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Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack are in the middle of a long press day for their new film, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, and they swear they're not tired of talking about nudity — quite the opposite, in fact. The sweet, sex-positive dramedy, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year, has a lot to do with lovemaking. It follows Nancy Stokes (Thompson), a widowed and retired school teacher, who is yearning for some adventure, so she hires a handsome young sex worker named Leo Grande (McCormack, of TV's Peaky Blinders).
"Don't be so diminishing, don't be so reductive," Thompson playfully teases when EW asks about the onscreen sex. "No, no, we're having a wonderful time! We're talking about all sorts of things."
True to her word, Thompson and McCormack touched on everything from the completely nude rehearsal they did with director Sophie Hyde, to the way the 63-year-old double Oscar winner approached her powerful full-frontal scene, and the importance of on-set snacks.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were you hesitant, or scared even, to take on these intimate roles?
DARYL MCCORMACK: I was a little bit nervous, because the nature of the film is very exposing. It is just two people in one room telling a story, and as an actor, I've never had that challenge. And obviously working with someone like Emma was daunting in its own way because I have such admiration for her. So I had my own challenges in that regard. But at the same time, that exposure gave us only one option, which was to connect to the characters and to connect to each other as actors. And so that in a sense was our anchor.
EMMA THOMPSON: Yeah, you know what? Not at all. The script was so wonderful. Scripts are like a vessel. And some are really well put together — this is going to hold water. It's going to see us through this voyage. It's going to really hold us. And when you set off, you don't know what the voyage is going to be like, the squalls and the tempest and whether you're ever going to see dry land again. And right in the middle, [mimics treading water], we thought, "Oh, God, maybe..." [Both laugh] Just because it's two people unpeeling everything inside themselves. And it was such a privilege, really. So I wasn't scared. I was excited.
I read that you did a naked rehearsal with your director, Sophie Hyde, where the three of you all stood around nude with each other. Is that normal practice in the industry for a film with nudity? And what was that experience like for you?
THOMPSON: We wouldn't know, I've never done —
MCCORMACK: I don't think so?
THOMPSON: We didn't do a lot of rehearsal naked, but we did need, we felt, to get that moment of disrobing out of the way, so that when we came to it at the end, it wasn't something we hadn't done before. And we also just wanted to familiarize ourselves with the bodies — we knew we would have to touch each other and be very close physically. And so that was a little moment of getting over the awkwardness, which goes very quickly, actually, oddly, because there's a much higher purpose at hand. And that higher purpose is the revelation of two genuinely fully-rounded human beings who are going through a huge journey.
What other prep did you do for these roles?
MCCORMACK: I got to speak to some sex workers alongside Sophie, our director, and it felt very important. I mean, the script had just done a beautiful job of highlighting an area of sex work that's not in the mainstream — just to see the capacity and the value that sex workers can offer. So it was important to me that I did get to meet sex workers because in a sense, I was carrying a lot of their essence into Leo. And Katy [Brand], the writer, is based in Germany, where sex work is legal. So she has a really great grasp on that. And I think that was vital in terms of my prep, definitely.
One of the most powerful moments in the film comes near the end, when Nancy fully disrobes in front of a mirror and the camera lingers on her, looking at her body and having a moment of acceptance with it. Emma, you have said you don't like looking in the mirror. Was the scene cathartic for you in a way?
THOMPSON: Well, don't forget, it's Nancy's moment, not my moment. We really must draw a very strong line there and explain that what I'm doing there in that moment is being someone else in as fully realized a way as I can after decades of doing this job. So this isn't some sort of, "Oh my God, Emma's doing this thing of looking as..." I'm not. I'm playing a woman called Nancy who at the end of this very extraordinary conversation and experience that she's had — an intimate experience, but not a romantic experience with this person — is now encountering herself in a form that she's never encountered before.
She's looking at herself, but she's not judging herself. It's like a meeting of the body. She doesn't judge it either positively or negatively. It is a neutral gaze. And within that neutrality is acceptance. And within that acceptance, crucially, is the possibility of further joy, and that her pleasure is connected to her spiritual wellbeing is very clear. Because her spiritual wellbeing, her understanding of humanity, her understanding of Leo and of herself, has been so profoundly deepened during this time that they've had together. So that was how I prepared Nancy at that moment, and that's what I was looking for.
Searchlight Pictures Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson in 'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande'
The film has much to say about all kinds of seemingly taboo topics, from brutally honest feelings on parenthood, to sex work and body acceptance. Did you find that working on this film challenged your own thinking on those subjects?
THOMPSON: Not really, actually. Sex work I've thought quite a lot about, because I've done quite a lot with anti-trafficking stuff, and trafficking, of course, is slavery. It's not sex work. We have to make sure that those two things are never conflated. As for the situation of women in relation to their sexuality, I've thought about very little else since I was 19 — seriously. Everything I've ever done was leading somehow to this part, this tiny film made for very little money, for 19 days in a lockdown city, in the east coast of England. It was a culmination of everything I've been thinking about, including body image, motherhood, all of the taboos that we are so unwilling to talk about.
A friend of mine, a woman, said, "Gosh, it was like sunbathing." There's a warmth in it that does keep you safe and warm at the same time as sometimes giving you a bit of a fright or a jolt or making you think, "Oh my God, that's true. I never thought like that." It's never sententious or preachy. It's all so subtly written, because it's all written into us as human beings. We're surrounded by the iconography of all of this, all the time. So we ingest everything from a very early age. And I think that Nancy's a great example of someone who carries her biases around inside her, and Leo of someone who somehow managed to unlock himself and therefore is able to unlock other people. It's an amazing piece of writing.
The sunbathing metaphor is perfect, because it really is such a warm film. And a lot of that warmth, I would say, comes from Leo, and the way that he treats Nancy and coaches her a bit, but in a kind way — he's never talking down to her. They learn so much from each other. At this moment in your career, Daryl, what did you personally learn from Emma?
MCCORMACK: I think the joy that Emma has in her work is infectious. The choice you have to really lead — Emma's just an incredible leader, I have to say. I remember the first day, second day on set, she knew everyone's name. She greeted everyone. And I was really inspired by that because I think in this profession, it can be so easy to go the other way. And I think Emma just carries her gorgeous humanity into her work. And that really inspired me, because I think it creates that foundation of acceptance and joy and recognition, that you recognize your co-creators and that everyone is involved in that process.
THOMPSON: You haven't said anything about snacks.
MCCORMACK: Oh, that you have good selection in snacks?
THOMPSON: You've got to have a good snack. At about four.
MCCORMACK: Yes. And napping at lunchtime is very key — very key.
But what are the snacks?
THOMPSON: We would have an oat cake with peanut butter and honey.
BOTH: And a big cup of tea [Laughs]