She’s one of the most gifted actors of her generation but Sally Hawkins is a reluctant star. In a rare interview, she talks about self-criticism, losing herself in her imagination and making people laugh
By Alex Moshakis
Well, he has to say that.” The actor Sally Hawkins is talking to her publicist. We are on Zoom, the three of us, discussing Hawkins’s latest film, The Lost King, in which she plays Philippa Langley, the real-life amateur historian who, in 2012, discovered the remains of Richard III in a Leicester car park. I’ve mentioned I enjoyed the film, which happens to be the truth, but Hawkins won’t have it. When I protest, she becomes meaningfully bashful, lifts her fringe above her head, briefly tousles it into a clump, and allows it to spill back messily, hiding her eyes.
At 46, Hawkins has worked on film and television sets for more than two decades. She has been nominated for two Academy Awards, won a Golden Globe and appeared in productions that become newsworthy most frequently for her performances. James Corden, a close friend and longtime colleague of Hawkins, told me of her work, “You’ll never find anyone who says, ‘I just don’t get it.’” Guillermo del Toro, who directed Hawkins in The Shape of Water, said, “She’s one of the people I most revere in the world,” and describes her as “an extraordinarily good human being – the word empathy doesn’t begin to describe it.”
Hawkins and I were meant to meet in person. Then plans changed. (She suffers from lupus, an autoimmune condition that can make travel suddenly challenging and which she prefers, like most other personal matters, including the fact she is unmarried, not to discuss.) On Zoom, her comments begin as firm as concrete, but slowly dissolve into rubble, and at the end of most sentences she mutters a sweetly self-deprecating remark such as, “This is why I shouldn’t do interviews,” or “Gah, you must stop me.” Most of the time, there is no need to stop her. She is unfailingly, giddily polite, though I sense she agreed to our conversation reluctantly and that she would much rather be doing absolutely anything else.
Whenever he is in London, Del Toro invites Hawkins to dinner. She rarely, if ever, accepts. “She’s very private and she’s very shy, socially,” he told me. “I respect that. But perhaps she avoids it because she thinks I’ll spend the entire time telling her she’s a genius, which I would.”
Though she is widely considered to be one of the finest actors of her generation, Hawkins does not think of herself as a genius, nor even particularly good at her job. “You know, I worry about every film,” she says now. “I don’t want to let other people down. I feel that responsibility and I can become crippled with anxiety about it. I think, ‘Don’t muck it up!’”
I ask, “Do you ever muck it up?”
“I think I muck it up all the time,” she says. “Don’t you?”
“Not all the time,” I say.
“At the end of every job I’m like, ‘Right, fucked that up, but I’ll get it right next time.’”
Hawkins is as allergic to praise as she is to publicity. She rarely agrees to interviews and she prefers not to be photographed. Corden told me, “There are some actors who do the whole reluctant star thing, and you’re like, ‘But you just signed up to a multi-contract superhero movie.’ Sally is a reluctant star in the truest sense. I think it comes from her thinking, ‘What have I got to say?’”
When I bring this up with Hawkins, she says, “I don’t know. It’s so hard to talk about yourself objectively.” When I ask if she will dread reading what I write of her, as Corden had suggested she might, she says, “Awww, bless you,” and then, “Of course.” She generally considers taking part in interviews unnecessary. “I think the work should speak for itself,” she says. “And privacy is key. For all of us to have our own personal space, but especially as a small female. I value that.” She adds, “I just want to go back to being me at the end of the day. I don’t think my personal life is of any interest. I’m really incredibly dull. I never go out. I’m always flabbergasted when I’m recognised.”
“Still?” I ask.
“Of course!” she says. “I’m like, ‘Arghhhh!’” She pantomimes sudden panic. “I wish I had a face that was my own. Just for myself. I’m shy. I get embarrassed.” In interviews like this one, Hawkins doesn’t know “what is expected of me”. She’s friends with other actors who are able to deliver pitch-perfect soundbites. “I don’t know what a soundbite is,” she says. “And I don’t want to give parts of myself away. I want to promote a film. I don’t want to promote myself.” She goes on, “I couldn’t do it if I was at the level of, say, a superstar. I wouldn’t know how to exist.”
Hawkins was born in south London to teachers who later became successful children’s book authors. Their home was filled with stories. Hawkins, who is dyslexic, struggled academically, but she inhabited her imagination with dexterity and ease, and if as a child she wasn’t developing tales of her own she was embellishing existing ones. She recalls considering Cinderella as a teenager. “I was interested in the sisters,” she says, “and her life afterwards, and her beginning, and her life within the house: if it was that bad, how did she make it work? It became a whole different thing.” Hawkins seemed destined to act. Her brother, Finbar, a children’s book author, has said: “There’s a running gag in the family that Sally’s first word was ‘Rada’.” (Hawkins later studied there.) Finbar, who is five years older than Hawkins, is also a creative director at Aardman. On his website he writes: “I live with my family in Wiltshire, happily surrounded by myth and legend.”
When Hawkins was a child, she longed to accompany her father on book tours, where he met other authors and read from his work to children. “I was so in awe of that,” she says, “and yet I knew how private he was.” Hawkins considers herself and her father to be similar in this way. “I think to be an artist you have to tap into something quite deep. It’s in the work itself where you thrive. But there’s a lot of noise around a film – and the same with a book.” When he was at home, Hawkins’s father sought uninterrupted quiet in which to concentrate. “I was aware of how my father went within. He needed that, that intense focus. I’m the same. That’s how I am.” She later adds: “You have to noise-cancel everyone out.”
Steve Coogan, who co-produced and appears in The Lost King, describes Hawkins as “a little bit odd, in the nicest possible way,” but also “a proper artist” who “subjugates herself completely to her role.” (Of working together he said, “I’m sure it was a struggle for her, but it wasn’t for me. She did the heavy lifting.”)
Hawkins doesn’t describe herself as a method actor. She puts on accents “like a prop”, she told me, and takes them off at the end of each day. “Some people will be in accent even at home,” she says. “I can’t do that. I’d be too embarrassed.” But she often becomes so wrapped up in her characters’ inner lives there is “an overlap of worlds”. When she finished shooting Eternal Beauty, its director Craig Roberts told Hawkins, “I miss her,” referring to Hawkins’s character, Jane. Hawkins was confused. “I was like, ‘It’s me, it’s me!’” On set she can appear intense and faraway, lodged in make-believe. “I think people worry too much about how deeply I go into it,” she says. “I’m always surprised when people come up to me and ask, ‘Are you all right?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I was concentrating.’” At the end of each project, Hawkins runs through a series of rituals to release herself from a character’s grip. (She does not say what the rituals are, precisely.) Once a film is finished, it’s finished. By the time it’s released, “I’m normally in a completely different place,” she says, “and I think, Did I do that? Right, yes, I suppose I did.”
Because of the characters she plays, and the way she is on set, Hawkins is often thought of as vulnerable. Several of her friends and colleagues describe wanting to care for her in some way. Hugh Bonneville, who has appeared with Hawkins in two Paddington films, told me, “I wouldn’t say she’s a delicate flower, but in terms of accessing her emotions she’s sort of gossamer thin, she’s very open and, therefore, very raw and vulnerable and, without being patronising, you do instinctively want to protect her.”
When I bring this up with Hawkins, she says, “They were probably all men, were they?”
Because they mostly were, I say, “Yes.”
“It’s a funny thing to say,” she goes on. “And, well, I think that’s probably more about them…” She reconsiders. “It’s lovely. I’ll take it. There’s not enough care, not enough protection. It comes from a place of love, I hope. But I think I’m stronger than people perceive.” On the phone, Del Toro described Hawkins as “one of the strongest frail people I know.” Coogan told me, “As a person she has this strange strength. She’s diminutive, and has a vulnerability, but she weaponises that vulnerability as an artist, so when you see her on screen you get this incredible presence.” Hawkins says, “They worry because I care so much. But that’s my job. It’s my job to care so much. Maybe I invest a lot in it. But it’s my life’s work. And I have a responsibility to do the best I can.”
In The Lost King, Hawkins plays Langley as a gentle force persistently overlooked by academics, mostly men, who disregard her as unprofessional and sentimental even as it becomes clear she knows more than they do. Hawkins spent several hours listening to audio recordings of Langley, hoping to discover some inner truth. Of Langley’s resolve she says: “She was like water – at any point she found a way through.” She is contemptuous of Langley’s treatment by academia. “You sometimes think, ‘Are we still in the 1950s?’ If you’re a woman, and you have a passion project, and you’re determined, like Philippa was, it’s still very easy for you to be dismissed as ‘emotional’.” She shakes her head. “Frustrates the fuck out of me.” She goes on, “She was smart, she was driven, she was right! And there was still a battle? How much do you have to prove?”
Like Langley, many of Hawkins’s characters are women who are underestimated as meek or emotionally wrought, but turn out to be quietly courageous and ultimately successful in whatever pursuit they have been drawn towards. In The Shape of Water Hawkins plays a mute cleaner who, propelled by interspecies love, gets the better of the US government. In Happy-Go-Lucky she plays a free-spirited London schoolteacher who proves to naysayers that joy can be heroic. “I’m interested in the person in-between,” Hawkins says, “the person who falls through the gaps.” The schizophrenic in love (Eternal Beauty). The forlorn council tenant (All or Nothing). She is fascinated by the quiet, little life. “There’s no such thing as mediocrity,” she says, “or the mundane. Everyone is fascinating. Everyone has a story to tell.” Women like Langley, in whose calm determination Hawkins recognised herself, inspire her. “I mean, we love an underdog. It’s a cliché, but we do. That fight against the odds…”
Hawkins’s CV reflects her interest in characters who vibrate between vulnerability and tenacity and wonder. Bonneville said: “All her work is so full of… ‘whimsy’ is too cute a word, but it’s full of vivid imagination.” Half an hour into the London premiere of Paddington 2, in which Hugh Grant stars as a camp arch-villain, Grant’s father leaned over and asked, “Is that a real bear?” (It is a CGI creation.) Bonneville attributes this response to Hawkins. “She invites the audience to go with her into this world of make-believe,” he told me. Or as he then put it: Hawkins believes in the bear, “so we believe in the bear, too.”
Fantasy is an important part of any actor’s life, but it seems particularly so for Hawkins. Between shooting scenes for Paddington, she and Bonneville would play through imagination. “If there was a gargoyle on the wall of the Natural History Museum” – where sections of Paddington were filmed – “we would wonder together what it had had for breakfast,” Bonneville told me. (“Flights of fancy are her bread and butter,” he added.)
In an email before we spoke, Hawkins told me she doesn’t consider herself to be a practical person. While filming, life admin can go neglected. Now she says, “Actually, I think I am quite practical, in the day-to-day.” But she goes on, “Maybe a business head, I have none. You know, I don’t have a personal assistant. I don’t have someone sorting it all out. And I don’t know if I’d want that.” She changes her mind. “Actually, I have someone who helps with all the admin, because I’m not very good at admin. I’m a nightmare at it, I think my agent would agree. And, yeah, maybe form-filling, I balk at that. I just shove it all in the cupboard, which is one way of doing things. But I am an adult, as well.” While shooting, Hawkins prefers to focus solely on the work. “I thrive on that,” she says, though “I would like time to find a home.” Hawkins lives in a rented property she moved into before the pandemic, and which she still thinks of as a temporary fix. Looking around the room, she becomes embarrassed. “If people saw this…” She points to the floor beneath her, just out of view. “You’d be horrified.”
“What’s down there?” I ask.
“It’s a puddle,” she says, referring to a mess of papers. “It’s fine! I’ll deal with it later.”
For a moment, it’s unclear whether or not she’s joking. There might be mess, there might not. Hawkins is committed to play. “It’s important to me,” she says. “Tapping into your inner child is always good. I like making people laugh. I think that’s part of my problem, really. Life can be taken a bit seriously. It’s hard when there’s not play in life, and lightness of being, and lightness of touch. It makes everything OK.”
The Lost King is in cinemas now