She’s played opposite a wide and diverse range of leading men, from Ralph Fiennes and Daniel Day-Lewis to Geoffrey Rush and Adam Sandler, and is equally at home in wrenching dramas or comedies of manners. It’s perhaps a testament to her talents, though, that Emily Watson remains just to the left of indistinctive for most mainstream audiences — not unexceptional or anonymous, but unable to be immediately placed. In her latest film, Watson again gives voice to a remarkable yet “ordinary” woman, starring in “Oranges and Sunshine” as Margaret Humphreys, a Nottingham social worker who uncovers a decades-long program of forced deportation/immigration which sent tens of thousands of children from England to Australia. ShockYa recently had a chance to speak to the Oscar-nominated actress, about her work on that film, Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “War Horse,” and the difficulties of juggling work and family. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: (Director) Jim (Loach) described the first meeting he had with you regarding the movie as quite a long chat. Were you talking more about this incredible story itself, or were you already thinking about it through the prism of Margaret as a character at that time?
Emily Watson: Well, I’d read a fully formed script when I met with him, so absolutely, yes. I was completely shocked when I read it, as I imagine most people — and certainly most British people — would be when they see it. I had no idea, and if you think about, an abuse of human rights on this scale — if it was happening to a group of adults, or ethnic minorities, somebody would be in the Hague standing trial for war crimes, but somehow because it’s children it’s insignificant and seems to have passed us by. I was just shocked, and very curious to meet with [Jim] and talk about it, and really had the sense from very early on that it wasn’t about the character of Margaret, but that it was about them, and that’s how she always talks about it. That’s what she’s made of herself — she’s given herself over. And it’s very rare to meet somebody like that. She’s not a particularly fluent communicator, so if we were to be sitting here now having a cup of tea, she’s not very… what’s the word I’m looking for? She’s not very fluent with this kind of communication, talking about films and emotion, but she’s just a brilliant social worker and campaigner, and when you get her started talking about that stuff she’s truly, truly amazing.
ShockYa: When I first heard of [this story] I mistakenly and rather dismissively assumed that it was a NGO or non-profit group, but not an official government policy, which is astonishing. How are the official governmental apologies playing in the United Kingdom, because I feel like if this story took place in the United States, even on [a much smaller] scale, people would be going completely crazy.
EW: In Australia, I feel like it’s bigger because the children are there. In England: nada, really. (sighs) It’s had a lot of surface media coverage, because it’s a story, but apart from Margaret and the Migrant’s Trust campaigning there’s nobody out there [advocating for these people]. There seems to be a general view of, “Oh well, they’ve apologized, I guess,” which is so shocking because if you hit somebody in the street or beat up somebody you go to trial and then maybe prison, you don’t just apologize. Really, what would begin to satisfy [Margaret] would be at least a judicial inquiry, but whether that would need to be an international inquiry — because it’s obviously affecting two governments — or who would carry it out, I don’t know. For it to go unchecked, unnoticed and unremedied in any way is astonishing, isn’t it? You feel like someone’s making it up. It’s like Margaret’s first reaction when she hears a woman say, “No, I remember being put on a ship.”
ShockYa: The film’s press notes mention that you made the decision not to meet with Margaret, but how much of that material about her being harassed, and struggling with her family, is from her book, or discussions with Jim?
EW: That’s in her book. She was very instrumental in the development of the script. Jim and Rona Munro, the writer, spent a lot of time with her. And she smart enough to know that she kind of had to offer up her own personal story to make the story have a greater resonance for an audience. So they spent a lot of time talking with her, and everything in the script comes from her, but was also initially immensely wary about letting it be made into a movie because of the nature of the subject. I think she was nervous right up until the film was shown to the migrants about the effect it would have, because when people have suffered abuse as children it can trigger terrible feelings of shame in them — they somehow think that they’ve been singled out because they’ve done something, and that it’s their fault. Those feelings are very complex and don’t go away, so to have it publicly rendered in a film is nervous territory. So she was nervous, and took a lot of persuading initially, and the film is very carefully put together with her concerns at heart — about who’s represented and how their represented. So some of the characters have been conflated and changed and they’re not always exact representations of people. But those attacks are all real. And this is before the whole scandal of sexual abuse in the (Catholic) church going on worldwide — it wasn’t an accepted topic, so people were utterly outraged that she could be suggesting that the Christian Brothers could have sexually abused children at a children’s home. It was slanderous beyond what they’d ever heard.
ShockYa: The film is honest about the emotional toll it takes on Margaret’s family. Not to conflate the two, but actors and actresses live lives that require a lot of travel. What has that been like?
EW: My son, by the time we shot, was 11 months old. It’s tough. Going around to Steven Spielberg and saying, “Yes, I will do the movie, but I won’t if you don’t let me take my daughter to her first day of school. That was tough, and required a few conversations behind-the-scenes to make it work. (laughs) No, he was lovely about it, actually. Traveling with the kids was easy when they were very little, because you just put them in a bag and off you go. That was what we did on “Oranges and Sunshine,” because we all went off to Australia. Now it’s a bit harder because my daughter is in school, and it becomes a bit more challenging since I have to go away without them. But I have a great complete and total super-nanny. Without her my life would fall apart. She’s wonderful, and she’s wonderful with the children. She’s been around the world with us twice. And I also have a husband who holds the fort when I’m not there. So that makes it all work — it’s teamwork, really.
ShockYa: Telling a story is telling a story, but what were your impressions or difference in maybe the expectation and reality in working with Jim, since this was his first narrative feature film? How was he with actors?
EW: I think he’s actually as you find him — he’s very gentle. I would characterize the way he works as being completely gentle. I think it’s probably in his genes, and something he inherits from his father. He’s very much a filmmaker with a social conscience, but it’s very much about performance. He’s meticulous in his collection of people. There was not a single soul around that project that wasn’t completely passionate about it. But he also works with people who do their jobs very quietly and unobtrusively, and just made it about what it was about, and not about them – which is a huge deal on a set, because that’s not always the case. He’s a good collector of people… and it didn’t feel pressured or hyped or energized in any way. It was very simple and natural.
ShockYa: You mentioned working with Spielberg. You’ve been Oscar nominated previously and “War Horse” is a movie that already has some Academy Awards buzz, and has people pulling out handkerchiefs for the trailer alone.
EW: I think it’s going to be a tear-jerker. I haven’t seen it yet, but when I saw the play I was eight months pregnant and nearly had to leave after about 10 minutes. It was so emotional. It’s just the most potently beautiful story, and something very quintessentially English. I had members of my family who died in the first World War, and when I was a young girl my granny told me the story of her elder brother who went off when he was age 17 and died. And she, at age 88, sobbed her heart out, as if it was yesterday, and she was age 12 when he died. It’s so in our national psyche, because everybody lost somebody. And then you put that together with horses, and it’s an explosive mixture, I think. I’m hoping it’s going to be a very powerful film. It’s a beautiful book, a beautiful stageplay, and a great script, so it’s got a good chance [of connecting with people].
Written by: Brent Simon