Actress Sally Hawkins was in Dublin for the International Film Festival in February to talk about her role in Mike Leigh's new film 'Happy-Go-Lucky'. The 32-year-old London born starlet plays the leading character in the film, Poppy, an upbeat primary school teacher with an unusual and refreshing approach to life.
It may seem that Sally Hawkins star has come out of nowhere and rocketed to success overnight but the actress has been honing her craft since over the last few years in a number of acclaimed films including 'Layer Cake', 'Vera Drake' and 'The Painted Veil'.
Just as the pint-sized actress was walking across the restaurant in the Conrad Hotel for our interview, she slipped on the wooden floor and went flying up in the air before crashing down with a bang.
Understandably we spent the next few minutes making sure she was okay and then after analysing the damage, establishing that, apart from a slightly bruised ego, no serious damage was done, we both burst into nervous laughter. I shared an even more embarrassing story, half in a bid to relieve her of her embarrassment, half because I knew right from the get-go that I was going to like this gentle, softly spoken woman as much as I enjoyed her acting.
Sally, congratulations on your recent Silver Bear award win at the Berlin Film festival. Were you there on the night to accept the award?
Sally Hawkins: Thanks a million. Yes, I was there... I got a call from Mike [Leigh]... well he couldn't get me for the first couple of hours because I was in 'Topshop'! I got out and had about twelve messages saying 'Call me, where are you? Great news!' Once I talked to him, found out about the award, I knew I had to be there... Yeah it was fantastic.
What was the awards ceremony like?
SH: For me, it was like the Oscars. I suppose it is the German Oscars, it was held in a beautiful cinema/theatre thing, where we had watched the film, the night before. ['HGL' was shown as part of the festival which ran from 7 to 17 February this year] It was a very glam, big event and everyone was there, some wonderful directors and... Diane Kruger [The German-born actress was one of the six International Jury Members this year]... she's lovely. I talked to her and she was gorgeous. She presented me with the award... then there was this fantastic director Paul Thomas Anderson [who picked up the Best director award for ' There Will Be Blood']. There's great energy about the festival, a great buzz.
Of all of the roles you've played to date, how did you feel about wining for this role, as Poppy?
SH: I'm so proud, just so proud... we don't know or we just didn't know until a few days ago how it would be received. You just say "thank you, thank you so much" because you've just no idea when you're doing the film. I saw it initially, for the first time on my own in a cinema screening; Mike set it up that way for me, which was a lovely idea, very generous. I really needed to do that just because I'd no idea what to [expect] I mean initially you're just looking at your mouth or everything and going... "what am I doing?". Then you relax and start to watch the film. Poppy is a wonderful character and I loved playing her.
Given the way Mike Leigh works, beginning with a blank page how much input did you have into the creation of Poppy?
SH: We began with nothing, no script, no character. It's brilliant and also terrifying. You think its scary for yourself but it's just as scary for Mike, a thousand times mor, but so it was just incredibly creative because you start from nothing, with just the kernel of an idea and slowly slowly. That's why you have such a long rehearsal process and people think it's a very long time but actually it's not that long because every minute is accounted for. You need it because you're creating the script, you don't have anything.
I'm sure he had an idea in his mind for what he was going for... I know he did but all I was aware of from an early age... [Laughing] I mean, oh listen to me, sorry [ more laughter]... early stage... it's the coccyx effect and the new shoes on that floor. Anyway... I was aware from an early stage that he was after something with a definite, a sort of naughtiness, sparkle and twinkle, somebody who had a real sense of humour and a great heart.
Mike said in our interview that Poppy was a great mix of optimism and street-smart, that no matter what he threw at her, she survived. Do you agree and do you think this makes her more realistic and easy to relate to?
SH: Yeah, when you work with someone like Mike, as an actor you feel like you can do anything because and he supports you completely and you feel... because there are people like that in life and Mike luckily never thought "My God this is a strange combination for a person to have"... you just sort of focus on the character, you never feel like you're being pushed or pulled.
Your performance was the highlight of the film, it was the film, as you're in almost every scene. How did you create and get into the character?
SH: Thank you, what a nice thing to say. Because you build up a whole world for them, we worked through memories with Poppy's sisters and [family], you work from birth.
I knew exactly what her parents are like, they live in Watford and they're totally opposite to Poppy, they're very dull, very boring, and quite grey in comparison. You have a very clear picture of your character by the time you start filming because the character grows with you.
Are there any similarities between you and Poppy?
SH: A bit actually... I do like to be optimistic, I love life and I love humour and comedy but her ability to let things go is great. I get myself worried about things and burst into tears at the smallest thing and get myself wound up if I've hurt people and get paranoid. She's able to not give herself a hard time.
Is that the central message of the film, to be optimistic despite or in spite of the negativity in today's society?
SH: Yeah, maybe, maybe.
Mike is notoriously particular about the actors he chooses to work with, how did he cast you in 'Happy-Go-Lucky' and how did you feel when he asked you to work with him again [She had supporting roles in both 'Vera Drake' and 'All or Nothing']?
SH: He spoke to me... we've worked together before, as you said, and when he works with an actor he becomes friends with them. And because you work so closely with him and spend so much time together, he's careful about who he works with. I feel honoured to work with him... I mean if Mike wants you to work on a film, you say yes as an actor.
You recently filmed Woody Allen's 'Cassandra's Dream', he's notorious for not letting his actors see the full script or cast line-up prior to filming – what did you think of the experience?
SH: Lovely, great and a completely different experience. I know as you said, sometimes he doesn't let actors see the script but I think because my actor is in the film all the way through I got to see the full script, which was very rare. I like the way that he does that; it's all very confidential and secretive. He's a lovely man, he's got similar aura to Mike, I think it's the fact that they're so bright, it sort of sparkles off them. He's very shy and quiet, keeps himself to himself...
What did you think of your two leading men Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor?
SH: Both lovely, beautiful men. They both are, but I was working more with Colin and got to know him better because I was playing his girlfriend. You never think that that'll happen, "Oh yeah, I'll get that gig", having to get up close and personal with Colin! I remember when I went for the... well you don't go for an audition with Woody, you just go for a reading. I remember thinking, "Ahh... giddy Poppy, she's back". [Laughing]
You don't know who is going to be there until you turn up for the reading on a Woody Allen film and I got told when I arrived that it would with Colin Farrell, playing the girlfriend of his character. And I just thought, "well that's it, there's just no way I'm going to get this gig", so I suppose in that way, I did relax... and then I got it!
What a year you've had, how are you going to top that?
SH: Lovely yeah, I've been lucky. I can't believe it and, I don't know, it's all a bit scary really, I mean after working with Mike Leigh. Can anything [top that?] He gives you so much as an actor. I don't know if I want to go do anything else! I mightn't see anything I like. You think can anything top that and her [Poppy]?
It's been a pleasure talking to you. Watch that floor on the way out!
SH: [Laughing] You too, thank you very much. Lovely to meet you.
Happy-Go-Lucky opens in Irish cinemas on 18 April.