thu 30/05/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Actress Emily Watson | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Actress Emily Watson

theartsdesk Q&A: Actress Emily Watson

From 'Breaking the Waves' to 'Apple Tree Yard', the actress discusses her remarkable career

Emily Watson: 'Very early on somebody said to me, "You think with your eyes"'

Emily Watson made her remarkable debut in Breaking the Waves (1996). In Lars von Trier’s grim parable, Watson plays Bess, an ingénue from a remote religious Scottish community who, when her husband is paralysed on an oil rig, perpetuates their romantic life by seeking out liaisons with other men and telling him about it.

Watson gave the kind of luminous, intense and highly cinematic performance that, along with Hilary and Jackie, found her twice nominated for an Academy Award in the 1990s.

The camera has since swum happily in those big blue eyes in role after emotionally taxing high-profile role - in British and Irish films such as The Boxer and Angela’s Ashes, or as the female lead opposite, of all people, Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, an exceptionally quirky offering from Paul Thomas Anderson. Even in a film top-heavy with star casting like Altman's Gosford Park, she contrived to stand out as a deliciously world-weary chambermaid (pictured below).Emily Watson in Gosford ParkThere was a long gap before anyone went to see a movie fronted by Watson, a leave of absence partly explained by motherhood. That changed with Oranges and Sunshine, directed by Jim Loach (yes, Ken’s son). The title refers with bitter irony to the better life promised to the thousands of young children forcibly shipped to Australia from the 1950s onwards. Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, the Nottingham social worker who chanced to uncover a history of government-backed abuse in the 1980s and devoted her life to helping now grown children retrieve their confiscated identities. From one fairly deep circle of hell to another: Watson next played the woman who sat in on Fred West's police interviews in Appropriate Adult. As the mother of the Flanders-bound hero, she was there on Dartmoor at the beginning and end of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse.

In short, although Watson is no longer a young woman, the roles began rolling her way again. Most recently she has starred in Apple Tree Yard, an adaptation of Louise Doughty's novel in which she played Yvonne Carmichael, whose sudden affair with a dark handsome stranger goes horrendously wrong. Watson talks about her career to theartsdesk.

JASPER REES: Over the years do you sense yourself having improved as an actress?

EMILY WATSON: I hope so. You gain some things and lose some things. You gain a sense of relaxation and range and being able to know when something works and when not. But then you do lose a kind of edge of naivety, I suppose. Bess is a good place to start. That was a lot to do with the way it was made and shot as well. The thing about film is you are as good as the film or play you are in and I think some of the film-makers I’ve worked with are really at least attempting something – I don’t know if they get there – that is of a very high ambition in terms of being about whatever the thing’s about. You take a magnifying glass to a moment of human reality and this is a telescope or something. I get a little annoyed when people say that film is a poor relation to theatre. For an actor the possibility of giving something truthful is absolutely as possible on film as it is in the theatre.

It’s easy for you to say. You did very little crap in the early part of your career.

Ifan Meredith and Emily Watson in The Mill on the FlossWell… When I did The Mill on the Floss I felt like I had landed on the moon, to be honest. I went from being on a set with Lars von Trier and a handheld camera to being in an incredibly pedestrian… plonk the camera here, we’ll do this, this, this. (Pictured: Ifan Meredith and Emily Watson in The Mill on the Floss)

Can I add the word “environment”?

Yes. She doesn’t finish sentences. Not pedestrian but just a very, very conventional BBC costume drama. But having worked in a place where it felt like the camera was alive, it was a person in the room, it was alive and it was looking inside you in some way... I tell you, that’s the difference between… what would it be the equivalent of? I don’t know. But it was a big difference. Another non-finished sentence.

Before Lars von Trier cast you in Breaking the Waves, what kind of an actor were you?

OK, I think. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I think maybe I stumbled across a couple of moments which were real, when you really join the part and there’s no… I did The Children’s Hour at the National, I did The Lady from the Sea at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, I had one semi-decent role in a season at Stratford in A Jovial Crew. I didn’t really know what acting was, I don’t’ think. I was quite good at being somewhere down the corridor from it, in the next room. But I was very lucky because I went off and did this film where somebody put me in a situation where something just happened to me because I was so on the edge.

What do you mean?

Some situations in life you can’t compromise and I just had to go for it, and it taught me, it taught me very, very much. I credit the other actors a huge amount. They are about pursuit of excellence and serving a story and they don’t have vanity, and that was the most incredible lesson to learn on day one and to have that as your role model. You can go the other way so easily and think it’s about something else entirely.Emily Watson in Breaking the WavesDid you know that when you were making Breaking the Waves (pictured above)?

No. No. That was an accident. The way I am in that. It was an accident. I hadn’t done much. I’d done theatre. I hadn’t done any film before. I guess I had a theory about what it could be to be given an amazing part but I’d never had a chance to do it. But working with Katrin Cartlidge and Stellan Skarsgård, they were incredibly influential on me at that particular moment in time. I remember sitting with Katrin and her talking about the rehearsal process for [Mike Leigh's] Naked and how utterly consuming that had been and going that you really can give yourself to something in an extraordinarily committed way. And Stellan the same.

Other actresses have subsequently had a very gruelling time. Do you feel you had it pretty easy?

I do. I couldn’t say why or explain what the other people’s experiences have been but I loved it. I mean, it was pretty harrowing but that was the nature of the material. He is quite strange, he is quite eccentric and quite funny, but I did love working with him. It showed me how far you can go. The experience of making a film reflects the nature of the film-maker and they are so different and they've not all been to school together, they haven't learnt from the same books. With directors it's like sex. You don't know how the other guy does it.

What about those eyes of yours?

That’s nothing. I don’t know. That is an accident.

Were you aware of the impact they would have on screen?

Before I saw myself on film, not really, no. It was all a bit of a shock.

I had never made a film before. I had never done any press. I had absolutely no idea what was about to hit

 Have you ever become self-conscious about them?

I don’t think you become - in my experience – necessarily self-conscious, but you become aware that you have a tool. You can’t pretend to be carrying on that you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re completely innocent. You just have to learn. Very early on somebody said to me, "You think with your eyes." It’s just a thing of your physiognomy: when you have a thought, it’s there. I can’t explain it and I now try and retreat from using it because I know my way round it, I know how it works. I think the best piece of acting I’ve ever seen is the – what’s it called, it’s in St Peter's, Rome, as you come in on the right? – the Pietà, because she is unobserved. An utter miracle how a man could make a piece of stone feel like a woman in deep grief unobserved. To be so there in the moment that you are unobserved is very difficult because quite often the camera is there and you know people are watching and quite often you are aware of that and you’re playing to it. And then sometimes you’re not.

Have you recovered yet from Breaking the Waves?

It’s a good question. It set my life on a path in a way that was unbidden. It was fantastic and amazing and wonderful and extraordinary and life-changing but I didn't know that it was going to do that. And I’m incredibly grateful to it.

You must have sensed that it would be noticed?

Yes, but I had never made a film before so I didn’t really know what the arena of film was. I had never done any press. And they said to me, "Oh, we might be going to Cannes." "Oh, that would be nice." I had absolutely no idea what was about to hit. It’s a very, very strong thing to experience. But it’s not bad. I was catatonic for a year after that. I'd signed off the dole to do Breaking the Waves. When you've gone from being a struggling actor to an overnight sensation in Cannes, the shock is huge. Part of me loved it and part of me was very disturbed by it because the first 28 years of my life were pretty great and suddenly everyone was telling me, "Ah, now you mean someting." "What do you mean, I mean something?" It was bizarre. I did a lot of interviews where I tried to come across as matter-of-fact and as sensible as possible.

Watch the trailer for Breaking the Waves

For all your success in European films, you’ve not made many big American films.

Just the one. Punch-Drunk Love (pictured below, Watson with Adam Sandler) may be big but it felt to me exactly the same family of film-makers I’ve been in. It’s the natural extension of making a movie with Tim Robbins and Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph, to work with Paul Thomas Anderson. Paul just won’t let anything out. He controls everything. I said, “What is my character?” He’d say things like, “She’s just arrived on a space ship.” Which was very illuminating. I kind of knew what he meant. He wanted to make a romantic comedy. But it’s not in his DNA. That’s one of my favourite things I’ve done actually. The fact that he happens to live in the Valley in LA wasn’t to me a Hollywood production. Whereas Red Dragon definitely is. The winnebago you could have a cricket match in.

Did it feel like a new ball game?

It kind of did and it didn’t. I turned up to work there were lorries as far as the eye could see and it was just a huge thing but I had all my scenes with Ralph Fiennes who is a really proper, proper actor who does things in the same kind of way that I do. We found a space where we did our thing and I really enjoyed it. [To play a blind person] I went on a course at the RNIB they run for people who are going to be working with people with visual disability, which is about what it’s like to go blind and what it's like to walk down the street with a blindfold on. That was reallym really interesting. I spent some time with a girl who is almost completely blind who goes to karate twice a week. You get into problems with eye lines. The cameraman says, “This is your eye line.” You say [whispering], “I can’t see.”Emily Watson and Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk LoveDid you wear contacts?

No. I think if you’ve got interesting eyes, it’s quite interesting to have you not look through them.

In Oranges and Sunshine (pictured below) you play Margaret Humphreys. Did you meet her?

Bizarrely I didn't. I took a decision, having played a lot of real people before and having had good experiences and bad experiences and getting in trouble, I thought this time I won’t get hung up on how she is in person. I won’t get distracted. I’d seen a bit of her in documentaries and there is quite a particular way that she is and I thought I’m not sure I want to be like that. So I read a lot of stuff but I decided not to meet her. I don't know if that was the right decision at all. But subsequently a lot of people have said, "Oh my God, you’re channelling her, you’re so like her." Her characteristics are very clear from her story in a way. She’s also quite a reserved Englishwoman in a very forthright kind of away and I guess we share a bit of territory: middle-class white English women.Emily Watson in Oranges and SunshineIt's a very contained matronly performance.

The whole point of her in it is that she absorbs other people’s emotions. She doesn’t express emotions, she doesn’t deal with them, which lands her in quite a lot of trouble. Jim was very clear that he just wanted it pared back and very simple.

When did you get into trouble?Hilary and Jackie (pictured below). My memories are of going very innocently on Start the Week and being savaged by the other people who were on it. It was fantastic. It was a fantastic experience, the whole thing. I had just done a press tour in America where we had had wonderful reviews and nobody really knew who [Jacqueline Du Pré] was that much, so there wasn’t any kind of outrage. I’d had one journalist from CNN be a bit awkward. And then literally I arrived back in London and had to get up early the next morning and go in to the BBC to do Start the Week with Jeremy Paxman. There were two people, one had written a book about feminism and one had written a book about Bletchley Park, and then Tom Stoppard. It was all very friendly and nice and then he said, "So what did you think about Hilary and Jackie?" And the woman who had written the book about feminism just laid into it and laid into me and then the other guy followed suit and then thankfully Tom Stoppard got on his big white charger and came to my rescue in the most fabulous manner and I will be forever grateful. It was kind of hilarious. It wasn’t so great at the time.

Emily Watson in Hilary and JackieAre intense roles part of the pattern of your career?

Is there a pattern? Well, I think there probably is a sense that you always get asked to do the same territory. I guess I get given a lot of things like this, very strong, emotional, dramatic – that’s the territory often. And I really enjoy it when it’s not. But it quite often is. But you kind of, in a way, don't have a plan. You can’t have a plan. You just blow with the wind.

Was having children and doing less work a plan?

Yes. And just more in shorter bursts. In a way it’s one of the great blessings of the job that it’s a part-time job. And when I work it’s very intense and it’s logistically incredibly difficult with the kids but after a couple of months I can go home.

Is it a matter for regret when films don't work?

I did a film called Within the Whirlwind (pictured below) which has not been distributed which I think might be the best thing I’ve ever done. It was delivered pretty much on the day the market crashed so nobody was buying anything.Emily Watson in Within the WhirlwindWhy is it the best thing you’ve done?

It’s the most stretching thing I’ve done as a mature actress. It’s an amazing true story. Evgenia Ginzberg was a professor of poetry at Kazan University in the 1930s and she was arrested in the Stalin purges and sent to the gulag and got there and discovered that she could remember poetry, hundreds of poems, and it kept her alive. And then in the camp she met a German doctor and fell in love and it’s incredibly redemptive. They survived. They fell in love and had a family and they survived.Is it enough to have done the job?

You have to be very Zen and when they cut on the last day you have to go, "I have no idea what’s going to happen and it’s not in my hands and I’ve got to walk away and say goodbye and let it go." At the same time you never quite think that’s going to happen. I heard Helena Bonham Carter say, “God, it’s so nice to be in a hit. I’ve been in so many movies that nobody ever sees.”

Is it true that Amélie was written for you?

Yes it was. Because he wanted me to do it in French and I don't speak French. I really, really don’t speak French. It would have been excruciating. I flirted with the idea for a while but it was also a time when I had been working, working, working and I wanted to stop for a bit.

What about Elizabeth?

Oh God. That script passed across my desk, it did. But God, she [Cate Blanchett]’s just extraordinary.

Do you have a sense of what you look like on a screen now?

Yeah. Old. That’s not good for the career. Don’t say that. Yes, I do. When I first started out I really had no idea how I looked or how I worked on screen and as you get older it’s kind of a blessing and a curse that you know what your tools are and how to use them. In a way it’s great with the kids because I am much better at doing it, picking something up, giving it my all and going home and leaving it. When I was younger I had to work myself up into a complete lather to be able to be in the thing and I don't have to do that anymore. I understand the mechanics of it. It’s a very strange arena to be operating in. It’s picking up emotions and living them and putting them down again.

What is it about you that is able to do that?

I know, it’s quite weird, isn’t it? I think you have to be an emotional person anyway but you also have to be quite strong. In a way I think you actually have to be quite rational. You have to really be rational and very acutely precise about thought and logic and if you really nail the thought and the logic, the emotion takes care of itself.

Jeremy Irvine and Emily Watson in War HorseDid you see the play before shooting your scenes in War Horse (pictured above, Watson with Jeremy Irvine)?I saw the play when I was about eight and a half months pregnant, just because I wanted to go. After about 10 seconds I turned to my husband with tears pouring down my face going, “I don’t think I can handle this.” We stayed. But if you’re English, it’s the First World War and Black Beauty. You’ve got no hope. [On the film set in Dartmoor] I really didn’t know what to expect. The biggest unit I’ve ever seen that went on forever. A huge machine. But actually I found him [Steven Spielberg] to be very passionate about actors and performers. He would come in in the morning and go, “Oh my God, I’ve been awake all night worrying about this shot.” He was like a young man, which was really great. And you have to keep pinching yourself. That is actually Steven Spielberg. I haven’t worked with many real Hollywood mainstreamers like that. And I felt very privileged.

In Appropriate Adult, you played Janet Leach, the woman who sat in on Fred West's police interviews whose presence helped him to confess his crimes. Did you meet her?Emily Watson and Dominic West in Appropriate AdultJust because everyone had been making such a deal of the fact that I hadn’t met Margaret! There were specific things I wanted to ask her and she hadn’t written a book in the same way. And I wanted to get a sense of her in person because she walked into the room and he went, "I know you and I know how to use you." She is quite an ordinary person who gets completely taken in. She also provides a very, very important function. Without her we might not ever know a lot of what happened. She is very crucial in that story but she is also vulnerable. She is not equipped to deal with it. (Pictured above: Watson with Dominic West)

You referred to age. Are you negotiating the anxiety?

Well, somebody once said to me, “You are a character actor who gets laid.” My plan is that I will be able to soldier on because I’m a character actor, who probably doesn’t get laid quite so much as time goes by. Everybody has issues with age, I guess, and it’s a particular career where age is not totally on your side and it’s quite shocking to see yourself ageing. But there’s no point in pretending you’re getting younger.

It’s quite shocking to see yourself ageing. But there’s no point in pretending you’re getting younger

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters