Emma Thompson: “Does Anyone Know Or Care If Middle-Aged Women Are Getting Any Sexual Satisfaction?”


For her latest role, Emma Thompson explored the principles of pleasure. Here, the actor reveals what the process taught her.

A 62-year-old retired religious education teacher (Nancy), who has never had an orgasm, hires a 28-year-old male sex worker (Leo) to help expand her horizons. This is the story of the film Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, which was written by Katy Brand and sent to me with an “Is this anything that might intrigue you?” kind of message.

It perhaps goes without saying that it was a very unexpected script to receive. Four pages in, I was hooked. At the end of the first reading, I wrote to Katy to say that we absolutely had to do it. And not many months later, we did.

Over the course of 19 days in February 2021, Daryl McCormack, now 29, and I, 63, filmed four meetings in a Norfolk so Covid-secure it felt like ours and ours alone. You might be forgiven for assuming that this is a sort of Home Counties riposte to Last Tango in Paris – more of a First Two-step in Norwich – but, in fact, it’s an adventure in several kinds of intimacy. An exploration of pleasure and shame, and a portrait of sex work as one of the caring professions.

Nancy, terrified about what she’s set in motion, arrives laden with assumptions about Leo and low expectations after a lifetime of disappointment in the bedroom. Leo arrives with an open mind and heart, impressive people skills and secrets of his own.

Preparing for shooting was simplified by the Covid restrictions in place at the time – for a start, I couldn’t go off to a health spa and lose 20 pounds in anticipation of forthcoming nudity. I decided that my character Nancy wouldn’t have done that either, and so it was doubtless for the best. I had no trouble imagining what it was like to be a teacher because I know several and might well have become one had my parents’ profession been less welcoming. Indeed, I once appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson while publicising Howards End and, having no idea about glamour or how to achieve it, waltzed on to the set in flat shoes and a plaid smock, and was told I looked exactly like a geography teacher.

But none of Nancy’s brisk pedagogic self-assurance is on display when Leo first encounters her. Playing this woman on the brink of crossing every boundary she has held all her life – crossing so many lines she’s cross-eyed – was the most bracing challenge I’d been offered in years.

I don’t know if you’ve ever taken all your clothes off in front of a young person you don’t really know. Never assume anything. But if you haven’t, I’m here to tell you that it’s a little bit intimidating. Especially if you’re a post-menopausal woman in her sixties who’s recently eaten far too many Tunnock’s Tea Cakes owing to lockdown comfort-seeking, and the young person is in startlingly perfect shape owing to playing someone whose job requires them to be in perfect shape.

Our director, Sophie Hyde, guided us into naked rehearsal by joining us naked. We three stood about, entirely bare, and talked about our bodies and what we liked and didn’t like about them. I had a much longer list of dislikes than either of them. But in the end, it just reminded me of how levelling and also elevating being nude with people can be. It’s easier to be honest when there’s literally nothing to hide, and it’s unavoidably humbling. And after that, there’s nothing much to fear.

Does anyone know or care if middle-aged women are getting any sexual satisfaction or pleasure? In our younger years, we used to be constantly nagged by Cosmo about orgasms, I recall. It was always on the front cover – how to achieve them in bigger, better ways. The focus on the achievement – as though we were less than wholly alive if we weren’t constantly emerging pinkly breathless from our latest appointment with ecstasy – was frankly a little bullying. We were also informed that older women could sometimes want more sex, and then the cougar myth was born – tedious, banal and empty, like so many of the sexual types we are supposed to embody.

But actually, I don’t think that attending to women’s pleasure, young or old, is at the top of anyone’s to-do list.

In my line of work, we are often required to portray sex – but I was very diffident about my looks and my body as a young actress, and certainly had none of the attributes that appealed to overwhelmingly male producers who tended to cast women they “wanted to f**k”. (And I quote so many of them, and it still goes on.) So, I didn’t do it all that often.

There have been massive generational shifts in the past century, between – for instance – my mother’s generation and my own. My mother is from Scotland, a glorious land but not known for its commitment to the erotic, and a Presbyterian family. She had quite Puritanical views on sex, which my youthful enthusiasm for it soon questioned. She rose quite magnificently to the challenge. She took me to see a gynaecologist.

Why do we find sex so difficult to talk about? Because it is taboo, because we have been taught that it is dirty or naughty or beneath us, demeaning, animal, lustful, sinful, dangerous – and beyond the pale of decent normality. I don’t think I am exaggerating.

Sexual assistance – why isn’t it on the National Health? Sex is free, natural, normal, delightful, good for us and, as Leo says in the film, inaccessible to some for all kinds of perfectly valid reasons. It’s a public health issue.

The theme of women’s sex work was fascinating to me – like many of my generation, the idea of it being a chosen occupation rather than something awful one has been forced into by poverty or abusive power is very new and takes some getting used to. Largely, I suppose, because of the dangers. It’s all very well to agree upon boundaries, but to be alone in a room with a stronger human who can easily – very easily sometimes – hurt, rape or kill you, is frightening. It remains frightening to me, although I also think that under the right circumstances – legal safeguards, decent clients and so forth – it could be a very good job.

Is it partly that we don’t associate respect for one another with our sexual feelings? I think the root of it all (sorry) is that we simply do not respect our sexual desires. We easily joke about them – we easily make them the butt of our contempt, easily undermine their complexity, their radical nature (sometimes), even their humble need to exist often offends and disturbs us. But we aren’t listening.

Leo listens – he respects pleasure. He understands it takes many forms and none is anathema to him. He understands that he can make people feel better, he can improve their lives, and sometimes he can even release them from suffering. He teaches Nancy, in short, about the possible sanctity of sex work.

Before making Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, I had no idea how much I would learn about my attitude to my own body, to pleasure and to shame – how much I would laugh about the genuine silliness of so many of our responses to sexual pleasure, and how much I would cry about what is lost in life when it is repressed, ignored and punished.

I hope the film reaches as many people as possible and does the same for them.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, is in UK cinemas from 17 June