From the Golden Globes to a Dagenham car plant

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British actress Sally Hawkins talks to Dave Calhoun about her time in the acting spotlight and her new lead role in Brit break-out comedy, 'Made in Dagenham'

Sally Hawkins is hiding from a bunch of tourists in a booth with me in Earl’s Court’s Troubadour café. She’s keeping her voice down: the last thing she wants to be seen as is a braying actress. Which is handy – because she isn’t. The 34-year-old Londoner (she grew up in Blackheath, the daughter of successful children’s book authors) is constantly checking herself, asking me whether something sounds silly and groaning when she finds herself describing acting as ‘a muscle’.

Her latest film is ‘Made in Dagenham’, a broad-brush-stroke but serious enough retelling of how a bunch of women workers stood up to their chauvinist bosses at Ford Dagenham in 1968 to demand equal pay. She gives a spirited and subtle performance as Rita O’Grady, a fictional wife and mother (based on several real people) who almost accidentally finds herself talking at trade union conferences and leading a delegation to meet Barbara Castle, secretary of state for employment and productivity, at Westminster. It’s Hawkins’s first lead role since grabbing our attention and winning awards as Poppy in Mike Leigh’s excellent 2008 film ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, and it further proves that she’s one of the country’s most versatile screen actresses, able to move between comedy and tragedy – often in the same film – with ease.

The talk is that ‘Made in Dagenham’ could be a surprise hit in America. But how will the US audience react to that particular corner of Essex?
‘It’s true! I spoke to someone who’s handling publicity for it in the States and she’s still trying to get her head round it. “Dag-unn-haaam?” It’s like “Lie-chess-ter Square”!’

Maybe somebody should take the publicist to Dagenham. They’d get it then.
‘Yes, as a field trip!’

I’d never heard the story of the women workers at Ford Dagenham.
‘I hadn’t either, I’m ashamed to say, and it was important – it precipitated the Equal Pay Act in 1970. It was an important stepping stone.’

The story has mostly been lost to history.
‘Yes, but my parents were aware of it, and it was our grandparents’ generation, of course. In fact, my grandmother was a factory machinist, and I found out yesterday that so were the grandparents of Jamie Winstone, who is in the film – which adds another nice level.’

Your character, Rita O’Grady, is fictional, though, isn’t she?
‘She’s an amalgamation of different woman at different points in time. The story is a little compressed. The issue of re-grading men and women’s pay wasn’t fully resolved until 1984, and there were different women handing down the baton, with others taking over from each other. It was a long and drawn-out process. They were different ages, doing different jobs. They were an ensemble. It wasn’t just one of them.’

It’s interesting how the film sketches chauvinism, not just among bosses at Ford but also among trade union leaders and at home, subtly between husbands and wives.

‘The subtler it is, the worse it is. It’s harder to grab hold of in a way. That’s how we come across it in day-to-day life, when everyone faces discrimination in some form or other. What’s interesting here is that the men were happy to a point to support the women, but when it came down to the food not being on the table and things not being kept up at home, then some of them had a bit of an issue with it.’

Your character is a reluctant leader. I like how your voice changes throughout the film in terms of confidence.
‘Oh, good, good. I wasn’t sure whether that would come across, actually. That’s what I was trying to do, but you just don’t know. Oh, good. Also I didn’t want it to seem like she had some sort of special ability.’

You’re riding a bike again in the opening scene of ‘Made in Dagenham’, like in ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’. You should become an ambassador for the bicycle industry soon.
‘I know! It’s weird, isn’t it? I’ll always start a film like that now. When we filmed it, it wasn’t in sequence, then I found out it was going to be right at the beginning again! It’s actually a better bike this time. I’ll see what I can do next time.’

And you are working again with the actor Daniel Mays. He’s your husband in this film and he was your lover in your first film, ‘All or Nothing’, with Mike Leigh.
‘It’s becoming a theme; I’m thinking of getting it written into contracts – it has to be Danny! Poor Danny, I’m beginning to feel sorry for him: “Yeah, sorry, it’s me again.” It’s lovely. I know him from college, and when you know someone that well, it’s like working with someone like Mike Leigh, someone you don’t have to build up a relationship with. You just get down to it.’

You’ve been in three Mike Leigh films now: ‘All or Nothing’, ‘Vera Drake’ and ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’. Did he see you first on stage?
‘No, it was the casting director, Nina Gold, who came to see me. It was instigated by Maxine Peake, who’s a good friend of mine. We were doing our third-year showing at Rada, this hideous thing where agents and casting directors come to see you. Horrible. The pressure! But Maxine suggested writing a joint letter to casting directors. She’s incredibly organised. Thank God for Maxine.’

Did you meet Mike Leigh when he was casting ‘All or Nothing’?
‘No, it was a couple of years before. He’s always meeting actors. He’ll go on meeting actors for the rest of time! Even beyond! If anyone is capable of that, it’s Mike Leigh. He’ll be very impressed that I’m talking mainly about him!’

Well, you’ve done three films with him. I’ve often wondered whether actors are spoilt after working with him. All that preparation and research and rehearsal – and then the next job you’re expected to turn up and just do it.
‘You are spoiled, actually, because it’s such a luxury. All that time working one-to-one, so closely with someone who is such a master filmmaker. When you don’t have that luxury of time, you do miss the detail, you miss that richness, which gives you something to hang on to when you’re feeling unsure. It gives you a great, solid foundation. But you can always take elements of it and you do try to make it work on other jobs.’

Before you made ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, in which you’re in almost every scene, did Mike Leigh ask you if you were up for it?
‘Yes, in a way, but anything he asks, you’d go: “Yeah, of course, I’m there.” I remember there was this time when we were seeing Danny Mays at the theatre, at the Royal Court, and we had this conversation. Mike just said: “It would be great to do something great together, wouldn’t it?” and he had this cheeky twinkle in his eye. I was like: “Yeah, I’m on!” Luckily he didn’t then say, “Er, not a film! Just another drink!” Er, yeah, absolutely! … So, yeah, he does build dreams, Mike. He’s like a magician in that way.’

You won a Golden Globe for ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ last year. Tell us about your trip to Hollywood to receive the award…
‘It was frantic. It’s a big thing over there. I had a broken collarbone at the time and I was in pain and having to take this sling off every time I walked down a red carpet. It was really physically gruelling as well as mentally, and by the Golden Globes I was as drugged up as I could be! Legally! … Just paracetamol!’

Do you think it’s made a difference to your career?
‘I’m really crap at this question… I don’t know, I’m sure, yes, of course it has…’

Well, surely it shows that you can be a lead in a film, you can attract an audience, good reviews, an award…
‘Absolutely, yes. I hadn’t looked at it like that, thank you very much! I should put it on a T-shirt! It’s true, agents do think like that. Like you say, your name’s out there and you’ve got this lovely thing behind you. Initially you read all these scripts and there’s nothing that’s right… and more people are aware of you, not just here but in America, and that’s always a nice thing. It just gives you more access to people who you want to work with.’

And you’re off to New York to do a play on Broadway [George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Mrs Warren’s Profession’] from now until November. I’ve never seen you on stage.
‘Why would you? I guess you’re seeing films every night. It does take you back to where the love began. You have to readjust the dial, especially when you go from film to theatre. Everyone’s shouting! There’s nothing like it.

I love the rehearsal process. You discover the emotional meaning of every sentence, which I love. I fly there on Sunday and I’ll be in New York until November, which can’t be a bad thing.’

Read our review of 'Made in Dagenham'

Author: Interview: Dave Calhoun



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