in France in 1942 that "Sarah's Key" is focused around?
SCOTT THOMAS: Well, as most people nowadays know, the French was an occupied country, occupied by the Nazis during the war. And the French police was clearly being run by the Gestapo, by the Nazis. And they received an order to round up 22,000 Jews in a period of three days.
They were so desperate to fulfill this quota that they would go to schools. They went to hospitals. They went to orphanages. And they just got as many of the Jews as they possibly could, including small, small, small babies and children. And this was all done by French people.
GROSS: Yes, and that's one of the things that's so shocking. It's not the Nazis doing this. It's the Nazis ordering it, but it's the French who are fulfilling the order and rounding up the Jews and deporting them to camps.
SCOTT THOMAS: And it's something the French have been extremely wary of talking about and very, very - and certainly hidden away for a very, very long time.
GROSS: How much did you know about this, like, horrible chapter in French history before making a film?
SCOTT THOMAS: I knew - I think I knew a little bit more than most people. A lot of people didn't - don't know anything about this period, don't know anything about this particular round up of - or (French language spoken) as it's called in French.
I knew a bit, because I had married - coming from England as a very young woman, I had married into a Jewish family and had been rapidly and quite shockingly educated as to a lot of the events. And at the same time, I'd been protecting myself because, you know, some of this information is just really quite horrific. And this had all been happening to members of my new family, and, you know, it has a very strong resonance, all of that.
And my mother-in-law, funnily enough, was herself hidden - a child during the war - and hidden in some distant part of France, away from Paris. And they had been on the run. You know, they had been hiding from - moving from one place to another, as was my father-in-law. And they had suffered the consequences of that and deep, deep, deep psychological scars.
And she is now a psychoanalyst and she belongs to a group of people who are very concerned to keep alive the memory of these children who were hidden during the war.
And so they campaigned for plaques to be put up on various buildings where children were taken during the war. So you'll walk down a Paris street, and you'll see a plaque saying: On this day, seven children were taken from this school. And then you'll walk 250 yards down the street, and on the other side, you'll see: On this day, three families were taken from this building. And then you walk a bit further along, you come to a hospital - and it's quite shocking and a good reminder of how important it is to keep these things in our conscience.
GROSS: You know, a difference between living in England and in France, and you've lived in both, you grew up in England and have lived in France since you were about 19?
SCOTT THOMAS: Yes.
GROSS: Yeah, I mean because France was occupied by the Nazis, there were collaborators in France, which is not something that happened in England. England was never occupied. England just fought against the Germans. So have you found yourself, during your life in France, sometimes wondering who was a collaborator and who wasn't, who resisted and who turned in Jews?
SCOTT THOMAS: Oh yes, certainly, and I think that's something which is - it's something that people say, you know, hmm, what were you doing during the war. It's still very much present, this idea of - and there's an expression that even kids will use if somebody, you know, is a goody-two-shoes in school or sucks up to the teacher or whatever. You know, they'll be called a collabo(ph) and...
GROSS: For collaborator.
SCOTT THOMAS: Yeah, so it's definitely remained in sort of the - in the air, you know, this idea of people who collaborated or didn't collaborate. And of course, now the people who are still alive and could be accused of that or have been accused of that are beginning to die.
So you'll - and during the time I've been living in France, there have been a great number of cases brought against people who are very, very old and probably about to die anyway but accused of collaboration and accused of doing terrible atrocities during the war.
There have been a number of those cases that I've seen go through the press.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kristen Scott Thomas, and she's now starring in the new film "Sarah's Key," which is set in the present and in 1942 during the French round-up of the Jews during the Nazi occupation of France.
You know, theoretically, I would've thought that moving to France would have narrowed the kinds of roles you would be accepted in, but it seems to have broadened it in a way. You've been in some really interesting French films, including "Tell No One" and "I've Loved You So Long." How did you get your footing in France as an actress after you moved there?
SCOTT THOMAS: Well, I moved there as a very young woman. I did my training, my acting training, there, and I started work in the theater. And then my first job was, in fact, on an American movie being shot in France, and then...
GROSS: That was Prince's movie, "Under the Cherry Moon," right?
SCOTT THOMAS: That's right, that's right, yeah.
GROSS: How did Prince discover you?
SCOTT THOMAS: Well, I'd been doing a play in a - I'd been in Marguerite Duras's play "In a Field in Burgundy," and then I got a call to go up for an audition to play one of the girlfriends in this film, you know, girlfriend that has one line. And so I dash up to Paris, put on my prettiest dress and go to this audition.
SCOTT THOMAS: Would you like to audition for the lead? And, you know, it was a complete surprise. And I said: Well, yes, I would like to audition for the lead, but I thought the lead had been cast.
And the lead had in fact been cast, but they decided to uncast it and give it to me instead. So I was in shock I think is the only word.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCOTT THOMAS: And so it kind of took off from there. And then I went to - I followed that movie to its opening in L.A. and then hung around in L.A. for a bit and saw what was out there for me and really didn't like it, came back to Europe and just started from scratch really.
But I had this experience, and I had this unlikely and brilliant experience of working on a film directed and starring Price, who was at the time the height of his powers and the height of his popularity.
GROSS: So I just need to ask you about working with Prince. He's such a great performer. But he seems so inscrutable. Was it easy to talk with him? Was he - did he communicate?
SCOTT THOMAS: Yes, he does - of course he communicated, and the more time we spent together, you know, working on this project the more we got to know each other and the less shy and inscrutable, as you say, he became.
And then suddenly the curtains would come down, the blackout, and you wouldn't be allowed to talk to him because he was creating or doing his music or - with somebody like him, there's always a million people, a sort of barrage of a million people around him, you know, sort of stopping you from becoming too friendly or whatever it is. There's - I think everyone's slightly afraid that you're going to be their favorite, and they're going to get downgraded.
So I think that was happening a lot. We were so young. When I think back now, it's just crazy. He was 24, and I was 23 or something. And all these people sort of running around him, no one running around me, but people running around making sure, you know, everything was all right, cups of tea, cups of coffee, this, that and whether the carpet under his feet was fluffy enough, and, you know, all this kind of thing. It's just - it seems completely mad.
And it sort of put me off that whole show-biz thing. It sort of put me off stardom. And in fact, one of the producers came into my dressing room just before we wrapped the movie. They came in to talk about promotion. And they said: Now, Kristen, very simple question, do you want to be a star or not?
SCOTT THOMAS: Well, actually, I don't really want to be a star, thank you very much. I want to be an actress. I don't really want to be a star. And - which is good because I didn't - I never really was.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Did you actually have a choice, like yes I want to be a star, so make me a star?
SCOTT THOMAS: Well, I think what they meant by that was would I be game to go and do, you know, the massive amounts of promotion, would I be game to go and be photographed and this, that and the other and, you know, did I want to get out there, basically, into the media.
And the answer was no. So I just sort of stuck to my guns. And I've been plodding through my career, and I've had times which have been extremely exciting creatively and, you know, artistically. And I have had other times when I've been tearing my hair out, thinking when am I going to get another job that it's actually worth me getting out of bed for because it just isn't - it's just the same old, same old thing, and it's really, really dull.
And for the past - I would say for the past six, seven years, I've just been doing things that I've really loved and really enjoyed, a mixture of French film, small roles in English-language films that have been quirky and great British theater, which is what I'm doing at the moment, which I'm absolutely thrilled about.
GROSS: Let me tell you, I see a lot of movies, and I'm so often frustrated. I mean, there's so many movies that aren't very good, and I guess you must feel that, too, as an actress, that there's a lot of stuff out there that you don't feel is worth your time.
SCOTT THOMAS: Some of I read, and I think why?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCOTT THOMAS: What's the point of spending so much money to do this?
GROSS: And time.
SCOTT THOMAS: When other projects that I've read can get green-lit because they haven't got a 24-year-old star in it, or they haven't got - or it can't be shown on primetime TV at 8 o'clock because whatever.
Pictures that I think are beautiful, have actual - who are poetic, who are inspirational, these movies that are, you know, that have a real strength to them, a real force to them, a sort of life force to them won't get made because they're not general enough or something, which is why working in France is, for me, the option I prefer simply because the stakes are so much lower.
Sure it still costs money to make a movie, but because no one's expecting, you know, massive windfalls and no one is - the competition isn't so stiff because it's a French-language market, so if it escapes the French-language market and goes onto foreign soil, as "Sarah's Key" has done, as "I've Loved You So Long" has done, then that's a bonus, and it's great, we're really happy. But basically, you know, if the film works in France, it's already great, and we're really happy.
GROSS: My guest is Kristen Scott Thomas. She stars in the new film "Sarah's Key." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with actress Kristen Scott Thomas. One of the films she's best known for is "The English Patient," which was released in 1996. It's set in the Saharan Desert before and during World War II. Colin Firth plays her husband. Ralph Fiennes plays a count conducting a geographical survey.
You end up having a very passionate affair with the Ralph Fiennes character in this film, and it's very romantic, very tragic movie. What impact did it have on your career to be the beautiful romantic leading lady?
SCOTT THOMAS: Well, it made a change.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCOTT THOMAS: From being the - sort of the one that never gets the guy, the unhappy one lurking in the background. It was great fun playing this sort of radiant woman, the sort of woman that everybody wants to be, you know, loved, beautiful, looking great sandy and with the love of poetry and love of nature and this incredibly handsome, rugged, grumpy count passionately in love with her. I mean, that's sort of what everybody wants, isn't it?
And I was able to do that for six weeks or something. It was great fun.
GROSS: So were you thought of for a lot of other romantic leads after that?
SCOTT THOMAS: Oh definitely, yes. Every time there was a desert, I'd get the call, and it's a sort of aristocratic, sharp object of desire. That's what I was categorized as at one point, I think.
GROSS: And is that what you wanted?
SCOTT THOMAS: No, I wanted variety. I think that's what we all - actresses and actors really, really want is variety. I find that the moment I make a film which involves a lot of soul-searching or deep emotion, I'll invariably pick a very silly comedy to do afterwards, which I will then kick myself for doing. But that's usually what happens.
GROSS: If you don't mind my bringing this up, I know your father was killed in a flying accident. He was in the Royal Navy. And six years later, your stepfather, also a pilot in the Royal Navy, was killed in a flying accident. I can hardly imagine how traumatic that must have been. What sense did it give you of the fragility of life to have two fathers killed in the same way?
SCOTT THOMAS: Well, that question requires a lot of answer.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCOTT THOMAS: And I can tell you that it has certainly been part of that - it's so deeply part of who I am that to describe what sense it gives to my life would, you know, it has taken my years on a couch. But it certainly is...
GROSS: You're talking about therapy?
SCOTT THOMAS: Yeah, it's just part of me. That's just the way it is. You know, some people grow up with their parents yelling at each other. Some people grow up with their parents, one of their parents seriously ill, and another can have a, you know, seemingly perfect childhood. It's just what your given, your lot, and you just get on with it. It sounds very British, all that, doesn't it?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: You know, it's funny. I don't think I'm the first person to point this out, but in "The English Patient," you die in a flying crash, in a plane crash.
SCOTT THOMAS: Yes, lots of people picked up on that when the film came out. I can't remember what my answers were to all the questions, but now it seems - it seems - I mean, it was a long time ago, "The English Patient," what, 12, 15 years ago. And I think that probably that was one of the reasons I really wanted to play that part because I did feel very emotionally linked to the events that go on in the film and that, you know, the idea that the man will come back for you, all those kinds of things.
I mean, you don't have to be a therapist to understand that. You know, it's very, very easy, simple. And those were the things that drew me to it, to be rescued by a man who you're at death's door after an airplane crash. You know, that's simple.
GROSS: Can I get your take on the Rupert Murdoch tabloid scandal? You know, you're British. I'm sure you have a lot of friends who mostly act in England and who have been hounded by the tabloids. Certainly, you know, Hugh Grant because you starred with him in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and he had his problems with the tabloids.
SCOTT THOMAS: Absolutely.
GROSS: Yeah, so your quick take on that?
SCOTT THOMAS: Well, he's been fantastic. I mean, I've seen him come out of the starting blocks and just be amazing on television and being really articulate and clever and really - I'm really happy to see he's doing all this.
GROSS: Have you ever been a victim of...?
SCOTT THOMAS: In fact, at the moment - yeah, a couple of times. But, I mean, you sort of - it's very, very, very unpleasant. It's a horrible feeling of being tracked like that, of being hunted. It's a horrible feeling of the damage, the collateral damage that is done because somebody may say something about you, which you can sort of brush off, but then your children hear it, too, and then, you know, I've had - I've had to, you know, mop lots of faces with things that people have said because they'd heard that their parents had read it in the paper and things that have basically been totally untrue, as well as things that have been true.
But made - things that are true and perfectly OK in everyday but life but when written in a certain - described in a certain way become, you know, sort of unworthy and unpleasant and just miserable. So we'll see what goes on. I mean, it's absolutely fascinating, all this, what's going on at the moment, quite extraordinary.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
SCOTT THOMAS: It's a pleasure.
GROSS: Kristen Scott Thomas stars in the new film "Sarah's Key." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.