Emma Thompson is battling a rare affliction. It's a condition for which there are no known doctors or ominous-sounding Latinate names. But Thompson's friends have come up with a term for what ails her: goodism. The symptoms include a near-constant desire to do the right thing. Professionally speaking, that's meant a career of virtuoso performances as morally upright literary heroines (Howards End, Sense and Sensibility), erudite cancer patients (HBO's Wit), and creatures both heavenly (Angels in America) and homely (Nanny McPhee) . An enviable cast of characters, but there's neither a concession to glamour nor the tiniest transgression among them. ''It's a benign psychosis,'' explains Thompson, ''but also a very big thing to let go of.''
Draped across a booth in the garden of the Hotel Bel-Air, the 47-year-old shows off one way in which she's letting go: Thompson exudes an earthy sensuality in a low-slung skirt and navel-baring tank top, on which she's scrawled the Amnesty International slogan ''PROTECT THE HUMAN'' in black Sharpie. ''I dress sexy now, whereas when I was younger I would have felt ridiculous. I've been released from some inchoate sense of disapproval.''
Thompson has been plotting her escape from this virtuous cycle on-screen as well. She cuts loose with her bad self in the absurdist comedy Stranger Than Fiction, as a chain-smoking novelist. It's a smallish role, but a big leap outside her comfort zone. ''Kay hates herself so much she can't possibly be nice to other people,'' Thompson says of the brittle, depressive scribe who spends much of the movie looking for ways to kill herself and her novel's hero (Will Ferrell). ''I'm always nice to other people. Secretly, I have a deep desire to be rude.''
On set, she clearly relished transforming into a woman undone. ''She will get out there if the part calls for it and totally strip down: no makeup, no nothing,'' says her Fiction costar Dustin Hoffman. ''There are so few actresses who have a career at her age and who survive by being discriminating. She gives the whole profession ballast.''
Thompson's unwillingness to compromise her integrity took root at an early age. ''I was brought up by an emancipated woman who thought that female behavior was very tiresome,'' says the London native, whose mother, actress Phyllida Law, still lives across the street from the town house Thompson shares with her husband, actor Greg Wise, 40, and their 6-year-old daughter, Gaia. (Her father, British actor-director Eric Thompson, died of a heart attack when she was 23.)
From the moment she snagged the Best Actress Oscar for her breakout role in 1992's Howards End, Thompson didn't fit the labels Hollywood slaps on actresses. Too beautiful to be a character actress, she had no interest in traditional leading-lady roles (i.e., wives and girlfriends). And her marriage to Kenneth Branagh had made her too famous to exist in the margins. They made four movies together Henry V, Dead Again, Peter's Friends, and Much Ado About Nothing and were considered the first couple of British film. Consequently, they took a beating in the press when their relationship dissolved amid rumors of infidelity on both sides, while she was making Sense and Sensibility. ''It was a very difficult time for me,'' recalls Thompson of the bittersweet shoot, on which she met Wise. ''Ken had gone and I was heartbroken and falling in love. It was very tricky and full of conflict and unresolved emotions.''
It would be a while before things got easier. At the peak of her career, after she became the only actor in history to win Oscars for both acting and screenwriting (she won the latter for Sense), Thompson took several years off to undergo an arduous in-vitro fertilization process to conceive her daughter. ''After that, we tried to have another child, it didn't work, and I went into a deep clinical depression,'' she says. ''It's only now that I no longer count people's children or judge myself harshly for not providing my daughter with a sibling.'' She pauses and takes in a big gulp of air. ''I think I should now do a series of very stupid comedies.''
Okay, so she probably won't be in any Rob Schneider movies soon, but Thompson's newly expanded sense of self is already serving her well. ''I get better roles now than when I was younger, actually,'' says the Cambridge grad. ''It used to be that if I got a script that said, 'A fabulously beautiful woman walks into the room,' I'd stop reading. But I wouldn't worry about it now.
''I'm very lucky because my husband thinks I'm really sexy and he's incredibly sexy and virile,'' she declares, her voice rising and falling with a schoolgirl's excitement. ''In my 40s, for the first time in my life, I've started wearing high heels. And I'm hoping that with this whole move into being sexy I can start being slightly more unpleasant.'' She pauses, rolls her eyes, and adds with a laugh: ''Just slightly.''
Emma Thompson's Must List
From Gray to plaid, a portrait of her favorites.
''I love watching him live. I love his waggly head. He's got power. And he's soulful for a white man.''
The Vintner's Luck, 1998
''It's about a fallen angel and so beautifully written,'' she says of Elizabeth Knox's novel set in the vineyards of France.
The Chapel of the Magi, Florence
''I love the details,'' she says of its Renaissance frescoes by Gozzoli. ''Italian men can be so beautiful.''
''My husband taught me when I was 35. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. It's so quiet: no phones.''
''It's the most beautiful country in the world. I love its wildness and the sense of endless potential and imagination and genius in its people.''