Photo: Ferdaus Shamim/Getty Images
What mother hasn't become a bear when dealing with her teenage daughter? That's literally Emma Thompson's storyline in "Brave," which snagged a Golden Globe nomination for Best Animated Feature Film yesterday on its sure-footed way to an Academy Award nomination. In the Scotland-set toon, which has grossed $535 million theatrically and is out on DVD and Blu-ray, Thompson voices Queen Elinor to Kelly Macdonald's spunky Merida. Thompson, 53, who has won an Oscar for her "Sense and Sensibility" script as well as best actress for "Howards End," and played Professor Sybil Trelawney in the "Harry Potter" series, shared insights about "Brave" and her relationship with her 13-year-old daughter, Gaia, with actor Greg Wise.
Thelma Adams: Let's start with the meat of this movie: the mother-daughter relationship...
Emma Thompson: My character, the mother, has suppressed a lot of her natural instincts to fulfill her responsibilities as queen, like many women, not all of them royals. We can understand why Elinor behaves as she does. She doesn't really listen, and she doesn't pay the right kind of attention to her daughter. She doesn't see that Merida's rebellion comes from being asked to do what the mother was asked. Elinor just sees the rebellion. And that resonates for mothers raising teenagers, not just queens and princesses, because often we're not paying our daughters the right kind of attention. As a mother, you have to be quite forensic: You need to listen to your daughter and pick out the critical information.
TA: What clues does this dynamic offer for modern parents?
ET: Listen in the right way. Spend time quietly with your children. You don't have to be solving problems all the time. Check in with them regularly so they know you're there, but telling them what to do doesn't cut it.
TA: Any more advice to share -- since I also have a spunky 13-year-old daughter?
ET: I got a good bit of advice from a friend of mine. When his daughter slammed her door, he removed the door altogether and hid it. He took the door for two weeks. At the end of two weeks without the door, his daughter promised not to slam it. My friend put the door back and they lived happily ever after.
TA: Both my daughter and I found ourselves weeping watching this movie because the real-life issues hit so close to home, even if they're wrapped in glorious animated images.
ET: It does make you weep. My daughter who's 13 wept, too. I love the fact that the mother becomes a stranger and monstrous.
TA: To me it shows how being a mother to a teenage daughter, however beloved, can turn you into a bear. My girlfriends frequently lament that they suddenly find themselves standing opposite their daughters bellowing, or finger-pointing, or calling their girls "young lady," and wondering who they themselves have become: absolute bears.
ET: Bears are amongst the most protective creatures on Earth and fantastically powerful creatures. Queen Elinor's not a lion or a tigress or a wolf, but a bear. She became something hugely powerful and massive. Some women have said, you're never truly free until your mother dies. Whether that's true or not, whether good or bad, or she's been a happy presence or not, the case may still be the same. Mothers are or can be these very powerful, too powerful, brooding presences in their daughters' lives.
TA: It seems to me that there are relatively few movies that explore the mother-daughter relationship as the spine of the story. Do you agree?
ET: The mother-daughter relationship is not often explored in this way, certainly not where the mother becomes massively powerful and also utterly helpless. When Elinor transforms into a bear, she becomes like a baby, a creature of huge power and complete dependency.
TA: How did you form the character of Elinor?
ET: I drew on a lot of Celtic folklore and Scottish myths, and then the rather Victorian mores that Elinor's forced to adopt as queen. One of the great pleasures of the movie was that my character was also a great archer; that's a very satisfying twist on the expected endings to such fables. And as to everything else, I drew on just being a mother of a young woman who is growing and finding her power. What battles do you fight, and which do you leave? How do you help them to defer gratifications as well?
TA: How do you manage that one?
ET: On my daughter's 13th birthday she had her ears pierced, and there have been lots of rows about it because we hadn't let her get it done earlier. There were refusals to talk to the parentals ever again. But the ear piercing gave her such pleasure because of that denial.
TA: I find it hard as a working mother to really channel that teenage girl mindset. It's so very intense and yet decades later it's challenging for me to relate.
ET: We forget our priorities do change and teenagers' priorities are very particular. Luckily, I do have an extremely good memory and I wrote a five-year diary from 13 to 18. I can literally look at my diaries of the same day and read what I was obsessing about: boys, how you look, and friendship. I'm still basically a teenager. That's unfortunate. I'm still slightly infantile. Perhaps that's necessary for my job.
TA: Do you have any strategies to share?
ET: It's just finding really interesting, clever ways to tell them what to do. Offering up useful strategies, or finding the right person to tell them the information, the right book at the right time. In the loo that I share with my daughter, there's an introduction to psychology. I leave it on the floor. Psychology's quite interesting at 13: Analytic thought about the brain helps you to understand your emotional lability.
TA: What's next for you?
ET: I have three movies coming out that I've already shot, so I'm planning to take time off. The teenage years are the toughest. You have to be around the most, but just present enough to know you're there. So, I'll be sitting tight and watching my 13-year-old develop, pretending to be a bear.
See a clip from 'Brave':