It's the lunch rush in London, and Sally Hawkins is navigating her way through the crowded (and slow) Tube to get to a quiet place for our interview. She phones along the way, train stops blaring from the loudspeaker overhead, to update her progress and apologize for the inconvenience. You can't help but draw comparisons between Hawkins and Anne Elliot, the character she not only plays but inhabits in Persuasion — gracious, kind, and generous.
Hawkins finally makes her way to a coffee shop, and nestles into a corner to talk on the phone for the interview. In the background, the sounds of a wailing baby, clanging dishes, and a bustling lunch crowd nearly overtake the conversation. In a way, it is an apt metaphor for Hawkin's career of late — chaotic. Immediately before filming Persuasion, Hawkins completed a picture with Woody Allen that also stars Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell (Cassandra's Dream), and left the set to again work with director Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky).
Somehow, the London native is entirely at ease, finding some still center in the middle of both the coffee shop and her career. In her first Masterpiece interview conducted in late 2007, Hawkins talks about growing up in a world rich with stories, immersing herself into Jane Austen, and her big fall in Bath.
What was it like having Persuasion sandwiched in between your films with Woody Allen and Mike Leigh?
Hawkins: It was great to do something completely different from Woody or Mike, and to put on a bonnet and go running through the streets of Bath. I love working and I love doing lots of things and a variety of things. It keeps your mind active...and you don't end up worrying about just the one thing. When I chew things over or analyze too much, that is when I can trip myself up. I work on a more instinctive level and it was good to completely throw myself into something else.
You come from a family of storytellers — parents who are both children's book authors. Did growing up in an environment rich with stories affect your interest in and approach to acting?
Hawkins: It really did. Stories were integral to our upbringing — making up stories and seeing my parents create something from nothing with such strong characters on the page. My Dad acts out a character's part before he draws it, and both my parents kind of test dialogue and text and act it out together to see if it works and fits, and if the rhythm is right. It really did spark something in me and especially that creativity, the ability to step into someone's shoes like that. I owe them everything for that. They make it up and I get it given to me on a page.
When were you first introduced to Austen's work, and what was it like revisiting it for your role in Persuasion?
Hawkins: I had been introduced to Austen in school and liked her work. In later years, I was put off by the Jane hype. When I was offered Persuasion and got the book and reread it, I realized there was no way I could discount her. Her work is just phenomenal, and I devoured Persuasion. I hadn't remembered how rich it was, and it is such a beautiful book. What is also so poignant about it is that she wrote it at the end of her life. She was so ill and actually died with this illness. I find it so poignant. It is such a book about hope and second changes. It mirrors Jane's own life — I feel like it is how she would have loved her own life to turn out.
One element that is so distinct about the adaptation is that the camera gets harrowingly close to your face. This creates such intimacy and intensity for the audience, but what was the experience like as an actor?
Hawkins: I have never done that kind of thing before and it was great to try. It was quite unnerving, and also very freeing. It was an opportunity to speak to the audience and to communicate with them and let them in. I have no idea what it would look like, whether we would pull it off, or whether it would end up ostracizing the audience. It is quite powerful and very direct, and I loved the fact that it is unconventional and unexpected. Adrian [Shergold, the director] wasn't interested in doing anything in a predictable way — it was really courageous.
For the role, you absorbed yourself in Jane's letters and life. What was this immersive experience like and how did it inform your portrayal of Anne Elliot?
Hawkins: I love doing that although I know that many actors don't, and don't feel it necessary. I find it an excuse to read and throw myself into a world I didn't know much about before. I didn't know much about Jane Austen's life, and the more I read, the more I fell in love with her.
Research creates such a richness and life behind words that would otherwise be just words on a page. It gives me something to hold onto, several hooks really. Once I have done the authentic research — the life and society of that time — I feel I can create my own world and start to get creative. It then starts to be really fun for me because I can really create and imagine what Anne Elliot might have had for breakfast, what kind of foods she would have liked, her favorite colors, where she would have liked to walk. Filming in Bath meant I could do that walk myself almost in character; walking down streets she would have walked down.
Rebecca Eaton, Executive Producer of Masterpiece, has said that the actors in these Austen adaptations had to unlearn a modern way of communicating and assume an innocence to make these films believable. Was this true with your on-camera work with Wentworth?
Hawkins: Definitely....it was unlearning and then it was adding layers as well. You just want the characters to say what they mean but so much is what is going on in their heads. In that time, it was all about codes and behavior and the etiquette of the day. I found it very modern as well — we still speak in code even now.
You are often noted for your love of comedy. What did you find that was funny about this project, the filming, etc.
Hawkins: I do love comedy, and there were many laughs outside that that kept me going. There was one time where I was on the Royal Crescent, the famous Royal Crescent [a street in Bath, England, with a row of 30 houses in the shape of a crescent], and we are doing the climactic scene where Anne runs into Wentworth. It was quite an important moment, and quite hyped up. We were there all day, it was raining, we were trying to catch the light, and a little crowd of tourists and Austen fans had gathered. There was also a crew of documentary filmmakers who were filming throughout our time in Bath and had come with us. They were filming when I was running down the street and I went into it too much, and I completely tripped and fell head-over-heels on my face. It was the most embarrassing thing. My skirt went over my head and it was not very Jane Austen. I think I did get a clap from the crowd afterwards. The documentary people caught it on camera and told me they wouldn't put it in the documentary, but of course there it is.
Anne says in the film — "The one claim I shall make for my own sex is that we love longest, when all hope is gone." Do you agree?
Hawkins: I don't know, I think that everyone is different. I think that it depends on where you are in life and in your own head. I've witnessed men grieving for a long time going through their own torments, and I think everyone has their own personal unrequited love story to tell. I don't know — maybe women do feel it deeper and it lasts longer, but I will have to ask more men.