In her latest film, Emily Watson plays a social worker who battled to reunite British families with children forcibly sent to Australia, a role made more poignant by losing her mother as filming began
I can't believe I haven't met Emily Watson before. But I know why she seems familiar: it is because of her performance in the tremendous new film Oranges and Sunshine, directed by Ken Loach's son, Jim Loach. It is Watson's outstanding gift as an actress that she appears not to "put on" an act at all. She rejects ornament. She pares roles down. She gets to the heart of things and the result is as close to a personal encounter as you can get on screen. The film is based on Empty Cradles, a memoir by Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys, about the scandal of the 130,000 unaccompanied children sent to Australia between the 1920s and 1960s. Watson plays Humphreys as she embarks on an heroic one-woman mission to reunite families and help migrant "children" ? now adults ? piece together their identities. It is an extraordinary story.
Watson's appearance is like her acting: not dressed up, unshowy. She could, at a pinch, be a social worker, taking an unexpected break. She sits comfortably in a Soho hotel in tracksuit, hoodie and walking shoes. She does not wear make-up or attention-seeking jewellery. Nothing distracts from her marvellous face. And it is easy to see why the camera loves her (her mobile mouth and arresting blue eyes). But what I warm to is her openness and the fact that she is not pretending to be anyone she isn't. She looks great, if a bit tired at the edges ? and this is no wonder. She has all the slog involved in being the 44-year-old mother of two young children, as well as being one of the most unusual and sought-after actors of her generation.
"The idea of a child separated from its mother and sent to the other side of the world slams into your heart ? it is desperate," she says. And motherhood is our subject because, to some extent, it is also the film's. Humphreys is professionally maternal but her family pays the price (a sensitive point the film does not labour). Watson marvels at how "good" Humphreys is and adds that, as a mother: "I don't think I could have done what she did."
It is a film that was always bound to make Watson brood about mothers, but what she could not have predicted was that she would have the saddest and most private of reasons for this too. "It was just after Christmas. We were about to start shooting in Australia when I got a call to say my mother was in intensive care." Jim Loach "stood everyone down for a week and I flew home". Her mother had encephalitis, an infection of the brain. "She had been ill in the autumn but had recovered. We had rushed to her bedside then, thinking it was the end ? but it wasn't. We had seen her come round, be back with us; we had said all the things we wanted to say."
But this time, there was no reprieve. Watson arrived in London five minutes after her mother had died. She was 69. The only crumb of comfort is that her mother had made it clear she would rather not soldier on uselessly. "She'd said she would rather go out into the garden in her hammock on a cold night and slip away."
She recalls this time with long pauses as if she were about to come to a complete standstill. "She taught English, at St James's School, west London. She was the kind of teacher everybody adored. A collector of waifs and strays. There were always people turning up, hanging out ? sometimes needing help. She was that sort of woman. She was passionate about many things and young at heart." Watson had no time to grieve: "I literally went from the funeral to the airport, got on a plane, got back to Australia and the set and carried on. I felt as if I was in a dream because I had come from deep snow in England to 45 degrees of heat and just had to get on with it. And it was particularly hard because [she gives an aghast laugh] every single scene was about someone's mother."
But could she use the grief? "I feel very wary about lending my real life to my work. I felt I had completely to put a lid on it, to bury it deep down and wait, until later, when I got home, to deal with it. I didn't want to have my grief in public." Yet she recognises (as everyone seeing the film will) that it is visible in her performance: there is a tension in her bearing, the sense of a burden, a tearful look. "I am sure it shows somehow. It is there. Whether I meant it to or not, it was just with me."
Emily Watson has come a long way from her beginnings as a spear-carrier for the RSC (though she has always said getting into the RSC was a high point). But her big break came, in 1996, as Bess, an extreme young woman in a remote Scottish community, in Lars von Trier's film Breaking the Waves (she was nominated for an Oscar). Two years later, she was nominated again for her performance as Jacqueline du Pr� in Hilary and Jackie ( a "harrowing" role which involved learning to play the cello in three months). Her film career has continued to be brilliantly miscellaneous: Angela's Ashes; Gosford Park; Synecdoche, New York.
Yet in all her work, there is an integrity. I tell her she has outlawed "look at me" acting and replaced it with "I am here" acting. But does acting naturally come naturally? She suggests that if she seems natural it is only because she is "comfortable" enough with the camera to ignore it. She is also quick to give credit, as far as Oranges and Sunshine is concerned, to Jim Loach. "It has to do with Jim's personality ? and an approach to directing he may partly get from his dad." On Loach's set, on the first day, she remembers asking: "Was that a rehearsal or a take?" Jim is "incredibly gentle and surrounds himself with people who are similar". That is why "everything happens naturally". Neither of her offerings is a complete answer, but then she is not the sort of person to boast.
Jim Loach sees Watson's character as "strong and empathetic". Would she recognise herself in that description? "Am I strong? Yes, I think I probably am." But she explains that a curious balance needs to be struck: actors must be "a bit fragile and open to emotions" and yet, at the same time, have a "coping mechanism and be phlegmatic". Then she arrestingly adds: "The stronger your centre, the more you can blow in the breeze." As to empathy, it is Margaret Humphreys's empathy, not her own, that she wants to discuss. She marvels at Humphreys's approach (witnessed in a documentary) in which, with gradual and painstaking tact, she let people know their mothers had been found. "She presents little facts, waits for the person to absorb them. They ask questions. And she answers until they get to the point where they say, 'So, have you found her?' And she goes, 'Yes, we have.'" Whatever she resists saying about herself, you can see Jim Loach is right about empathy. And she is a listener, a key quality in an actor, on and off screen.
Watson did not meet Humphreys before making the film. She did not want to get caught up in narrow impersonation. She was aiming for a wider truth. But they have met since. Watson was "overwhelmed" beforehand because Humphreys is "forthright and not a mincer of words". She feared that she might be unequal to it because she had been having "such an intense experience of my own". But to everyone's delighted relief, Humphreys gave the film the thumbs up. So have the many social workers who have been invited by the film's distributors to special screenings. They are thrilled to see a film in which a social worker is the star and not, for once, getting a bad press.
Watson has not finished with social work and her next role is challenging. She is to play Janet Leach in Appropriate Adult, an ITV drama about Fred West that has taken years to research. Leach was an "inexperienced, untrained social worker ? and a vulnerable woman to boot ? who did not know what she was getting into and found herself in an interview room with Fred West". Watson is looking forward to what she describes as a "coalface of an interaction between the two people". She is also soon to appear ? let off the social work this time ? in Steven Spielberg's film of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse (as Albert's mother).
Does she ever dream of earning a living by other means? She laughs as if to say: "Often." She studied English at Bristol before training at Drama Studio London. Writing, she says, is her "fantasy life". She is married to Jack Waters, a writer who started out as an actor (they met at the RSC). She also likes the idea of occasional truancy from the earnest roles in which she tends to be cast. She fancies having a go at supporting acts in thrillers ? "women in suits at the FBI". These would win her time to "do the school run".
There is no mistaking the importance of family in her life. When I ask who has influenced her most, she replies: "My parents" (her father is a retired architect). In her original family, she was one of two sisters. Now, with children of her own, the way she sees herself has shifted: "I define myself now with my kids and their daily routine." Juliet, five, and Dylan, two, travel everywhere with her, including Australia. "We had a little house in Adelaide; we had to try to get Dylan not to eat spiders in the garden." They have a "super" nanny, although, as Watson recognises, "the logistics will get harder" as Juliet will start primary school in the autumn. "But we'll get there."
Apart from family, what else matters to her? What people? and things? Does she have any objects of particular sentimental value? "I am not good at things," she says. "I am not attached to stuff. I am great at throwing things away. But I do cherish a little pottery sugar pot, of rough-and-ready design, that belonged to my grandmother." When she looks at it, she pictures "a sliding cupboard with ball bearings in her kitchen" where "naughty things" were kept. It takes her back, too, to her grandmother's Dorset garden, its honeysuckle and roses (her mother and grandmother were talented gardeners). "I used to spend months running free in that garden ? they are the happiest memories of my life. The sugar pot reminds me of something gone for ever. I live with the daily knowledge that it will be dropped and broken quite soon."
I am taken aback by her insistence that the sugar pot is automatically doomed and that childhood qualifies as her "happiest" time. I am glad when she moves on to an upbeat present. She and her family have just moved to a Greenwich house where she exclaims: "I am going to have a garden." But she admits there is unlikely to be much time for gardening. What is it about acting ? the thing she loves most ? that will keep her out of the flower beds? "It is when, occasionally, something happens which you did not legislate for but which is magic. Not always or necessarily something you have done yourself. But everyone on the set knows when it is happening. And it is totally exhilarating ? the best feeling in the world."