In a hotel room in Toronto, a slightly injured but perpetually smiling Sally Hawkins is genuinely surprised by the Oscar buzz surrounding her portrayal of Londoner Poppy who sees optimism all around hert in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky.
“It seems so outrageous,” Hawkins says laughingly when the subject of a possible Oscar nomination is brought up. “But to be even talked about in that way, you just think, ‘God, that’s insane and that doesn’t really happen – that is movie-world.’ But it’s kind of gobsmacky to even be thought of in that way, yet absolutely lovely. But I’m kind of not thinking in those terms at all, because obviously if you begin to go there It’s just insane but lovely.”
Having seen how effortlessly Hawkins plays the perennially chirpy Poppy, one wonders what it was about the British actress that convinced director Mike Leigh that she was a natural fit for the part. “I don’t know. I mean, what’s great about Mike is, he has an ability to see things in people that you would never expect to be there, such as when I was working with him on All or Nothing, that character was such a gift for me. I’d never worked on film. I was playing this real cow, sort of the local slut, really. But it was great fun, because up until that point, people never saw me like that or put me in that role.” As for playing the very distinct role of Poppy, Leigh clearly thought it would be “great to do something very exciting, and very different. I think he was quite interested in creating a character that has a spark, has that positivity, that love of life, and that ability to see light in all of life as as make her interesting and make her somebody you want to care about, and fall in love with.”
In helping to create the character from the ground up, Hawkins describes the process as “extraordinary, like it always is with Mike, because you’ve got six months rehearsal, you go so many places, you explore so many different areas and you go in such depth. It’s a real luxury of time, to explore, to make mistakes, to try things and to put on certain things and discard other things that don’t work. You’re creating a whole world from birth, so it’s incredibly hard work, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. When you’re working with Mike, you feel extraordinarily alive and creative, because you’re creating another life.”
Hawkins said it was easy in a way to retain that sort of girlish buoyant sense of optimism that Poppy has, even though “she’s definitely on an extreme level. But actually there’s some days when you’re more sleepy, you’re a bit tired, or when life gets you down but she did sort of bounce you back up.” The actress admits she based Poppy on a combination of people she knows. “I do know people like that, but obviously not quite as extreme. She had different elements of different people, and then just wound up at such a level with dashes of other things put in.” As to whether the actress is as optimistic as Poppy, she says she is, “In different ways, but there’s nobody quite like Poppy.”
A relative newcomer to movies, the 32-year old is the daughter of well known authors and illustrators of children’s books, Jacqui and Colin Hawkins, and was raised in Dulwich, south-east London where she attended James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS) graduating in 1994. Hawkins then went on to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), graduating in 1998
Her theatre appearances include Much Ado About Nothing (2000), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2000), Misconceptions (2001), Country Music (2004) and as Adela in David Hare’s version of Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba in 2005. Hawkins made her first notable big screen performance as Samantha in Mike Leigh’s, All or Nothing in 2002. She also appeared as Slasher in the 2004 production of Layer Cake. Her first major television role came in 2005 when she played Susan Trinder in the BAFTA nominated BBC drama Fingersmith, an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel of the same name; she co-starred with Imelda Staunton, as she had in Vera Drake. Since then she has gone on to star in another BBC adaptation, Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. In 2006, Hawkins returned to the theatre, appearing at the Royal Court Theatre in Jez Butterworth’s play The Winterling.
Asked what has surprised her the most about the acting profession, Hawkins pauses slightly. “It’s continually surprising, constantly. I suppose what I love about it is that you’re constantly meeting different people, and going different places, metaphorically as well as physically. You have an opportunity to explore different things if you wish, so I suppose it brings up different challenges all the time, for you as an actor, but for you personally, as well. It makes you look at certain aspects of yourself, if you’re willing, If you’re open enough to let it and there are lessons to be learned, I suppose. So, I think I’m constantly surprised, and constantly challenged by it.” After Poppy, one wonders how Hawkins will find a character as uniquely challenging as that. “I know. God, you’ll make me upset. But I hope so. I think every character has a potential to be as rich as you make it, so I think it’s up to you, obviously.”
When we spoke, Hawkins was shooting a new Irish comedy, Happy Ever After, another happy film she says, laughingly. “I’m cornering a market. I play a girl in an arranged marriage, who’s helping this guy get a Visa. It’s about two weddings, and they sort of cross over, one’s an unhappy wedding, and they’re in an unhappy relationship and then the protagonist they quite fancy each other.” And to prove she is more than a cinematic optimist, Hawkins has Desert Flowe coming out. “It’s about Somalian model, Waris Dirie, who wrote a book about her life, and her journey from Somalia. She’s an amazing woman and her book was quite well-known, actually. I mean, she’s now a supermodel, or was and it’s about female castration. I play a girl called Marilyn, who Waris befriends when she’s in London, homeless on the streets. Marilyn works in Top Shop, and she’s quite the character, because she’s got these mad red lips, she’s quite Gothic, and quite in your face in a completely different way from Poppy.”
With Oscar buzz surrounding her Hawkins has a lot to look forward to, including walking those interminable red carpets from one award show to the next. “Oh, God. Well I hope so. and I’ll hold you to that,” she says laughingly.