If every holiday season, you gather around the television to laugh and cry at Love, Actually (co-producer: Liza Chasin), you better bring an extra handful of tissues next December. It turns out Emma Thompson was thinking about her ex’s affair when she shot the Karen’s heartbreaking Love, Actually scene, where she breaks down sobbing on Christmas Eve. The actor revealed that, during that portion of the movie, she was channeling her very real experience and the emotions she had when discovering that her first husband, director and actor Kenneth Branagh, was reportedly having an affair with Helena Bonham Carter.
In the movie, Thompson plays Karen, a mother who discovers her husband, Harry (Alan Rickman) is cheating on her after she finds jewelry he bought for another woman. Upon realizing his deceit, she goes to her bedroom to cry out of sight from the rest of her family. “That scene where my character is standing by the bed crying is so well known because it’s something everyone’s been through,” Thompson said at a London fundraiser on Sunday night, according to the Telegraph. “‘I had my heart very badly broken by Ken. So I knew what it was like to find the necklace that wasn’t meant for me.”
She clarified, though, that the jewelry aspect was not entirely autobiographical: “Well it wasn’t exactly that, but we’ve all been through it.”
Thompson and Branagh reportedly fell in love in 1987 while playing opposite each other in the BBC miniseries Fortunes Of War. They were married two years later and remained together until they divorced in 1995. The two were British cinema royalty, with the Oscar-nominated talents appearing together in Peter’s Friends, Dead Again, and Much Ado About Nothing. However, their romance came to an end shortly after 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where Helena Bonham Carter played the love interest to Branagh’s mad scientist Victor Frankenstein (Branagh also directed). Carter and Branagh would remain together through 1999.
Thompson has explained before how she’s used the heartbreak she felt through the experience to inform other acting moments, including pretending in her real life. “I’ve had so much bloody practice at crying in a bedroom, then having to go out and be cheerful, gathering up the pieces of my heart and putting them in a drawer,” she told the Telegraph.
The actor has long since gotten over Branagh’s reported infidelity. She has been married to British actor and producer Greg Wise since 2003, and they have two children together. In the 1995 movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Wise played John Willoughby, the cad who woos Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet). Thompson, who wrote the film’s screenplay, played Marianne’s older sister Elinor.
While most people probably watch Love, Actually for the goofy and heartwarming funny moments, Thompson’s arc with Rickman is played for realism and leans into the very true feelings a woman might have if she discovered her partner was unfaithful. After discovering the aforementioned jewelry, Karen confronts Harry about the necklace. Karen asks Harry if he were in her shoes, knowing about the infidelity, “Would you stay, knowing your life would always be a little bit worse, or would you cut and run?” Though Harry apologizes, Karen, holding back tears, replies, “You’ve also made a fool out of me. You made the life I lead foolish, too.”
If you weren’t already crying on Karen’s behalf at this moment, quietly muttering to yourself, “In what cruel world must Professor Snape behave so unjustly to Nanny McPhee?”, then you likely will now, knowing the full story behind Thompson’s inner feelings. It’s rough enough pretending to go through that sort of devastation; it must be worse reliving it for the sake of the scene. But damn is Thompson great at selling that awful moment.