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Kristin Scott Thomas in Slow Horses.APPLE TV+

I hope Kristin Scott Thomas laughs rather than sighs when scripts arrive and the characters earmarked for her are Ruthless Executive, Domineering Mother, Murderous Widow, Uptight Sourpuss or Frosty Wife. She nails them, of course – she knows how to play terrifying – but in person she’s so much warmer, funnier and more curious.

She’s currently chomping away on a delicious character, Diana Taverner, in the excellent AppleTV+ spy series Slow Horses, whose second season arrives Dec. 2. Slow Horses is the nickname for errant British MI5 agents who’ve landed in the dumping ground of Slough House, run by Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman at his most desiccated). Taverner is Lamb’s disdainful former colleague, now rival, at MI5 headquarters, where she is second desk – that is, No. 2 in command. They’ve sized each other up so thoroughly they could make each other a suit. She knows he’s much wilier than he pretends to be; he knows that she deserves to be No. 1.

Taverner could be simply a Flinty Careerist, but Scott Thomas gives her many more colours. She’s disgusted yet amused by Lamb; she’s genuinely smarter than anyone in any room; she has a clammy/anxious layer under her competence. “She’s working quite hard to keep that below the surface,” Scott Thomas said in a recent video interview. She’s 62 now, preternaturally chic. She was born in England and has lived in London and Paris since she went to France as a 19-year-old au pair. She’s divorced from the father of her three adult children (François Olivennes, the French fertility specialist), and is currently dating John Micklethwait, a Brit and the editor of Bloomberg news agency.

“The thing about Diana is, she’s No. 2, and she hasn’t got that long to get to No. 1,” Scott Thomas says. “The race is on. And she’s now, I wouldn’t say clutching at straws, but she is sailing very close to the wind. It must be nerve-wracking to be her. I don’t think she sleeps very well.” She punctuates that last sentence with a murmured laugh.

I especially love the quick, pained eye rolls, the flashes of distaste that wrinkle Taverner’s brow when she has to be civil to the smarmy twits who run things, especially Peter Judd (Samuel West), an ambitious conservative politician. “She knows how to deal with him, but the whole idea of it is beneath her somehow,” Scott Thomas says. “There’s a particularly good bit in the new season when she gets into a lift and he says, ‘Dressed to impress.’ It’s like, ‘Ugh, stop it.’

“It’s great fun to play her,” she adds. “But sometimes, after a day of being her, I want to go home and take a shower. She is very unpleasant. Playing a character who has no compassion or empathy can be a bit wearing.” She gives herself a shiver. “I want to go off and be really kind to someone.”

It’s worth all that, though, to play women “who are negotiating with their own power, and declaring war on ageism,” Scott Thomas says. “There’s still a great deal of resistance to the older woman still having her wits about her. Whereas men become more senior, women, somehow, are taken less seriously the older they get.” She gives Taverner shades of “the Madeleine Albrights, the Dame So-and-Sos, these amazing women who are such beacons for the rest of us.”

Personally, Scott Thomas has experienced “that famous thing about women over 50 becoming invisible. Not being listened to. Being called ‘Dear’ in shops is tiring.” (A less likely “Dear” I cannot imagine.) Professionally, her string of Hollywood leading ladies (The English Patient with Ralph Fiennes, The Horse Whisperer with Robert Redford, Random Hearts with Harrison Ford) ended, surprise surprise, when she was in her 40s. But she remains in demand: as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s role model on Fleabag; as the diabolical Mrs. Danvers in Netflix’s 2020 remake of the Hitchcock classic Rebecca.

As well, she’s just directed her first feature, My Mother’s Wedding, which she co-wrote with Micklethwait, and which she calls “an extraordinary experience. I’ve been wanting to direct something for a very long time.” She plays a twice-widowed woman about to marry husband No. 3, who has a reckoning with her three daughters, played by Emily Beecham, Scarlett Johansson and Sienna Miller. It’s loosely based on her own mother, who married two British Royal Navy pilots in a row and lost them both to flying accidents. Miller plays an actress, Johansson a Royal Navy captain.

For the first week of the shoot, Scott Thomas found herself “very unsure, wondering if it was okay to ask the crew to do this or that,” she says. “I realized I’d become so used to, as an actor, saying, ‘Why don’t we try that,’ and having a director reply, ‘Great idea,’ and then not doing it. But suddenly, I was in charge. I’d say, ‘I’d really like you to enter from there,’ or, ‘Let’s move the frame from there to here,’ and they’d go, ‘Right, okay,’ and do it. It was amazing.

“I always have doubts about my own capacities,” she continues. “That hasn’t gone away for me. I don’t have a secret to anything. But I do have experience, and I do have a bit more compassion and oh, what else. Tolerance! An understanding of people.”

What Taverner lacks in tolerance, she makes up for in her killer wardrobe, an armour that manages to be both feminine and severe. In one scene, she strides away from Oldman, swinging a closed umbrella that’s wrapped as tightly as she is. “That’s an important part of Diana that goes back to the source novels and the screenplays – she’s impeccably turned out,” Scott Thomas says. “I find it interesting, because in my own life I’m fairly chaotic. Diana is very aware of what her style projects – what people will imagine about her if she turns up wearing this colour, that shape, this softness, that hardness. She knows the power of all of that. There’s never a hair out of place. And she likes to have lip balm. She likes to tell these awful lies and be really vicious with words, as she’s oiling it up. That’s all part and parcel of how she terrifies people.”

Do women have to be terrifying to attain power? Is that our only choice? “I don’t think power automatically makes people frightening,” she replies. “And if someone finds another person terrifying, it’s usually for their own reasons. But Diana is definitely aware she’s terrifying. She knows how to turn up the volume.”

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