Kristin Scott Thomas: Donald Trump Is No Winston Churchill

The Oscar-nominated actress dishes on her new role as Clementine Churchill in the film ‘Darkest Hour,’ the Hollywood ‘creep purge,’ and why we need more women in seats of power.

Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Donald Trump is a huge admirer of Winston Churchill.

The 45th President of the United States has tweeted quotes attributed to the late British prime minister 18 times—topping those 11 incensed communiqués when his beloved Edward was cheated on by Bella—and one of the first things the real estate baron did as president was restore a bust of Churchill to the Oval Office. If that weren’t enough, according to his staffers, Trump purposely scowled in photos during the campaign in order to project a tough-guy image “like Churchill.”

Of course, their aristocratic upbringings, portly physiques and vanishing hair notwithstanding, the two men couldn’t be further apart. Churchill was a legendary drinker, downing six whisky sodas, three brandies, and a few glasses of champagne a day; Trump is a teetotaler. Churchill actively sought military duty; Trump dodged the Vietnam draft. Churchill traveled to dangerous conflict zones in his youth; candidate Trump said that the most dangerous place he’d ever been to is “Brooklyn.” Churchill once remarked, “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny”; Trump calls the mainstream press “fake news.” Churchill was possessed of great intellectual curiosity, teaching himself the classics; Trump is a proud philistine. Churchill was a long-suffering MP who’d always dreamed of being prime minister; Trump ran for president on a lark. And so on and so forth.

“I don’t think you can compare Mr. Trump and Mr. Churchill. They’re just incomparable,” offers the actress Kristin Scott Thomas. “What’s amazing is how Churchill was so articulate, and how he won a war with words; he put words into battle. I think that is what Trump thinks he’s doing, but Churchill had an education, knowledge of history, and talent as a writer. He knew his stuff. He knew the sense of the world through history.”

Thomas, 57, knows a thing or two about Churchill, having subjected herself to loads of preparation—watching tape, poring over history books, reading correspondences, speaking to surviving grandchildren—in order to portray the former PM’s wife, Clementine, in the new film Darkest Hour.

We’re all very confused about our leadership in the moment—whether it’s in Europe, or the rest of the world.
Kristin Scott Thomas

Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), and featuring a towering turn from Gary Oldman as The British Bulldog, the movie dramatizes a pivotal moment during World War II when, with the Dunkirk evacuation a long shot and German forces advancing toward Great Britain, Prime Minister Churchill was forced to fend off fierce pleas from his War Cabinet for peace talks with Hitler. At one point in the film, exasperated by the constant undermining of Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, he exclaims, “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”

“We’re all very confused about our leadership in the moment—whether it’s in Europe, or the rest of the world,” says Thomas. “This is a film about a leader and about how difficult it is to be a leader. We know the rest of the story in the case of Churchill, and I think it’s very reassuring to watch a film like this and see that there are human beings that we can trust, and that are able to come up with the goods and lead their countries out of these very difficult situations.”

The tender scenes at home between Churchill, Clementine, and their children, however, stand in sharp contrast to the heated war ministry sequences. She has a unique way of both knowing when her husband has reached his breaking point, and breaking that tension with a clever quip. Clementine also wasn’t afraid to call out the prime minister for acting boorish or wasting money.

“Churchill’s not remote, and he’s affected by his emotions. The beauty of this particular film is we connect with the human being—his doubts, his fears, and at times, his sense of inadequacy, and being able to overcome that in part thanks to his relationship with his wife, who was a great supporter of his,” says Thomas. “Despite her own shortcomings and her own problems with depression—she was given electrotherapy—they balanced each other out very well.”

Keen-eyed KST observers will notice that, after her turn in 2014’s My Old Lady, there is a three-year gap on her film résumé. According to Thomas, who spent time working in the theater and with her family, the hiatus was intentional.

“I realized that I was spending more days a year pretending I was someone else than I was being me. I got a little bit burned out. I was working a lot,” she says.  

“I suddenly got sight of myself and thought it was time to regroup, and figure out what my priorities are—and not keep working for the sake of keeping working,” she adds.

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First came Sally Potter’s The Party, an ensemble black comedy, then a call from Wright, who told Thomas she’d be perfect for the role of Clementine Churchill.

It’s a far cry from her experience landing her breakout role, that of the glamorous Katharine Clifton in The English Patient, which earned Thomas her first and only Academy Award nomination. The film’s original studio, 20th Century Fox, wanted a big-name star like Demi Moore to portray Clifton—a sentiment that was shared by the film’s financiers when it moved over to Miramax Films. But Thomas says she received the role thanks to Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein, producer Saul Zaentz, and director Anthony Minghella, all of whom wanted her for the part.

Of course, even grand, sweeping romances like The English Patient have been sullied by the recent revelations about Weinstein: that, while producing these wonderful films, the movie mogul was also allegedly raping and terrorizing actresses, with close to a hundred women coming forward to accuse him of various degrees of sexual misconduct over the years.

“I didn’t have any of the experiences that other people have had. And I’m appalled by these revelations, and as shocked as anyone. I did not have that experience at all,” Thomas says of Weinstein. “He didn’t once come to the set. I’m an actress and I don’t really have much of a clue of what was going on behind the scenes, I just try to focus on my work.”

Thomas is, however, relieved that the Hollywood “creep purge” is finally happening.

“I think it’s a really good thing that all of this has come to the surface, and that it’s now being examined. I am so ready to expand the conversation—to stop thinking about specific cases, specific claims, and specific graphic descriptions of misconduct,” she says. “I think now we need to think about how we bring up our sons and to try to get men’s reactions to this, because it has to stop. And we need to stop letting people sell newspapers with these ghastly stories of things that happened or accusations. I’m fed up with that.”

She continues: “It’s not just in my industry—it’s all over the place in higher education, Wall Street, government. It’s absolutely everywhere. It’s very, very brave of these women to come forward and shine a spotlight on this problem, and now let’s widen the field. Let’s go from the ‘oh, the shock and horror, what a disgusting thought’-type of conversations and let’s make it a conversation about education and where we move forward from here.”

One of the things that Thomas is eager to see is more women in seats of power in Hollywood, and beyond. Currently, Thomas is prepping her feature directorial debut, The Sea Change. Adapted from the Elizabeth Jane Howard novel of the same name, the film centers on a famous London playwright (Mark Strong) and his wife (Thomas) whose marriage encounters some unexpected twists and turns during a trip to a remote Greek island. Anya Taylor-Joy is also attached to star, though Thomas says that she’s still trying to cobble together financing for the project.

“I’m trying very hard. It’s tricky getting the money together,” she explains. “But the more women are involved in decision-making, planning for the future, and reacting to the present, the more respect and less abuse there will be around. I’m sure of it.”