Emily Watson talks about becoming Margaret Humphreys
A swift glance at Emily Watson’s CV indicates what a remarkable body of work she’s forged since delivering her Oscar-nominated breakthrough role in Lars von Trier’s 1996 film Breaking the Waves. Watson’s collaborations include films with such auteurs as Alan Parker (Angela’s Ashes), Robert Altman (Gosford Park), Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love) and, more recently, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (Cemetery Junction) – while her work on 1998’s Hilary and Jackie afforded her a second Oscar nod for Best Actress.
Her latest film shows that Watson, 44, is not afraid to work with less established (though no less talented) directors. Directed by first-time filmmaker Jim Loach – son of veteran director Ken – Oranges and Sunshine casts Watson as real-life Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys, who – in 1986 – discovered a guilty part of British history. Three decades earlier, British children in care were sent to Australia and forced to live in conditions little better than prisons. Below, Watson discusses this, and what it meant to take on a character who dedicated her life to reuniting the former child migrants with their estranged families. She also talks about her next film War Horse, and how it felt when the director – Steven Spielberg – wanted her for the role.
Q: How did you cope filming Oranges and Sunshine in Australia? Are you good in the heat?
A: No, terrible! I didn’t cope very well, really. We were in Adelaide, so we were somewhere that had all mod cons. But even so, it gets to 45 degrees, and you’re all dressed up in your costume…and we made a collective decision that Margaret rather eccentrically would wear a suit whenever she was working – which I lived to regret! We didn’t want to do the baggy, saggy social worker cardigans look that’s the cliché.
Q: Well, I guess she couldn’t really go around in a swimsuit?
A: I think my swimsuit days are done!
Q: So how did you cope with the flies out there?
A: When we were filming out in Bindoon, or the place that doubled for it, it was horrible. Terrible flies. Particularly that scene at the very end with David at the top of the hill, where we’re reflecting on the whole nature of what’s happened. Really intense. Last scene of the film actually. Last thing we shot. Just had to keep going, even with a fly up your nose…but nothing, nothing compared to The Proposition, I have to say. This was fairly mild by those standards. That was Winton, Queensland, which was a step up in terms of the intensity and the heat and the danger and the remoteness. We did have trailers on that, but even so, desperate, desperate heat.
Q: Can it really put you off your performance, working in those conditions?
A: Yeah. You just go ‘How are we going to get through today? How are we going to get through the next half-hour? Please can it be over?’ Whereas under normal conditions, you go ‘I don’t want to stop. I want another take! I want another take!’
Q: Did you meet Margaret Humphreys during the process?
A: I met her afterwards. It was deliberate. I had an innate sense of who she was through what she’d done. Her story was very clear to me. And I didn’t want to complicate it by trying to do her mannerisms. I didn’t want to have that in my head – trying to mimic somebody. I just wanted to play it straight. I just felt she was a very straight and ultimately good person, to have that sense of calling and self-sacrifice.
Q: She has a family of course…
A: Yeah, and she’s made it her life’s work. To have hundreds of people, desperately asking for your help, who are on the other side of the world…when you’ve got young kids, it must be really, really hard. She didn’t have any choice but to act. She had no choice but to step up and answer that call. That has been the compromise of her life – she’s missed out on a lot of her family. But they’re a very strong family, and that’s testament to her husband and her children. They’re very strong people.
Q: So when you finally met her, you didn’t start regretting any performance choices?
A: Not really. I’d seen her on film. I’d seen her in action as a social worker, on film, being interviewed. And I didn’t want to try and be imitating her voice. I felt very overwhelmed when I met her. Not so much because of who she is…she’s not like a great big forceful presence. But what she’s achieved. The change she has affected in people’s lives, and the amount of shit she’s absorbed. It’s been truly amazing – and pretty thankless in a way.
Q: Though it’s been amazing that the British and Australian governments both apologised…
A: Yes, while we were making the film. Kevin Rudd apologised, and then Gordon Brown, while we were filming, apologised. And I think for her, that was massive. For these children who had been ostensibly – what did they used to call it? – banished. From the age of three or five, they were sent from children’s homes to live in prisons, really. Abusive children’s homes on the other side of the world. For them to be told ‘You are our children, you are our citizens, you belong’ was huge.
Q: Do you think that affected the production in any way?
A: I think, as we filmed it, we came to more and more understand the enormity of what it meant to those people. To know that everything she’d been through, her life’s work…not that she could ever give those people back what they lost, but there was some sense of the acknowledgement of the irreparable harm that had been done.
Q: Is it harder playing fictional characters to play someone real?
A: You don’t have such an open page, a blank page. But at the same time, you have a good map, if you’re lucky, to follow.
Q: Does it worry you if the person is still around?
A: Yeah, absolutely it does. But in a way you have to distance yourself from that. Thankfully, she likes it!
Q: I guess she wouldn’t have told you if she didn’t…
A: No, I think she’s the kind of person who would. She’s quite forthright.
Q: How was working with Jim Loach?
A: Jim is the gentlest director I’ve ever worked with. He’s actually, I think, totally in control. A complete control freak. But he achieves everything he wants with total kindness, which is the opposite of what a lot of people do.
Q: Do you mean some people bully you into emotions?
A: Not so much that. I don’t mean in terms of actors. But in terms of getting everything achieved on set, there was never a single raised voice. I remember on the first day of shooting, Lorraine Ashbourne and I turned to each other and said, ‘Is that a take or is it a rehearsal?’ Usually there’s this build up of important voices raised – and people running around fixing things – before you get to a take. And you have to disappear and protect yourself. But that just didn’t happen. He surrounds himself with like-minded folk and I think that’s something he’s probably inherited from his Dad.
Q: Do you think he could follow in his father’s footsteps?
A: Oh God, yeah. I think he’s immensely talented. Yeah.
Q: Have you met his father?
A: I met him once very briefly.
Q: So you had some foreknowledge of what Jim might be like…
A: Yeah, I guess so – although I said to him ‘I don’t know how you like to work but I guess everything’s not going to be storyboarded.’ You have an intimation of what he’s going to be like.
Q: You’ve also just worked with Steven Spielberg on War Horse. It’s a family drama, right?
A: Yeah, it is. I had no idea what to expect and it was all rather intimidating – as it was Steven Spielberg and, despite the fact that the unit went from here to Clapham, once you were on set, it was intimate, passionate and about the acting. And every single priority that as an actor that you would want to be there was there. It felt very real and focused. And he’d come in, in the morning, and say ‘I couldn’t sleep last night. I was worrying about this shot!’ Which was fucking great! He’s human and he’s still working in an impassioned way, like a 21 year-old, trying to make the best out of everything.
Q: Your co-star Peter Mullan compared it to Black Beauty…
A: Yeah. The Michael Morpurgo book is ‘Black Beauty goes to war’. So if you’re English, two of the most emotive subjects you could touch on are Black Beauty and the First World War [where the film is set]. The crew were constantly in tears, as there were war memorials and everybody had a story in their family…for English people, everyone is touched by that war.
Q: War, as a subject matter, is something that clearly interests Spielberg, after Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List…
A: I think for a filmmaker, in terms of recent history we can all relate to, it is the moment in time when the stakes are the highest. That’s why The King’s Speech has been so successful. Although it’s quite a small, domestic film, it’s about a moment in history when the stakes were incredibly high. The free world was about to fall, and it doesn’t get more urgent with that.
Q: Have you kept up with all the Oscar films this year?
A: I’m lucky enough to be a member, so I have. I’ve been pleasantly surprised quite a few times. If I have a night out, I will go to the cinema, but they are very few and far between – I have small children and it doesn’t happen very often. I have a 2 year-old [Dylan] and a 5 year-old [Juliette]. It’s pretty full on.
Q: So you probably know all the Pixar films very well?
A: I do. And thankfully, I feel very grateful that I live in a renaissance period of animation and good children’s movies. We live on a diet of…we’ve just done E.T. Dylan trots in and out, and does other things, but Juliette threw herself onto the sofa and sobbed at the end of it. She loved it.
Q: Do you have a stack of films you want to show them?
A: Well, we’re just getting into that territory. Juliette has watched The Railway Children and loved it. Same again – sobbing her heart out at the end of it. It will be quite a way off before they can watch anything of mine.
Q: Have you worked less since you’ve had children?
A: Yeah, much less. I never really worked all the time but it’s very hard. I try and do things that will be cost-effective and not too far-fetched in terms of logistics. Where’s it shooting? How many weeks? How much? I’ll think about it…if it’s Timbuktu for six months, I’m not even going to read it.
Q: So what happened for Oranges and Sunshine?
A: Well, I took them with me. Juliette had not yet started school. She has now, so the plot thickens. It gets more and more interesting as the days go by.
Q: Are you bothered you might miss out on things?
A: Oh God, no. I don’t feel ambitious anymore. I really don’t! It’s such a pleasure going to work, and I love my job, but if I had to give it up tomorrow, I would. But actually I can’t because I’m the breadwinner and I have to keep going. So I won’t. I have to find a way of making it all work and putting it all together.
Q: You’ve managed to flit between Hollywood and here. How so?
A: It’s just the way it’s worked out, I guess. It’s just the way it’s worked out. I’ve never made that wholesale transition to being over there. I’ve always based myself here. But I have spent a considerable amount of time working there, and have very much enjoyed it. But I still have my feet here, I guess.
Q: Do you think the studios know your body of work?
A: You’re a little bit out of sight, out of mind. I feel I’m established enough to be remembered. I work enough to keep a little flicker – ‘Oh yeah, I remember her.’ I think if I wanted a big American career, I’d need to be over there and put myself about a lot more than I do.
Q: Do you get nostalgic and look back on older films?
A: It’s quite strange seeing your younger self – quite shocking sometimes. It’s like anybody. You’re looking back on your life. There is a record of it, I guess. But that’s been my working life. It’s not something we do in my house – we don’t sit down and watch my old films. But we did sit watch Gosford Park, the other day. It was on TV – and the nostalgia really for him, for Robert Altman. He was such a wonderful force of life. I’m so pleased that I met him, and knew him, and was friends with him. He was a wonderful man. Just as a human being, it was extraordinary to be around him. He created this arena, this sense of being in an artistic place where people were swimming against the tide and doing the stuff that mattered.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I’m about to do a thing called Appropriate Adult, which is the story of a woman called Janet Leach, who was training to be a social worker. She had done the training to be an appropriate adult – who are the people that sit in on police interviews when there is somebody with learning difficulties. They’re not a lawyer. They’re supposed to be an independent person, which makes sure everything is understood. And after a day’s training, she found herself on the Fred West interviews. The law has been changed since that case – nobody does that job for more than three days in a row. But she became the person to who he would confess. He would wait until the police weren’t in the room and say ‘There’s a body under the…’
Q: Are you expecting this to be controversial?
A: I’m sure there’ll be a lot of interest. But I’d be surprised if there was a big outcry. It’s very respectful, but it’s also about the relationship about her and Fred West. It’s not about the murders and the victims. It’s not grisly. It’s not gruesome. It’s none of that stuff. It’s about the police interviews really.
Q: Sounds like another intense role. Any chance of a romantic comedy?
A: I’d love one! I never get asked! I’m touting for levity!
ORANGES & SUNSHINE OPENS IN CINEMAS 1ST APRIL