Interview: Samantha Morton

All eyes are on Samantha Morton in the anti-war movie The Messenger. She spoke to Tony Earnshaw about grief and compassion.

In the premier league of leading men, Samantha Morton can lay claim to have worked with some of the biggest names in modern cinema, straddling indie and mainstream.

Her co-stars have included Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Daniel Craig. She has been directed by Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Michael Winterbottom. And she has been Oscar-nominated twice.

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Not bad for a blue-collar lass from Nottingham who has never had a plan and who just went after good work.

It’s a common cry from so many actors. And so many actors are very actor-y. Not Morton. Still only 34, she has enjoyed the kind of career many performers can only dream of. Yet she remains resolutely down to earth.

I remind her that we met many moons ago when she was filming Band of Gold, Kay Mellor’s gritty TV series about a group of Yorkshire prostitutes. Back then I asked if Morton had a plan. She said no. Fifteen years later, with a string of Hollywood hits under her belt and two Academy Award nominations, nothing has changed.

“I didn’t have a plan. I still don’t,” she observes. “Every time I think it’s still not going to happen again because it’s been a while and a good script hasn’t come through. Then something amazing happens.

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“I don’t have any regrets. I’m very lucky, really, considering I’m very working class and have managed to have done incredibly well in America, and here. I still get work. And I’ve done it on my own terms.”

Her latest film is a nuanced, slow-burn portrait of small-town American life in which Morton is an army wife left widowed by the conflict in Iraq. The Messenger stars Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster with Morton in the key role of the young mother around whom the wider story revolves.

Given that Morton goes after quality jobs, it’s interesting that she is still able to separate work from play.

“I’ve done quite a few films now, and lots of telly, and it’s one of those ones that I’ll remember as being a really lovely time – working with people who just really care,” she says, referring to co-stars Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson.

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“I’m very lucky to have worked with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn... These are men who I consider to be entirely individual; therefore whatever they bring to their roles is a little bit more interesting.

“Ben fits into that young Sean Penn category where it’s all about the work. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. There are some ‘thespians’ out there... if you can’t live, you can’t bring anything to roles. Woody’s great, so brilliant. We’re all chalk and cheese but we got on really, really well.”

There are those who have pointed to Morton’s combination of intensity and rawness as an indicator of her staying power as one of the Bright Young Things of the early 21st-century. She herself doesn’t go in for any of that. She remains intensely private, can be belligerent and forthright, and remains focused on the practicalities of the job. Yet she is also one of the go-to girls for many filmmakers looking for weight and depth. Shekhar Kapur cast Morton as Mary Stuart in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and thus it is Morton who goes to the headsman, leaving the Virgin Queen with a lifetime of guilt. Cate Blanchett was the star but Samantha Morton stole the show.

As she often does. In The Messenger she is captivating as the young widow who thanks the soldiers delivering the bad news. It is effortless acting at its best, and ample proof that this down-to-earth mother-of-two has much more to show off.

The Messenger is on general release from today.

Samantha Morton’s CV

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A 5ft 3ins powerhouse, Samantha-Jane Morton grew up on a Nottingham council estate. She made her TV debut aged 13 in Soldier, Soldier.

She received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her mute role in Woody Allen’s 1999 film Sweet and Lowdown and quickly made an impact working for Steven Spielberg on Minority Report.

Her best work is in Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, as a shop worker who claims her dead boyfriend’s unpublished book as her own, and in Jim Sheridan’s In America. For the latter she received a second Oscar nomination as Best Actress.

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