Emma Thompson on the importance of activism and why Greenpeace made her braver

Emma Thompson: "It has been proven that if you are an optimist you live longer"

Emma Thompson may be best known for her Academy Award-winning roles on the silver screen but she is also a passionate and dedicated activist.

When her hectic acting schedule affords her some precious time, she is frequently vocal in championing a more green and just world. City A.M. recently caught up with her to speak about her good causes, including her work with Greenpeace and the Helen Bamber Foundation.

Where does your passion for activism come from?

I became politically aware when I was about 19. During my late teens and early 20s I did a lot of benefit events for various organisations, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In my early career I socialised with a lot of comedians and they were extremely political. I often view comedians as sort of prophets of the world, who see things and point them out, almost before they happen. I learned a lot just talking to them. That’s really where it started.

There are so many great charities out there doing fantastic work. What attracted you to Greenpeace?

Joanna Kerr, the CEO of Greenpeace Canada, introduced me. She rang saying that all of the things that we had been talking about over the years – human rights, women’s rights, land rights, the right to food, to water – that all of these things are connected in the most intimate way. I was invited to go to the Arctic and once I was there what became immediately clear to me is that what happens in the Arctic doesn’t just stay there; it will come to our doors. It will make our entire world so much more dangerous. So I try to focus my energy on this extremely urgent moment for the planet and for humanity.

There is so much going on. What made me feel so passionate about the work of Greenpeace was talking with scientists and realising, while standing on a melting ice cap, how close we really are to disaster.

Do you feel an urge to take risks?

Greenpeace activists take a lot of risks. The Arctic 30, for example, were so incredibly brave - they were held in a Russian jail for three months. But they made their point. I am very grateful to Greenpeace for making me a bit braver. I’ve never been in big danger but every time I campaign, I feel that I can go a little bit further than last time.

Who has inspired you most?

I met the extraordinary Helen Bamber when I was in my 20s. She was 20 when she walked into Bergen Belsen, the concentration camp, to work with survivors of the holocaust. She saw the worst things. She dedicated her life to supporting survivors of torture and human cruelty. Helen became my mentor. She taught me that every generation has to redefine and recommit to the human rights that were so hard won over the centuries. We cannot take anything for granted in such a dangerous era. We have to make our mark. We have to speak. We have to act. And we have to act together. This is not a good time for humanitarianism.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?

It all comes down now to setting aside ego, brands and differences. We have to speak as one. The only way things really change in human development is if millions and millions of people come together and say the same things. We need to all be together, to talk to each other and to defend one another. Older people, middle aged people and the younger generation. One voice.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist when you look at the future?

Recently I found out that scientifically it has been proven that if you are an optimist you live longer. So I have decided to stick with that.

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The Helen Bamber Foundation is a specialist UK charity with extensive experience working with people who have survived extreme physical, sexual and psychological violence. The Foundation helps asylum seekers and refugees achieve sustained recovery. The founder, Helen Bamber OBE, began her career in 1945 when she went to work with survivors of the holocaust in the former concentration camp of Bergen Belsen. In addition to her roles with Greenpeace and the Helen Bamber Foundation, Emma is also an Ambassador of the United Postcode Lotteries.

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