Kristin Scott Thomas finally unveils her softer, gentler side
November 1999
By Nancy Collins
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo Editor Jennifer Crandall

Dream girl: Silk chiffon lounge robe by Tuleh; spaghetti strap chemise by Helena Stuart; satin shoes by Jimmy Choo.

When she was 8, Kristin Scott Thomas had a dream. It was about choices and an overwhelming fear of making the wrong ones -things a little girl shouldn't have to worry about. "It took place in the Antarctic, and there was a plain of white snow," the actress says in her soft British accent. "And there were two little trains ‑ like Disneyland trains ‑ back‑to‑back. My mommy was getting into one train, and my stepdaddy was getting into the other, and I had to choose which one to get into. The whole horror of the dream was not being able to choose, then waking up. I'm terrified of making the wrong choice."

Luckily for Scott Thomas, she has hardly made a bad move yet. Moviegoers know her as Hugh Grant's tart‑tongued gal pal in the 1994 hit Four Weddings and a Funeral, as the love‑struck adulteress in 1996's The English Patient ‑ a role that won her an Oscar nomination ‑ and for her part opposite Robert Redford in 1998's The Horse Whisperer. But it's her new film, Random Hearts, with Harrison Ford, that may prove to be the actress's riskiest venture. After all, this is a woman who likens her method of acting to a "huge mathematical structure. I want to act -pretend everything, plan it out, know exactly what I'm going to do," she says. But playing a tough‑minded congresswoman whose life comes undone when her husband dies in a plane crash, Scott Thomas pushed herself in strange new directions. "[Director Sydney Pollack] didn't rehearse and told me to relax and trust the material," she says. "He gave me faith in being instinctive. No one can take that away from me now."

This new sense of freedom seems to have permeated Scott Thomas' life on a personal level as well. Sitting in a New York bistro, fresh from an overnight flight from Paris, the actress, famous for her reserve, is funny, relaxed and warm. But there are also some pensive, painful moments. Random Hearts is a story that hit uncomfortably close to home for her, she says. When Scott Thomas was 6 years old, living in the small town of Dorset, England, her father, a British royal navy pilot, was killed during a routine training exercise. Six years later, her stepfather, also a navy pilot, died in an eerily similar accident. 'After the second death," says Scott Thomas, "my mother was majorly depressed for a very long time. She wouldn't eat. She was terrified."

Shortly after her stepfather's death, Scott Thomas, then 12 years old, and her younger sister Serena were put on a train to Cheltenham Ladies' College, 100 miles away in the Cotswolds, leaving two younger brothers and a younger sister to be raised by their mother, Deborah, in Dorset. "During our teens and 20s, my sister and I were vengeful about the whole thing. 'Why me?' 'Why us?' And it was partly because of the way it was dealt with in the family. My mother told us, 'Father's dead. Right. Back to school,"' says Scott Thomas. " I was talking about this with my sister recently. I said something about when Daddy died, and she said, 'Can you tell me about that? Because no one has ever told me before.'"

The search for answers in her own life led Scott Thomas to move at age 18 to Paris, where she worked as an au pair and studied drama at the Ecole Nationale des Arts et Techniques du Théâtre. It was there that she made her first big choice. During an evening acting class, she met Francois Olivieness, a medical student looking for a break from scalpels and sutures. "It wasn't 'Gasp! I've never seen a man so beautiful in my entire life,"' says Scott Thomas. "I just really liked him. It was evident from the beginning that we would be together ‑ which was extraordinary."

The two finally married when Scott Thomas was 26, and they settled in an apartment in Paris' chic Left Bank. While Olivieness stayed on the medical track (he is now considered to be one of France's leading fertility specialists), Scott Thomas' movie career took off. Her break came in 1984, when she was spotted in a Marguerite Duras play by a casting director searching for an unknown to star opposite Prince in Under the Cherry Moon. "Prince gave me my first job; he had faith in me," Scott Thomas says. "During the movie he kept telling me I had great talent. It's incredibly moving when people believe in you from Day One."

Believing in herself took a bit more doing. Some of her greatest self-revelations, she says, have come through psychotherapy. She has been seeing a therapist three times a week for the past several years. "I don't think I'll ever be cured," she says, laughing. "But therapy has made me like people more. I didn't like them at all before. I was always braced, ready for the fight, to be attacked ‑ defensive the whole time."

It was motherhood, Scott Thomas says, "that gave me more confidence in myself. Even though it's the most mundane thing in the world, being pregnant and delivering a baby especially -producing a boy- that really did it for me." She and Olivieness share their Paris apartment and a country cottage in Burgundy, France, with their two children, Hannah, 11, and Joseph, 8. "They fight like cats and dogs, but miss each other so when they're not together," she says proudly. "We just moved into a bigger apartment where each has his own bedroom -they didn't before ‑ but they still like to sleep in the same room. It's so sweet." As for more children, Scott Thomas admits, "I'd be delighted to be pregnant at this moment, but my husband, the fertility specialist, tells me after 36 your chances go down."

Still, having children has forced her to confront the dilemma of the modern woman: to work, to mother or to do both? "Hugh Grant once said that if Hollywood called, I'd drop those kids like hot potatoes," she says, laughing. "I was horrified he thought that, and I denied it furiously. But I think I was just blaring my own trumpet, because, basically, it was a lie. My career was more important. But now, I think I could leave working as an actress. I used to have such a motor. This hunger for success that I've always had seems to be quelling."

As is her willingness to meet the demands of the job. "What other business expects you to leave your family for six months?" she says. "The worst thing is the detachment you have to have about leaving, on both ends. I never want to go make a movie. I'm always in tears in the taxi, going, 'What am I doing? Why am I leaving my family?' But then I get into the work, and I calm down. Because I do love what I do."

So it seems Scott Thomas is making her peace with those sometimes painful choices. "You can't have it all. I know that now," she says with a confident smile. " I know I don't have it all. But I have enough, thank you. I have no regrets."