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Actress Emma Thompson on 'Nanny McPhee Returns'

‘McPhee’ is a joy for writer star

Choosing a favorite Emma Thompson movie moment should be easy for baby boomers and Gen X’ers.

The Academy award-winning actress and screenwriter has amassed an arsenal of unforgettable performances — from her turn as William Shakespeare’s Beatrice, who frolics atop Tuscan hills in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 lush adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing,” to her role as the jilted Karen, a modern-day mom who discovers her husband’s infidelity while listening to Joni Mitchell’s somber “Both Sides Now” in 2003’s “Love Actually.”

For younger film fans, this 51-year-old Brit is probably primarily famous for portraying Professor Sybill Trelawney in the Harry Potter franchise and for immortalizing the wart-faced warden with a heart of gold in 2005’s “Nanny McPhee.”

“Nanny McPhee Returns,” a sequel to the popular children’s film about wayward tots and the cloaked chaperone who captures their trust and imaginations, hits theaters Aug. 20.

With this reprise Thompson, who wrote and stars in both Nanny films (adapted from Christianna Brand’s Nurse Matlida books), has further established the “little ‘c’, big ‘P’ ” McPhee character as a new-millennium Mary Poppins — with a pinch of witchcraft and a few wiry chin hairs thrown in for good measure.

Thompson visited Atlanta recently, where she joined a roomful of kids assembled in the gallery of the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum to sign copies of the book version of “Nanny McPhee Returns” (now available in stores).

She also sat down with the AJC to talk about how much she “loves working with children” and to dish about favorite acting bits from her Oscar-winning films (including the proposal scene in 1992’s “Howards End,” which helped win her the best actress statue that year, and the final “sobbing” shot in 1995’s “Sense and Sensibility,” which tops her list).

Thompson shared her secret for persuading a laundry list of renowned actors — Ralph Fiennes, Ewan McGregor, Rhys Ifans and Maggie Smith among them — to join her and co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal in the English countryside to slop in mud, marvel at swimming pigs, and defuse a faux bomb in a endless field of barley for “Nanny McPhee Returns:” “I sent them the script.”

“I don’t think I would be comfortable ringing actors to ask them to do me a favor,” the actress says.

“After spending four years on the script [for “Nanny McPhee Returns”] I have enough faith in it that I just send them the script and say, ‘We would like you to play so-and-so.’ It’s all to do with making sure your script is good enough.”

Scriptwriting is nothing new for Thompson, who took home an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay after penning the 1995 big-screen version of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility.” Yet writing for children, as she has done on both Nanny McPhee films, is a real pleasure for her.

“Most children are guileless and honest and they still have very pure responses,” she says of watching her young co-stars, especially Asa Butterfield (star of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”) and Eros Vlahos (a budding stand-up comedian). “Something utterly exquisite is captured by the camera.”

Creating memorable characters is a Thompson hallmark, and the role of Nanny McPhee is worth her traipsing around in heavy costumes and wearing melting prosthetic noses, the actress believes. She’s even considering the possibility of writing and playing in another McPhee sequel.

Yet, for Thompson, it’s the interaction with her co-stars she loves most — whether it’s McPhee’s Gyllenhaal and Smith, or any number of other collaborators from her extensive repertoire including Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman.

“There are some actors you can just work with,” Thompson says. “You can play any moment and you know that that person will toss it back.”