Interview: Emily Watson

Emily Watson stars as a self-effacing heroine who reunited child migrants with their families. She spoke to film critic Tony Earnshaw

A short while into the shooting of Oranges and Sunshine, the villains of the piece surprised everyone by making separate official apologies for what had occurred many years before.

The issue at hand was the forced migration of children in care from the UK to Australia – a 20-year pattern that only ended in the 1970s. As actress Emily Watson and director Jim Loach laboured on turning the often harrowing story into a film, both Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his British counterpart Gordon Brown issued formal apologies. It was a monumental moment and immediately gave the film added gravitas and impact. For 44-year-old Watson, playing Margaret Humphreys, the Nottinghamshire social worker who uncovered the scandal, it put everything in perspective.

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“For Margaret, that was massive,” says Watson. “For those children who had been ostensibly banished to be told ‘You are our children, you are our citizens, you belong’ was huge. From the age of three or five, they were sent from children’s homes to live in prisons, really – abusive children’s homes on the other side of the world. As we filmed, we came to more and more understand the enormity of what it meant to those people. [The apologies presented] some sense of the acknowledgement of the irreparable harm that had been done.”

It is 12 years since Watson earned an Oscar nomination for playing doomed cellist Jacqueline du Pré in Hilary and Jackie. In the years since she has racked up an impressive array of credits from Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes to Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. She has recently worked with Steven Spielberg on the World War I family drama War Horse, based on the celebrated novel by Michael Morpurgo. In between was Oranges and Sunshine. These days the mother-of-two chooses her work carefully. Lengthy projects in far-flung locations are out of the question. Yet she agreed to play Humphreys in a movie that took her to the Australian Outback with its flies and 45 degree heat. Her children went with her.

“I don’t feel ambitious anymore. I really don’t!” says Watson. “It’s such a pleasure going to work, and I love my job. I have to find a way of making it all work. I try and do things that will be cost-effective and not too far-fetched in terms of logistics. Where’s it shooting? How many weeks? How much? If it’s Timbuktu for six months, I’m not even going to read it.”

Loach claims that Watson was at the top of his fantasy cast list as long as six years ago when he first began mooting the project. For Watson, playing Margaret Humphreys meant taking the very deliberate decision not to meet her. Loach agreed to avoid any risk of her performance becoming an impersonation. Instead Watson watched TV interviews and other footage. A meeting with Humphreys took place only after the film had been completed.

“Her story was very clear to me,” recalls Watson. “And I didn’t want to complicate it by trying to do her mannerisms. I didn’t want to have that in my head – trying to mimic somebody. I just wanted to play it straight. I just felt she was a very straight and ultimately good person, to have that sense of calling and self-sacrifice. I felt very overwhelmed when I met her. Not so much because of who she is [because] she’s not like a great big forceful presence. But what she’s achieved. The change she has effected in people’s lives. It’s been truly amazing – and pretty thankless in a way.”

After adding Loach and Spielberg to her filmography, Watson chose a television project that may be her most controversial work since her 1996 debut in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. In Appropriate Adult she plays Janet Leach, the woman to whom mass killer Fred West confessed his crimes.

“Janet was training to be a social worker. She had done the training to be an appropriate adult – who are the people that sit in on police interviews when there is somebody with learning difficulties. And after a day’s training, she found herself on the Fred West interviews. The law has been changed since that case – nobody does that job for more than three days in a row. But she became the person to whom he would confess. He would wait until the police weren’t in the room and say ‘There’s a body under the…’” It’s another heavy subject in a career packed with similar fare. Watson shrugs off suggestions that the film might be controversial and laughingly agrees that it’s time for a rom-com. “I’d love one!” she shrieks. “I never get asked! I’m touting for levity!