After winning Best Actress from the Berlin Film Festival, the Golden Globes, and a score of critics’ circles for her ebullient performance in Mike Leigh‘s Happy-Go-Lucky, actress Sally Hawkins seemed a lock for an Oscar nomination — or in the least, a BAFTA nod. Instead, in this awards season’s most shocking oversight, the crowd-pleasing comedy only won Leigh an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Somebody call the Oscar police: Sally Hawkins has been robbed.
Before the Academy overlooked one of the most memorable characters and vibrant performances of 2008, Rotten Tomatoes met Hawkins in Los Angeles to discuss her role in the critically-acclaimed Happy-Go-Lucky. A broken collarbone had prevented Hawkins from her original press tour, but on the mend she had returned riding a new wave of awards season buzz; the excitement was palpable, and Hawkins — like her eternally-optimistic character, Poppy — was a bundle of positivity, thrilled just to learn that their film had gone Certified Fresh (it sits currently at 93 percent, among the best-reviewed films of the year).
Below, Sally Hawkins describes working with Mike Leigh (“creating characters out of thin air”), whose Best Screenplay Nomination surely belongs in some part to the devoted cast with whom he spent months developing characters and story. This being Hawkins’ third Leigh film, the actress has keen insights on Leigh’s infamously focused filmmaking process (“he’s almost like a doctor…dissecting different worlds”) and volunteers that even his abortion-themed Vera Drake (in which Hawkins and Happy-Go-Lucky’s Eddie Marsan also appeared) would seem to the auteur a delicate mixture of drama and comedy. Finally, Hawkins pays respects to the real-life Poppys of the world, teachers to us all.
Sally Hawkins: It’s a lovely movie, I’m really proud of it. To think back to where it began, because it started from nothing…the way Mike [Leigh] works, every film he sort of starts from nothing and doesn’t have a script, or characters. You don’t have a character. You’re working in collaboration with him and creating characters together, out of thin air. It’s quite magical.
SH: No, he doesn’t know where he’s going to end up, or what it’s going to be about, or the journey that’s going to unfold. It’s both incredibly exciting and terrifying, because you just don’t know. He leaves it up to the gods, really. I don’t know how he does it; he’s extraordinary in that way, an extraordinary brain. Pulling all these different threads together to create a story, and an entertaining one, and an incredibly real, rich world. He’s honed his process for over 20 years now and refined it. He’s interested in creating very real characters and going into their world, and exploring their world, and their minds, and what makes them tick. That’s probably why he’s developed the process that he’s developed.
SH: Yes, it is! Exploring. He’s almost like a doctor in some ways; he’s sort of dissecting different worlds and putting them up on the screen for everyone to see. He’s interested in unraveling; pulling a thread and seeing what happens.
Next: On comedy in Vera Drake, and Hawkins on Oscar-nominated writer-director Leigh
SH: When you speak to Mike about that, he’ll say, “All my films have a degree of comedy in them, and all my films have a degree of tragedy.” And that can be said for Happy-Go-Lucky as well. It’s not just up there, it’s about many different things — there are quite serious notes and serious subject matters. Because of the nature of Poppy and her energy, it sort of leans more towards positivity. Capturing that energy and that essence and that bubble…he’ll say that even in Vera Drake there are moments of comedy! Usually when Eddie Marsan’s involved. There’s the beautiful moment that’s both incredibly poignant and also incredibly funny at the same time in Vera Drake with Eddie; he’s very good at doing that dual aspect sort of thing. Happy-Go-Lucky is more of a comedy than of late, for Mike. But he’ll say that all of his films are funny and tragic.
SH: You do, and I don’t think you can work with Mike and not. He demands so much of his actors. He demands you to sort of explore places that you wouldn’t necessarily explore — he’s sort of tapping into your brain as it were. Because you’re with it for such a long period of time, you invest so much in it. It becomes even more of a personal journey than it perhaps would with other films, because you’re attached for so long. You are asked to invest so much, and you do give so much. Mike, being who he is, puts his heart and soul into all of his films. Hearing him speak about this film in particular, he’ll say that this is quite important for him. I think each film he does is important, but this film is for him about so many different things, and ultimately about love, and what he thinks about love, which is rather lovely. [Laughs] It’s quite beautiful in that way.
SH: I would love to hope so, and I think they do. I think there are aspects of Poppy that exist in people. I certainly know people who have a similar outlook on life, and a similar energy. I think there are definitely people just getting on with life and dealing with it, especially teachers; because of the nature of their work, they have to. Dealing with kids. Good teachers. If they’re not dealing with life and dealing with kids in a good way, and in an upbeat, positive way, and being inspiring and creative and open, then they’re not being good teachers and they’re not doing their job.
Going back to the question of what Mike saw — I think she’s definitely a character and she’s definitely different from me, but there are different aspects of yourself that you stretch, and there are some that you repress. For each role that you do, you kind of go, “That’s quite like me, and I have no idea how I will be able to do that, but I suppose that’s quite like how I do this, and perhaps if I stretch that part of myself…” And sometimes you just have to take the leap. I don’t know how I’m going to get there, but I’m just going to close my eyes and jump and hope for the best! With Poppy, there were certain elements that were easy, and certain things that I learned from her. I think she’s an extraordinary person. Although she’s up there, she’s incredibly grounded as well, which is what I love about her. She’s got a great integrity, and humanity.
Read more on Happy-Go-Lucky here.