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.” Continue reading