Sally Hawkins interview
Painfully shy Sally Hawkins struggles with fame. But she’d better get used to it. It’s A Wonderful Afterlife, a new comedy about a curry poisoner, looks set to confirm her transition from meek and mild to exceedingly hot.
Sally Hawkins is sitting in a gleaming white penthouse hotel suite in central London furnished almost entirely with gleaming white modernist furniture. It’s the sort of room that calls for a high level of self-possession on the part of its occupants. However, it swiftly becomes clear that Sally Hawkins is not remotely self-possessed. Indeed, she may well be the most nervous person I’ve ever interviewed. A tiny, birdlike figure with a fringe falling over enormous hazel eyes and her sleeves slipping down over her hands, she keeps gazing anxiously at my voice recorder. Periodically, she lifts a hand up to her mouth as if wishing she could cram her words back inside.
Acting, as the actress Sinéad Cusack once observed, is the shy person’s revenge on life. While shyness may have dogged Hawkins ever since she was a child – ‘Believe me, I used to be a lot worse than this,’ she mutters at one point – it plainly hasn’t held her back professionally. She won a Golden Globe for her performance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (2008). And now here she is in It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, the latest comedy from Gurinder Chadha (the director of Bend it Like Beckham and Bride & Prejudice). Hawkins plays a thunderously thick devotee of Indian mysticism who becomes involved in the hunt for a serial killer – a serial killer who feeds their victims poisoned curries, and then pushes them into tandoori ovens.
Hawkins admits she didn’t feel any great sense of empathy with her character, Linda, when she first read the script – she’s never been to India and is suspicious of anyone giving themselves quick fixes of spirituality. None the less, she threw herself into the part with all her usual intensity.
‘I know Linda is fairly two-dimensional,’ she says, ‘but I always feel I have this tremendous responsibility both to the character and to the fil…’ Suddenly she breaks off and looks appalled. ‘Oh God, I can’t possibly say that. It’s such a terrible cliché.’
Again Hawkins stares at the recorder, twining one leg round the other as she does so. If you wanted to sketch someone in the worst throes of self-consciousness, you could hardly find a better model. ‘I’m afraid I find interviews quite difficult… as you can see. I suppose I’m just a very private person. However, I do realise that I’m in a profession where you are “out there” a lot. One of the things
I love about acting is that I can enter into these other people’s lives. But going back to being me at the end of the day is very important, too. That process of remembering who I am.’ She glances up, another agonised expression on her face. ‘Is this making any sense at all?’
‘Absolutely,’ I tell her.
‘Really?’ She looks astonished. ‘Oh… Well, the people I respect most of all in this business are the ones who just… just go away when they’re not working. Someone like Judi Dench who’s passionate about what she does but just disappears when she’s finished doing it.’
Two years ago there was no question of Hawkins disappearing. The eyes and camera lenses of Hollywood were trained upon her at the Golden Globes. Flown out to Los Angeles specially for the awards ceremony, she was stunned to hear her name read out. ‘I really didn’t think I had a hope in hell of winning, so I was feeling very shocked when I started giving my speech. Everything was going in slo-mo. Then halfway through I caught Tom Cruise’s eye. He was sitting in the front row looking a little confused, and probably a little bored, too. I just thought, “That’s Tom Cruise!” It completely threw me. I had no idea where I was or how long I’d been speaking for.’
Even now she has a job believing the whole episode ever happened. ‘It feels like yesterday on the one hand and 10 years ago on the other. Those award ceremonies are amazing because they mean the world to so many people.
And yet there’s another little part of you going, “This is all a bit silly.” ’
Afterwards she was offered several wildly unsuitable roles in Bruce Willis-type thrillers. ‘That was the last thing I wanted to do – and I can’t imagine Bruce would ever have wanted to appear opposite me either,’ she adds hurriedly. ‘I was also punted round various agents and stuff like that. But I didn’t do much of that because I rather object to it. I just wanted to run so fast in the opposite direction. I think I’m lucky in a way because I’m not really Hollywood material.’
There can be few actors or actresses who would make such a remark and actually mean it. But then Hawkins is a very unusual actress. Beneath the shyness and the privacy she is clearly clever, wry and unaffected. Oddly enough, her sense of privacy is one of the things that make her so distinctive – as anyone will recall who saw her in the BBC series of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, or in the television adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s novel 20,000 Streets Under the Sky.
On screen she often gives the impression of someone who is trying to fortify herself with as much assurance as possible. But whenever she lowers her defences, you get an impression of tremendous vulnerability, of someone laying themselves completely bare emotionally. This may explain why she’s regarded with a surprising degree of fondness as well as admiration by her fans. A website, sally-hawkins.com, which describes itself as a tribute to Sally Hawkins, collects stories about her and encourages people to send her electronic cards on her birthday – she will be 34 on 27 April.
Hawkins says that she is flattered by the attention, but, characteristically, finds it a bit daunting. ‘I’m not very well known,’ she says firmly. ‘However, the more well known you get, the more people are going to have expectations of you. Although that’s great, it also imposes certain pressures.’
As a child she often felt as if she had one less layer of skin than everyone else. ‘I was very nervous and worried. I stammered and found it hard to look people in the eye.’
She was brought up in south London where her parents both illustrated children’s books. That conjures up a very idyllic sort of image, I say. ‘Well, we did live in a gingerbread house, you know. We were always nibbling at the walls… Actually, it was pretty idyllic.
My parents are lovely people and I have enormous respect for them, as naff as that sounds. Being surrounded by artists was very inspirational, and it had a huge influence on me.’
Hawkins would never say it herself – she loathes the idea of standing out in any way – but she must have been a distinctive child, too. Apart from anything else, her memories stretch all the way back to when she was eight months old. ‘I can remember being in my cot and getting a stocking for Christmas. And I remember looking at this duck and thinking, “They’re only giving me this because I’m a baby.” I was very conscious of the fact that I was conscious, if you know what I mean.
Of the fact that I had arrived. God only knows where I’d been before.’
For a long time she didn’t show any interest in reading – or in anything much apart from drawing. Eventually, her parents discovered she was dyslexic. ‘I’m a bit reluctant to talk about it because that’s such a cliché too, isn’t it? There are so many actors who are dyslexic; drama schools are absolutely stuffed with them.’ These days, she’s learnt to live with it.
‘It can be quite bad sometimes. I flip lines, and sight-reading is terrifying. But it’s not as if it cripples me, which I know it does with some people.’
Discovering drama changed everything for her. ‘I first started acting in primary school, just doing little plays. And from the moment I began something just went click inside me. Suddenly I wasn’t shy anymore. Instead I felt confident and happy. I can remember the enormous sense of relief it gave me. I loved the feeling of making people laugh. That was just lovely, the best thing ever. It also unlocked language for me and made me realise the power of words.’
At RADA she thrived and found herself an agent before she left. Thereafter the parts came pretty regularly. And then Mike Leigh asked her to audition for the part of Poppy, the ditsy perennial optimist, in Happy-Go-Lucky. She had already appeared, briefly, in two of his films, All or Nothing and Vera Drake. Here, though, the film was effectively going to stand or fall on her performance. ‘We talked for a while and then Mike went out saying he’d come back to observe me in character. For the first five minutes after he left the room,
I ran about thinking, “Oh, God, what do I do? What would Timothy Spall do?” Then I settled down and it went fine.’
That, of course, didn’t prevent her from being terrified on the first day of filming. ‘I’m always terrified!’ she says. ‘Every time. I used to think my nerves might get better as I got older, but they don’t seem to have done, I’m afraid. I just lose parts of my brain.’
Happy-Go-Lucky is one of those films that divided its audience down the middle – with some people falling half-in-love with Poppy, and others finding her so irritating they would cheerfully have killed her. ‘It’s weird because a lot of men couldn’t stand her, whereas women really liked her. At least they said they did. Maybe they were just lying. But what I loved about her was the fact that she was just the way she was; she wasn’t making excuses for herself. And I really liked her sense of humour.’
As a child, Hawkins started writing comedy sketches with a school friend. They still write together and have contributed sketches to the Radio 4 series Concrete Cow. She has also appeared several times in Little Britain. ‘I didn’t know David or Matt beforehand. They just asked me and I was absolutely thrilled.’ She even carried on being thrilled after David Walliams threw up on her in one of the sketches they did together. ‘Well,’ she says stoically, ‘it’s one of those things that’s got to happen at least once in your life.’
She has a number of friends who are comedians, including James Corden, whom she met on All or Nothing. Recently, she and Corden decided that if they were both single when they 35 they would get married. ‘It’s true, we did say that, but I’m still waiting for my ring, James. I think he’s got a long line to get through first.’ Again her hand comes up to her mouth. ‘Oops! Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.’
Hawkins lives a world away from this gleaming white penthouse, in Richmond. There she tends her window box and dreams of having her own garden one day. ‘I love gardening and I love plants. Being in nature is very important to me. Unfortunately, I just don’t have a lot of it to be in at the moment.’
The question of whether she is, or isn’t, in a relationship is, not surprisingly, one that causes Hawkins to look more agonised than ever. ‘Oh, God,’ she says. There’s a long pause. ‘Um… Could you say that, if I was, it would be really nice to keep it completely private.’ Another pause follows and then she asks, nervously, ‘Is that OK?’
‘It’s a Wonderful Afterlife’ is out