Children lined up at Wild Rumpus bookstore to have their Nanny McPhee books signed last week were not greeted by the exceedingly homely, intensely beloved lead character of kiddie lit and big-screen fame.
Gone were those frightening moles, the steel-wool hair helmet, the witchy black dress and that ominous stray tooth.
In its place was the cheery, doe-eyed visage of Emma Thompson, 51, who plays McPhee in the first 2005 film and its sequel, "Nanny McPhee Returns," opening Friday. Thompson, the only person to have won Oscars for both acting and writing, is executive producer of the second film, and wrote the screenplays for both.
The project has clearly has been a labour of love -- and we feel compelled to use the British spelling of "labour" honorarily, because to be in Thompson's presence is to feel the best of England streaming sunnily your way. She had a wide smile and a question or comment for every one of the many dozens of kids at the Minneapolis store, as well as some of their parents: "It's so nice to meet another Jane Austen fan," she said to one, her face never betraying how many times she must have already said it before.
Nanny McPhee isn't as pretty as Mary Poppins, but her skills, both practical and magical, could be called superior. She doesn't make her young charges' troubles disappear, but rather gives them the tools to tackle them.
Working with five youngsters on the set led to some high jinks, Thompson said. Oscar Steer, who plays Vincent, the baby of the family, "would put worms in coffee cups and pull the step away from the door of my caravan so I would lurch when I came out," she said. "Then he would write a polite little note of apology. We had such fun; the last day of shooting all the kids were in tears" at the thought of it being over.
Thompson gives co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal, the only Yankee in an otherwise all-British cast, a thumbs-up on her "very convincing accent." Thompson almost bristled, or would have if she weren't so exceedingly nice, at the suggestion that to assemble such a stellar adult cast -- Rhys Ifans, Ewan McGregor, Maggie Smith and Ralph Fiennes make memorable appearances -- for small roles in a kids' film, they must have owed her favors. Not at all, she said: They all came on board "because I wrote a good script."
Although it's based on a children's tale, Thompson didn't take the writing side of it lightly. She spent seven years on the first movie, based on "Nurse Matilda" books by the late Christianna Brand, and four years on the sequel.
"It's very hard to please people of all ages," she said. "You have to strike just the right tone."
Part of that tone includes hints of darkness reminiscent of Roald Dahl's best work, though not as many as in the first film. But Thompson prefers the term realism to darkness.
"Children understand that life isn't all comedy; they know the effects of divorce, of loss," she said. "It's difficult being a child."
After her much publicized breakup with Kenneth Branagh, Thompson married Greg Wise, best known in the United States for playing the dashing cad John Willoughby in "Sense and Sensibility." They have two children, daughter Gaia, born in 1999, and grown son Tindy Agaba, whom they took in when he was a teenaged Rwandan soldier.
When then-5-year-old Gaia watched the departure of Nanny McPhee at the end of the first movie, she was "inconsolable," Thompson said. "She thought it was me leaving."
Thompson's recent visit to Grauman's Chinese Theatre to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame included plenty of comic effects -- a live pig, her old friend Hugh Laurie of "House" and a re-created British pub. But it was also sentimental for the daughter of actress Phyllida Law and the late director Eric Thompson. "My father took me there, and he died when I was very young, so it really brought that memory of him back to me," she said.
As sincerely nice as Thompson appears to be, she has never shied away from voicing opinions bound to strike a collective nerve. Most recently, while talking about a script rewrite she completed for a new version of "My Fair Lady," she called Audrey Hepburn "not a very good actress." Naturally, worshipers at the iconic Hepburn's altar were outraged. But Thompson waved off explaining further.
"It was just an offhand comment and too much has been made of it," she said.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046