Emma Thompson has a ravishing life story. Not only is she one of the most celebrated actresses in the world, she’s a screenwriter, humanitarian, environmentalist and mother. Becoming a mom of two was not an easy journey for Thompson, yet, it was a meant-to-be sort of scenario.
In a new profile in The New Yorker, the 63-year-old Oscar winner opens up about her informally adopted son, Tindyebwa Agaba Wise, and how their first meeting led to one of the most important relationships in her life.
Thompson has a daughter, Gaia, 22, with her husband of 17 years, actor Greg Wise, and said they “tried for another child, but it didn’t work” after rounds of in vitro fertilization.
“I often think if it had worked there wouldn’t have been space. So I’m very grateful the IVF didn’t work, because every day I’m grateful for Tindy,” Thompson said of Tindyebwa.
In 2003, Tindy, then 16, attended a Christmas party at the Refugee Council, a charity to support refugees and asylum seekers for which Thompson is a patron. As a Rwandan refugee, he knew only a few English and French words, but wanted to thank Thompson for the hot meal — as he’d been sleeping outside around London’s Trafalgar square due to a glitch in his application for governmental provisions.
“I didn’t have any friendships. I didn’t know how to navigate the city. It was cold. Every white person looked the same to me,” Tindy told The New Yorker.
“His spirit was there to be seen—so clearly—in his eyes. He was alive to everything, though at the same time silent,” Thompson recalled of their mostly visual conversation, adding, “He saw something in me he wanted to talk to.”
Tindy’s father died of AIDS when he was just 9, and his mother and three sisters were presumed dead following the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Tindy trained in the bush as a child soldier, but ended up in England with the help of a Care International worker.
After the Refugee Council event, Thompson invited the “very traumatized… and very lonely” teen to spend Christmas Eve at her home. He was suspicious at first of Thompson’s good will, but eventually came to learn her kindness and character were true. She spent the next six months taking walks and working with him on pronunciation and vocabulary — and eventually paid for speech lessons with the acclaimed dialect coach Joan Washington.
Soon enough, Tindy was calling Thompson and Wise “Mum and Dad.”
Tindy recalled feeling that he “didn’t have anything to give” when he met Thompson and Wise, to which the actress responded, “What hasn’t he given!”
“So much joy, so much insight to share in his empathy and his understanding of the world,” she continued. “We laugh—and he helps me to laugh—at the weirdness of people, at the strangeness of life, at its cruelties and absurdities. It’s such a comfort.”
And in an even sweeter story, Tindy actually learned Thompson was famous in a Shakespeare class at City and Islington College in 2004.
His teacher showed the class Thompson’s ex-husband Kenneth Branagh’s film of Much Ado About Nothing, and Tindy was “absolutely shocked” to see so many familiar faces on screen, including Thompson herself, her mother Phyllida Law, and actress Imelda Staunton.
“I went to my teacher and said, ‘How was this film made? Because I know these people.’” The professor apparently laughed it off and said, “Don’t be ridiculous. These are famous actors.”
“She couldn’t believe a word I was saying,” Tindy said.
The next week, the teacher brought in the Daily Mirror with a photograph of him leaving Thompson’s house on his bike and asked if it was him.
“That was how I got to know that my mother was somehow well known. I had no idea,” said Tindy, who earned a master’s degree in human-rights law, spent a decade in human-rights activism, and worked as a detective in London’s Criminal Investigation Division. He became a British citizen in 2009 and is now married to He Zhang.
Of her own personal metamorphosis, Thompson credits Tindy, saying he’s “been part of the healing.”
“I’ve been told I was a fierce and restless octopus,” she said. “But they have three hearts and only live for two years. So now I’m in search of a more peaceful existence where I’m not so angry and my one heart will last a bit longer.”
Adding of her future endeavors, including her new Nanny McPhee musical, “Whatever I do now, it has to serve the happiness of people. It has to uplift. I think that’s my job.”