Emma And Elena, Exposing The Sex Trade Through a striking art installation, actress Emma Thompson chronicles a naive 18-year-old from a small Eastern Europe republic who was caught up in London's sex trade. Her name is Elena, and her story makes its debut in New York on Nov. 10.
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Emma And Elena, Exposing The Sex Trade

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Emma And Elena, Exposing The Sex Trade

Emma And Elena, Exposing The Sex Trade

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, Cecilia Bartoli will join us to talk about her latest project.

But first, Emma Thompson may be best known by the roles she's played so memorably on screen and stage. But today she joins us to tell us a different story: Elena's story.

Elena is from a small town in Moldova and at the age of 18 she was promised a job and a future in the United Kingdom. Instead, she was trafficked into the sex industry.

Emma Thompson is hoping to raise awareness about women like Elena who are forced into the global sex trade. She's launching an art installation in New York next month and joins us from our studios in London.

Emma Thompson, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. EMMA THOMPSON (Actress): Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And please tell us about this art exhibit.

Ms. THOMPSON: Well, I work with an extraordinary woman called Helen Bamber, who's 82 and started her life as a sort of human rights activist when she was age 19. And it was through her - 'cause I'm chair of her foundation - that I met one of our clients who had been, as you said, sold into this global industry.

And it was a remarkable experience to sit in my little flat, where I work, for two hours one afternoon and have her tell me everything. From the moment that she met this woman in the market who was really nice and had a family and said, you know what, I know that you're having difficulties and your father's just died and you can't to school anymore, it's frustrating, but I think I could get you a job as a doctor's receptionist in London and then you'd be able to save some money, be able to go back to school, and sold this lovely sounding life that Elena was so thrilled by.

So she agreed to come here, and that was the beginning of this journey into hell. And she was sold by this woman to someone who then took her on a very long journey, via Czechoslovakia and Dublin and Glasgow, to London, where she was beaten and tortured and starved and forced to work as a prostitute.

And she got out of it several years later. It's a very long story and I don't know whether to tell you the whole thing, because it would take quite some time. But she and I met and we had a long process, really, where we talked about what she'd been through. And I said, how are we going to tell this story? Do you want to tell it in a film? Do you want to tell it in a play? How do you want to tell it?

And we decided that some form of art, something that you went into that actually engaged you in a different way to just sitting and watching a screen, was very important, because you've already been objectified, and sometimes I think watching those things on the screen actually furthers or deepens that sense of objectification. So we...

SIMON: Makes you into a character, not a person?

Ms. THOMPSON: Well, yes, in a way. And also, you know, the person who's watching is just sitting there watching. They're not walking, they're not doing, they're not seeing and feeling things in a different way. So I thought, okay, how do I approach this?

So I said to her, let's divide up the story into pieces and see whether we can make - seven pieces, I chose, 'cause seven's a magic storytelling number. And I'd already had this notion that shipping containers, just because they resonate so strongly, they're such powerful, huge objects, and we associate them with the movement of goods, which is essentially how she was treated.

I said what about we take seven shipping containers and we - into each one we put one aspect of your journey, of your story, and we try to give people a sense of that journey, a real physical sense of that journey. And we set it in Trafalgar Square, two years ago. And through the week that it sat in Trafalgar Square, 13,000 people walked through.

And I remember one of the most extraordinary things about putting that together and the whole experience was when Elena came down herself to see the installation. It's very interesting. She kept saying, it's so interesting the way people listen, they want to listen. And I could see that the fact of their listening and hearing this story was having a very positive effect on her.

And the next day she came down again and she said, you know, I'd like to volunteer. Because outside the end of the containers - and we will do this in New York as well - we had a lot of volunteers waiting to talk to people so that they could express what they felt, because it's a very difficult thing to experience. And I remember on one of the last days I was marveling at her, her bravery, anyway, but a man came out and he was a big, burley bloke, very - he looked rather sort of aggressive, actually, but he also looked punch-drunk, as though he'd been smacked in the face. And she went up to him and said, are you all right? And he came to almost and he looked at her and he said, yes, yes, I, I, but I'm afraid, he said, I'm afraid.

He said, why are you afraid? What are you afraid of? And he said, but it could be my sister, it could be my daughter, it could be anyone. And then he took her by the shoulders and he looked into her eyes and he said, this woman, this woman - this woman who it happened to, is she all right? And you know, not knowing that he was talking to the very person upon whose story the whole installation was based. And she looked at him and she said, you know, she's fine, she's doing fine.

And I realized that - that experience had gone a long way towards healing here, that she in her turn was healing people who had, as it were, had a palimpsest of that experience though coming through the installation. And that for me, I think, was the most profound moment of the whole endeavor.

SIMON: Ms. Thompson, this exhibit opens in Washington Square Park, I gather?

Ms. THOMPSON: That's right, Washington Square. It opens to the public on the 10th and will be sitting there until the 16th and I sit there with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMPSON: I'm there most of the time. So when people come out, they're able to talk to me too.

SIMON: So you're just jetting in and out. This is…

Ms. THOMPSON: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. This is - I was there the whole time. The whole week I was there in Trafalgar Square talking to people before they went in and talking to them afterwards. It's very personal journey for me as well. It's very important for me to try to explain this as best as I can to people.

SIMON: Would you forgive me for switching directions?

Ms. THOMPSON: No, no, that's fine. I've blathered on forever.

SIMON: I find a lot of people are intrigued by the fact, and even a little bit disbelieving, when I say, Emma Thompson, she got her start doing sketch comedy in Cambridge.

Ms. THOMPSON: Mm-hmm, absolutely. No, no, I mean, I didn't want to be an actress. I wanted to be a comedian. I started writing sketch comedy when I was about 19. And when I went to Cambridge, the first people I met were Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMPSON: And so that kind of did it - do you know what I mean?

SIMON: That's very distinguished (unintelligible)…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So how - I'm afraid I don't know how you got from sketch comedy to Shakespeare and serious drama.

Ms. THOMPSON: Well, I did - Hugh, Stephen and I went on, when we left university, doing sketch comedy for a living. After that, Robbie Coltrane was asked to do a television series called "Tooty Fruity." They were looking for the girl and I met these guys and they said, yeah, here you go - we'd like you to do this, and I won my first BAFTA for that performance. And that was kind of it - then they sort of said, okay, we want you to act.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMPSON: Please don't do anymore comedy. We want you to act. But as I keep saying to young actors, you couldn't have a better start than doing comedy because A) it's harder than anything, B) it's more scary than anything, so anything you do after that won't be so scary, and C) it's the best possible training for your brain, because you have to think on your feet all the time.

SIMON: Emma Thompson, she is launching an art installation in Washington Square. It's already been mounted in Trafalgar Square in London, depicting the journey of women trafficked into the sex industry. Emma Thompson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. THOMPSON: You're very welcome. Thanks for having me.

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