Last week, Kristin Scott Thomas, the British actress, found herself in an enormous meeting room in the bowels of the Louvre museum, rubbing shoulders with Marlene Schiappa, the French Minister for Equality; Francois-Henri Pinault, the CEO of Kering; and Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris.
Scott Thomas was presiding over the 14th global meeting of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, a sort of Davos for women’s voices on key issues and policies attended by 2,500 leaders from more than 90 countries, debating topics like equal access to health care and gender-based violence.
On October 18, the forum had announced the naming of Scott Thomas as honorary president.
Few people were probably more surprised to find herself playing the part than Scott Thomas herself.
“I thought there must be some mistake,” she said over tea at the Wolseley in London a few days before the event. “I’m not a feminist. I’m not a politician.”
Nevertheless, newly relocated to Britain from France (where she spent decades married to a French doctor, before their divorce), and enjoying a career resurgence (she is about to appear in Netflix’s adaptation of ‘Rebecca’ as Mrs Danvers), she is preparing to take on the role.
“Really, I’m doing it for incredibly selfish reasons,” she said. When she was married to a surgeon, who was a fertility expert, she said, she “somehow felt justified in my choice of career, and having photographs taken and make-up applied. It was all about dresses. Sometimes that can let a little bit overwhelming and you can think, hang on, there is more to life than looking attractive and selling magazines.”
That feeling had been building gradually, until, she said, “you spend so much energy promoting films, and I just think, if you could use that energy promoting things that are literally going to change people’s lives, then you should be doing it.”
It was Maurice Levy, the chairman of the supervisory board of Publicis Groupe, the French advertising and communications group that bought a majority stake in the Women’s Forum in 2009, who chose Scott Thomas for the Women’s Forum.
He is, he said by phone, something of a Kristin Scott Thomas “groupie.”
“I had admired her for many years,” Levy said. The appointment was “something that I did very personally.”
No shortlist was drawn up, no votes were held. Usually, he said, he has little to do with the day-to-day running of the forum, but on this matter he was sure “there was one, and one only.”
So he ferreted out her personal email address and invited her to lunch earlier this year. “She has been a little bit tough to convince,” Levy said. “I had to insist. I had to be patient. She turned me down at first.” Over the next few months, he wooed her with text messages and invitations.
“It is the brain,” Levy said, when pushed on why he was so convinced Scott Thomas was the right choice (a representative of the Women’s Forum also acknowledged that the organisation hoped Scott Thomas would help it reach a new audience, giving the forum the same star dazzle that Angelina Jolie has brought to the United Nations).
“She is considered as a great actress — she’s a star,” Levy said. “But at the same time she is considered as being an intellectual.”
Scott Thomas, 59, does not know why she is regarded as such a great thinker. Yet since her earliest work as an actress, save for a turn in the disastrous Prince vanity project “Under the Cherry Moon,” she has usually played smart-girl roles.
On-screen, she makes cutting remarks that keep men on their toes. She smokes cigarettes haughtily. She makes devastatingly pithy asides. She surveys the melee of a joyful dancing crowd with disdain.
The associations have stuck, she said. Sometimes, she wonders if people think the only thing she does all day is get in and out of large cars in dark glasses.
Not Levy. “When you discuss with her, you see that she is extremely knowledgeable about what is happening to the women, she has been shocked about what happened with the Weinstein story,” he said. “She is highly motivated by the cause, but it’s more than a cause, as it’s half of the worldwide population.”
When the topic of sexual harassment is raised, Scott Thomas presents as more weary than outraged, more uncertain than furious, her stance not unlike the French response to #MeToo, which was more ambivalent.
She is, however, aware of the pressure that many actresses face today to speak up; the opposite of the old pressure to stay silent. “That we have to be a victim of something?” she said. “I find that quite annoying, actually: ‘So what’s your horror story? Can we have it, please?’ And maybe there isn’t one.”
In 1992, Scott Thomas starred in ‘Bitter Moon’, directed by Roman Polanski, who, in 1977 was charged with the rape of a 13-year-old girl. Many actors have now reflected on similar collaborations with Polanski, later apologising or rethinking their choice to work with him, or with other powerful figures such as Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein, who allegedly abused women.
Scott Thomas said that, so far, she hasn’t been probed on the issue, but anticipates that will change.
“It’s very difficult,” she said. “I think Woody Allen is an incredibly talented director, and I would love to work with him.”
“I don’t know if it’s about now. Or yesterday. It’s not a question of time. I think he’s an incredibly talented director. People have said things about him — and others — that make you sort of think, Well, do I want to work with that human being? So, I don’t really know what the answer to that question is.”
Scott Thomas is not the first celebrity who has waded into muddy waters: Scarlett Johansson and Diane Keaton have defended Allen. But given Scott Thomas’ new role, her comments highlight the complexities that may occur when actors are presented as activists.