‘There was cruelty and unpleasantness’: Emily Watson on school, stardom and sex scenes in her 50s

The actor grew up in an alleged cult and was expelled after her explicit role in Breaking the Waves. She discusses method acting, the #MeToo movement and mixing work and family

Emily Watson had big plans to turn up for our interview looking immaculately made up, but then family members started getting sick and her morning fell apart. “When my husband’s ill, chaos descends,” she says, with a sigh. Despite this, she doesn’t seem ruffled. If anything, she is serene and calm, her skin glowing and those expressive blue eyes as piercing and soulful in life as they are on screen.

We meet at the BFI Southbank in London, a regular haunt of hers over the years, to talk about her new film God’s Creatures. Dressed in a short black dress, a black corduroy jacket and a black and white scarf, she has a gentle presence. In the film, she plays Aileen, a devoted mother whose love for her son, Brian (Paul Mescal), is tested when he is accused of rape by an old flame, Sarah (Aisling Franciosi).

Set in a remote Irish fishing village, the gothic drama is a gut punch, its muted sense of dread building to a grim climax. Watson is captivating as a woman torn between doing the right thing and her instinctive desire to protect her family. “She loves her son too much and always has – it’s obsessive,” she says, sipping coffee. “He’s been enabled by that love and has become manipulative.”

It’s the latest in a long line of complex and demanding characters. Watson, 56, has a quiet magnetism that is fascinating to watch, relaying vast oceans with a look. And she can turn emotional turmoil into something white-hot and visceral, whether it’s as the careworn mother in Angela’s Ashes or the determined nuclear physicist in HBO’s series Chernobyl.

Paul Mescal, left, as Brian O’Hara, and Emily Watson as his mother Aileen in God’s Creatures.
Paul Mescal as Brian O’Hara and Emily Watson as his mother Aileen in God’s Creatures. 
Photograph: Courtesy of A24 undefined

To prepare for her role as Aileen, the manager of a seafood processing plant, Watson learned to gut salmon (“Truly gross”), fillet mackerel and haul oysters. Filming took place while Ireland was still in strict lockdown. The cast had to isolate in separate cottages on the Donegal coast and got to know each other over Zoom before rehearsing in an abandoned hotel for 10 days.

After being cooped up for so long, Watson couldn’t wait to let loose. “We’d been sitting on our backsides for a week and there happened to be a ball in the room [where we rehearsed],” she says. “So I said: ‘Let’s start throwing the ball.’ I didn’t realise Paul’s a GA [Gaelic Athletic] superstar. Then we played hide and seek. We just went around and screamed. It was really fun.”

Watson had no idea who Mescal was when she received the script. “I was like: ‘Who’s this? Oh, he’s in a thing that’s quite popular. I’ll go and watch that.’” After she had binged Normal People, the BBC drama that made him an instant heart-throb, she was converted. The decision to cast him as the darkly enigmatic Brian, she says, was inspired. “Because the entire world is in love with him. They can understand why Aileen is like, he’s perfect and can do no wrong. He is a very, very lovely man. To work with somebody who’s that talented and so eager and inquisitive was a treat.”

She compares the film, which was co-directed by Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis, to a Greek tragedy with a timely message about sexual assault. When the allegations come to light, the tight-knit community rallies round Brian, leaving Sarah out in the cold. “We are a society that has allowed that and the woman has no agency in that situation,” Watson says.

Watson and Stellan Skarsgard in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) – her first film role.
Watson and Stellan Skarsgard in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) – her first film role. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

She reflects on the #MeToo movement. “The conversation on sexual assault has become louder and clearer over the last few years. You really have to pay due to those women who were the first ones who stood up and went: ‘This happened, join me.’ That was incredibly brave to start that ball rolling. The conversation has been big, but has there been any change?” She brings up Sarah Everard, who was murdered by Wayne Couzens, a Metropolitan police constable, in 2021. “It feels like this is a systemic problem that is baked into the way all our institutions are structured.”

Having acted in several stage productions as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Watson’s first role in film was Breaking the Waves, a harrowing psychological drama by the Danish auteur Lars von Trier. She was sensational; a hurricane of raw emotion as Bess, the deeply religious wife of an oil rig worker who asks her to have sex with other men after he is paralysed in a freak accident. It was a challenging role that required full-frontal nudity. “It was pretty terrifying,” she admits. The role gained Watson her first Oscar nomination.

Offers came flooding in from Hollywood after that. But even then, she could sense that it was not a safe place to linger and decided to remain in London. “My background was in theatre. I was a bit of a snob about the whole spandex universe and wary of Hollywood. I got out there and went: ‘This just doesn’t smell right.’ I think I’ve been proved right. You’re not really quite sure why everything feels a bit off.” She remembers clearly this “sense of not being allowed to be yourself and be free”. It was a familiar feeling that reminded her of her childhood, she says. “So I think my bullshit radar is pretty alert.”

Watson as Jacqueline du Pré in Hilary and Jackie (1998).
Watson as Jacqueline du Pré in Hilary and Jackie (1998). Photograph: Maximum Film/Alamy

Childhood – is she talking about the School of Economic Science (SES)? “Yes,” she says. Watson’s parents, an architect and an English teacher, were members of SES, a controversial organisation influenced by orthodox Hinduism and alleged to be a cult. It ran St James, the west London school Watson and her older sister, Harriet, attended. In 2005, an inquiry into the partnering boys’ school found evidence of criminal assaults on pupils that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While the inquiry centred on the boys’ school, the judge said that there had been complaints of verbal humiliation and pupils being struck at the girls’ school.

“There was extreme behaviour, cruelty and unpleasantness that was very damaging for some people,” says Watson. “I’m sure it’s a very different place now, but [the SES] was a very young organisation that had no protection built in for the welfare of children.

“There are very beautiful things around it as well that you learn as you’re growing up. I was quite conflicted. I think those organisations keep people close through fear. A lot of religions work in that way. It’s a lot of unravelling to try and see the wood for the trees.”

As a child, Watson was “dutiful, well-behaved and curious”. The family lived in north London and didn’t have a television so she read a lot. “Books were my way of escaping,” she says. She dreamed of becoming a writer.

At secondary school, she was cast in her first play, a production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, as Celia. Acting was fun but more of a lark than a future vocation. “I didn’t think that I was the kind of person who could do that – there were other people who were much more suited to it.” Eventually something clicked and she became swept up in the magic of becoming someone else. After a degree in English at the University of Bristol, she went on to train at the Drama Studio London.

When she was 29, she was expelled from the SES organisation for having played such an explicit role in Breaking the Waves. She knew it was the right time to leave. “If it hadn’t been that it would have been something else. This was something that they very strongly disapproved of.” There was a confrontation. “I stood up for myself, and that was that. It was a tough moment in my life, but a defining moment and a very strengthening moment. You learn from these things.”

Watson earned her second Oscar nomination in 1999 for Hilary and Jackie, playing the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whose career and life were cut short by multiple sclerosis. There were roles in Punch-Drunk Love, Gosford Park and Synecdoche, New York. Watson was considered for the part of Bridget Jones at one point, and turned down several high-profile films including the lead in Elizabeth, which went to Cate Blanchett. She also turned down Amélie, which made Audrey Tautou a star. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet had written the part of the shy waitress in the whimsical French romantic comedy for Watson, but she didn’t think her French was strong enough. “Show business is a revolving door,” she says. “Helena Bonham Carter turned down Breaking the Waves. It’s one of those things.”

Watson worked with Daniel Day-Lewis on Jim Sheridan’s gritty IRA drama The Boxer. The now retired actor is famous for going to extreme lengths to prepare for his roles. On the shoot, she asked him why he put himself through it. “He said to me: ‘I’m not a good enough actor not to.’” While Watson wouldn’t call herself a method actor, she has her own approach. “I need to immerse myself very fully for a role. It’s really about kidding your body that this is real. You can find all sorts of different ways of tricking yourself.”

Sometimes this process can be a little bit too effective. In 2015, she starred in the BBC drama A Song for Jenny, playing Julie Nicholson, whose daughter, Jenny, was murdered in the 7/7 bombings in London. Watson was so overwhelmed by the role that she sought out therapy. “Despite saying: ‘This didn’t happen to you, babe, you’re the actress, don’t be such an idiot,’ I found myself just very wobbly, very tearful and not able to cope with things.” Her father had died around the same time from bone-marrow cancer.

Just before his death, Watson received an OBE for services to drama. As soon as she left the ceremony at Buckingham Palace, one of her father’s neighbours called to tell her to come immediately. She rushed to his side in Dorset. “It wasn’t the end, but it was bad and I spent the night in the hospital.” She took off the dress she had worn to the palace, “because I didn’t think I could spend the night on the sofa in the dress, so I was in my Spanx”. But she got the chance to show her father the award, “and that was quite the thing”.

Watson has been married to Jack Waters, a former actor turned potter, since 1995. They met at the Royal Shakespeare Company and live in south London with their two children, Juliet, 17, and Dylan, 14. “Somebody once said to me, you’ll probably be in four or five significant relationships in your life, and it could be they are all the same person,” she says of their long marriage. “You know, it’s work. Keeping those columns balanced is really important. And that’s really hard.”

Watson admits she finds acting much more straightforward than managing the chaos of domestic life. “I can just give myself in a single-minded way to something. Trying to be a mum and work and meet everybody’s needs and make everything add up, that’s really hard. I’m not brilliant at it. But we’re wobbling on.”

She writes when she can. “Being creative is like having a dog that you have to walk every day. And if you don’t, you start eating your own forearm, I find.” She likes to dash off poems, but strictly for her eyes only (“It’s very under my pillow, for me”), although she did compose one recently for her sister’s wedding. Does that mean we might be seeing a collection of poems published sometime soon? “No, my toes are curling as we speak.”

But there are other things on the horizon. Watson is about to do a few days on the film adaptation of Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, alongside Cillian Murphy. She has also been cast as one of the leads in Dune: The Sisterhood, HBO Max’s prequel series to Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 remake, a rare venture into sci-fi for her.

While the actor once branded Hollywood an “ageist, sexist old pig”, she acknowledges that the industry is changing, with more opportunities for older women, especially in TV. “A lot of the audience are women and a lot of those women are above the age of 25. They want to see their lives reflected. They want to see the issues that they are interested in examined.”

In 2017, she starred in the BBC thriller Apple Tree Yard, playing a scientist ensnared in a steamy affair with a mysterious man. Older women are not often seen as sexual beings on screen, but the show was heralded for its celebration of middle-aged female sexuality.

Watson recalls turning 50, the same week the series came out, and seeing herself on the front of a magazine. “I was like: this doesn’t fit. If I’d said to myself 15 years ago, this is where you’re going to be at 50, I’d have gone: ‘You’re kidding me.’ Because you turn to mums in your 30s and grannies in your 40s.” But she has managed to resist being sidelined. “There’s been some really meaty stuff in my later years. I just want to go where the interesting things are happening and see if I can muscle my way in.”

Source: ‘There was cruelty and unpleasantness’: Emily Watson on school, stardom and sex scenes in her 50s

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