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Emma Thompson Is Addressing the Orgasm Gap Head-on

Photo: Searchlight Pictures

In her prolific career, actress Emma Thompson has portrayed heroines in some of the most iconic big-screen romances, from a movie adaptation of the Jane Austen classic Sense and Sensibility to the modern classic Love, Actually. And at first, her role as Nancy Stokes, a pleasure-deprived widow in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, out June 17 on Hulu, seems like more of the same — but what she finds instead is pleasure and intimacy, with herself and with the titular Leo Grande, played by a gentle, dynamic Daryl McCormack, a male sex worker with strong arms and strong boundaries.

The film is heavily dialogue-based, almost theatrical in its intimacy, and Thompson and McCormack fully unfurl their range as actors in well-paced exchanges that run the gamut from flirty to despairing. Their chemistry is so undeniable it’s easy to forget that there is no real romance happening. What does happen, without spoiling too much, is an authentic-seeming human connection that challenges both characters. Nancy, in particular, spends much of the film squaring up a lifetime of socially approved prudence with her actual, raw desires.

This film indulges in a reality that Hollywood likes to ignore: Women over 40 also enjoy sex. Is that intentional?

Well, let’s remember that this is the first time Nancy has enjoyed sex. The film is really about someone who hasn’t enjoyed sex until her early 60s, when she’s decided that it’s time to get onboard with something else, with unlocking whatever has prevented her. So it’s partly about women not thinking that enjoying sex is for them or is important for them. We’re not encouraged, necessarily, to think about what it is we might want. We’re too busy thinking about what everyone else needs, or in a sexual situation, perhaps performing, so that the man feels like he’s doing a good job because it’s all about them.

At the end, we realize that this is a woman whose capacity to access her own pleasure has been revealed to her and given to her by, you know, the good offices of this extraordinary, very humane, young sex worker. But it’s her responsibility after that. It’s very pleasurable to watch, and it’s a great release.

So your character is not exactly a sex-positive feminist. But she learns so much from Leo. Has doing this film affected the way that you think about sex work?

Well, I’ve always really thought sex work should be legalized, absolutely. It’s the only way to make it safe. And also, it’s the only way to properly regulate what’s a very uneven playing field. As Leo describes it — although he’s not representing all sex workers, it’s a unique character — it’s a perfectly legitimate job. And when Sophie Hyde, the director, and Daryl McCormack, who plays Leo, were talking to sex workers to investigate, they said it was so interesting how different they all were, that some of them were like, “Yeah, it’s my job, it’s quite boring sometimes, but it’s okay.” Then others were saying, “I love this job. I am really vocational about it.” So it was like talking to anybody doing any job. It’s just lots of different responses and reactions to it, and I find that very encouraging because I think it may be through sex work that we might be able to come to understand how important it is to respect our sexual desires.

The film not only addresses the orgasm gap, but your character is actually responsible for her first orgasm. I was wondering if you could talk about why that detail matters.

It was very important to all of us that it wasn’t Leo who gives her the orgasm. And actually, one of the saddest things is not having had her own and not being able to give herself her own private pleasure, which is a hugely healthy and satisfying thing to do, and free — you don’t need anything except yourself. It’s so sad to think of her never having had access to that. And it’s nothing to do with her age; a lot of young women don’t know. Female masturbation is a complete taboo. No one talks about it. But no one talks about periods. No one talks about, you know, menopause. So all of the things that happen to our bodies are only beginning to come into the mainstream conversation now. And indeed, I don’t think this film would have landed in quite the same way before the Me Too movement and this mainstream discussion of abuse, what is abuse and what is consent and what is not consent. So I think there are so many things that have happened to make this movie part of a real Zeitgeist moment.

The primary setting of the movie is a hotel room — what’s your room service order?

Oh, well, I don’t have a normal order. I ordered soup today. They’ve got a very good soup. But if I was to order a real treat, to watch a movie with or something, I’d probably order fish and chips. That’s very British of me, I know. But it’s a lovely thing to order on room service. It doesn’t matter if it’s got cold, and you have lots of ketchup and get it on the sheets.

Your character is a teacher, and the way she talked to her students about sex wasn’t exactly the healthiest. What kind of sex talk did you receive while growing up?

Not very much, not because of any kind of sinister thing. It just wasn’t something that was much discussed. And I think that that’s generational. I’m glad we talk about it more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Emma Thompson Is Addressing the Orgasm Gap Head-on