Emilia Clarke was renovating her home when the Game of Thrones actress starting filming Last Christmas, the holiday romantic comedy co-starring and co-written by Emma Thompson. The moment Thompson discovered that Clarke was spending her few hours off-set in, essentially, a construction zone, the Oscar-winning actress and writer (Howard’s End, Sense and Sensibility) put an immediate stop to it.
“She was like, ‘Darling, this is fucking ridiculous. Come and stay with me,’” Clarke told Vanity Fair last month. “So I did. I lived in a flat that Emma had [down the road] from her house for a lot of the filming. She used to make me dinner every night. . . .We would just have a martini, digest the day, and then maybe watch a little something or read the paper. Then I’d go home and the next day we’d drive in together.”
Sometimes Thompson’s mother, the actress Phyllida Law, would join the duo. Other times, Clarke and Thompson would dig into Thompson’s stack of award screeners and unwind with a movie.
It was a non-traditional working relationship on a non-traditional romantic comedy. Last Christmas—based on the 1986 George Michael song—marked Thompson’s first rom-com. And Thompson—who had previously written Sense and Sensibility, Nanny McPhee, and Effie Gray—briefly panicked about the prospect of tackling the genre. Her worry faded, however, when she realized she would just do the rom-com her way. “It was so clearly not going to just be about two people who ought to be together,” Thompson told Vanity Fair in a separate interview. “It was so clearly going to be about one person figuring herself out as well. ”
When audiences meet the film’s protagonist Kate (Clarke), she is hurtling between temporary housing situations. An aspiring singer who supports herself as a holiday sales elf, Kate clacks aimlessly across London’s cobble stone streets with a suitcase in tow and a chip on her shoulder. Though Kate meets a romantic interest of sorts in Henry Golding’s Tom, the film primarily tracks her trajectory towards self-fulfillment and a repaired relationship with her mother (Thompson).
Thompson modeled Kate’s clumsy search for existential clarity on what she felt in her younger years.
“I remember this so, so well—feeling weightless in some strange way, and wondering how I could access solidity, really,” Thompson recalled. Thompson and husband Greg Wise—who co-wrote the script—wrote certain lines that she wished her younger self could have heard onscreen. At one point, Kate says, “I just don’t know who I am. I don’t know who to be. I don’t know how to be.” Tom responds, “There’s no such thing as normal—why can’t we be uncertain and inconsistent?” Explained Thompson, “I think these are things that we need to hear more of, because I think that we’re tempted so often to oversimplify ourselves and life and the processes of life. And I actually don’t want to hear that anymore. I’m bored with that.”
“And if you think about the great mythologies,” Thompson continued, “Certainly of global cultures and ancient cultures. . myths are really complicated. It was fairy tales that started to simplify things, and I’ve always thought that was a big mistake. We were not going to write something that ends with a fairytale marriage where they live happily ever after. That wasn’t for us. We wanted to make something that said that love actually does, if you work at it, conquer all. That’s true. Love is the best tool that you have, but you better make sure that you direct it towards yourself first.”
Thompson said that self-love was a concept she had difficulty embracing at first. “Both my mother and grandmother would not have understood what was meant by that,” Thompson said. “To give yourself to other people, sacrifice, and love as much as you can, O.K.—but to direct that towards yourself, they would go, ‘That’s selfish. That’s self-important.’ That was the generation I grew up with. And I admired that generation with all my heart, because they survived two wars. They were very impressive to me. It took a long time to realize I didn’t just have to turn away from every single personal need—that it was okay to be selfish sometimes, and it was also O.K. to be angry. And that is all part of self-love, because it’s all part of accepting that you’re never going to be perfect. You’re never going to be normal, whatever that is, because it doesn’t exist. It’s a very dangerous concept. Everyone is infinitely various and infinitely complicated, and the sooner we get our minds around that and start writing to it, the better.”
Clarke said that Kate’s unapologetic imperfection was refreshing and relatable. “That’s what I loved about her,” Clarke said, comparing Kate to more traditional rom-com heroines. “Because so often, in movies, it’s just bloody annoying, isn’t it? You’re like, ‘Well, no one’s like that. No one’s coifed and perfect.’ What if she’s in a bad mood? What if she’s textured, and layered, and has some different elements going on, and doesn’t wake up with tweety birds singing around her head? Kate is the exact opposite [of what I’ve seen]—I saw myself in her. I saw my friends in her. I got who she was.”
Though Clarke had been on plenty of film and television sets by the time she started Last Christmas, the actress was still nervous. And pre-emptively apologized to Thompson for any potential screwups she’d make. “I remember just looking at her and being like, ‘Just let me know if I mess it up.’ She was like, ‘What!’ Gets me in this huge hug, and is like, ‘I’ll do nothing of the sort. You’re going to be fine.’ That was the dynamic from there on out,” said Clarke. “She just supported us in his magical way. I hadn’t met her before [the film] but I had been pretty obsessed with her my whole life. When I met her, she exceeded all of my expectations.”
Though Clarke is no longer Thompson’s neighbor—the Game of Thrones actress moved back into her home once construction was finished—she recently played houseguest to the Oscar winner again.
“I’ve had the good fortune of going to visit her and Greg’s house in Scotland,” Clarke said of a recent trip. As for the preferred activity on that vacation: “They love a good sauna,” Clarke revealed. “You jump into their stream, you get freezing cold, and then you jump back in the sauna, and then get back in the stream. It was me, Emma, and Greg in the nude in a sauna, jumping back and forth and shrieking. . . it was a dream.”
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