Sally Hawkins is an actress best known for her Golden Globe-winning performance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. More recently she starred in Submarine and Made in Dagenham, and she's acted both in the West End and on Broadway. She tells us about drama school auditions, handling reviews and getting stage fright…
Was acting something that you always wanted to do?
I suppose I didn’t know it was acting: it was an extension of play. I got a lot of pleasure out of creating different characters with friends. My obsession went beyond normal play – people would get bored and move onto hopscotch, but I just loved doing it. It felt like bringing a book to life and that was the best form of reading.
What was your experience of drama school like?
I didn’t get in to RADA first time but I knew that was where I wanted to go. I was very single-minded. The only other option was art school and I didn’t have much confidence in that.
What audition monologues did you do?
I did Juliet. I also did Road by Jim Cartwright – talking about “gargantuan men”. It was a very sexual, big Northern woman I was playing. It was totally against type but the writing’s so fantastic that I loved saying it.
I also did a very inappropriate Shakespeare: Margaret from Richard III, an old wench. I came with a prop – this was the year I didn’t get in – I had a stick.
I’m always drawn to people who are a challenge: it’s interesting to unlock who they are, but you have to be careful of not picking Queen Margaret! Probably better to pick someone closer to your age and your own experience.
Is there a particular type of role you find yourself drawn to?
There are so many characters out there and each and every one is different. I take each as a brand new person with a brand new story.
The more preparation you do, the stronger your foundation. All that research can’t teach you how to act but it may give you confidence [that] springboards into the acting. The real work will be when you’re up there and doing it.
What was it like working with Mike Leigh?
He’s one of the great filmmakers. I’m so lucky that I’ve had a chance to work with him in such close proximity. You can’t compromise: he sees truth.
He’s interested in the theatricality of a story, not in creating realism, that’s where people confuse him. He heightens a reality and that’s very exciting, it’s very meaty – it’s like Shakespeare. All good stories have a sense of reality [but] we can never really represent reality or else it’d be incredibly dull on film.
What’s the hardest part about your job?
It is a hard industry, people can be tough – reading reviews that perhaps didn’t go your way. It’s hard to shrug it off and you don’t want to become hardened to it. What makes you a good actor is that you’re open and sensitive and human. Once you cut that off, you’d be boring to watch or it’d be boring for you in that profession.
What advice would you give to aspiring actors?
There’s plenty to get you down and if you want to feel sorry for yourself, you can, but you just have to keep going. Have faith in yourself, look after yourself and surround yourself with good people.
There are no limits to what you can learn. It can be very exciting and it can be very tough, but there’s always a next time.
IN FOCUS: Stage fright…
I get terrified. On the first night, we all stand around saying, “I’ve no idea why we do this, I can’t go on!”
I was doing a radio show in front of a live audience, with Richard E Grant and The Penny Dreadfuls. Richard and I were literally shaking, hearing the roar of the audience. I had to stop Richard from running away and he had to do the same with me.
But that’s why you do it: you have no idea what’s going to happen. The same group of actors and the same show can be spellbinding one night – then the next, it won’t.
Focus on the work and the people. Do the best you can at any given moment - and try not to be too hard on yourself because a lot of people will do that for you.
Sally’s next film, Jane Eyre, will be out in cinemas on 9 September.
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Image courtesy of Sarah Dunn.