Emily Watson: My Dear Watson

Emily Watson is famous for pulling off the most gruelling of film roles. So, she tells Charlotte O'Sullivan, for her latest performance as the wife of Peter Sellers, it was a relief to play normal for a change ...
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Mily Watson rushes into the hotel room, falls into the sofa and pulls a plump cushion to her chest. "This is such an odd thing to be doing," she whispers. Ever so polite, ever so British, she adds, "I suppose it's what you do for a living, but I woke up this morning and thought [very convincing groan] 'Oh god! Panic!' I told myself, 'It's easy, just be open and friendly and answer the questions.'"

Mily Watson rushes into the hotel room, falls into the sofa and pulls a plump cushion to her chest. "This is such an odd thing to be doing," she whispers. Ever so polite, ever so British, she adds, "I suppose it's what you do for a living, but I woke up this morning and thought [very convincing groan] 'Oh god! Panic!' I told myself, 'It's easy, just be open and friendly and answer the questions.'"

Abruptly, Watson's blue eyes swivel round the room (Walt Disney understood the allure of wide eyes; Watson's seem permanently unpeeled). "You know this place used to be an infirmary. Someone probably died in every room!" She couldn't sound more gleeful. Chin up, Emily, I imagine her thinking, being interviewed is torture, but it won't kill you.

Once upon a time, Watson had all the privacy a person could wish for. Then, in 1996, at the age of 27, she made her film début in Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves and all hell (or heaven) broke loose. Von Trier, who doesn't fly, sent her to Cannes to do the press on her own, and somehow she coped. The person she revealed had led an uncrowded life (she grew up without a TV and was taught to meditate at her West London school) and was prepared to answer questions such as: "Did actor husband Jack Waters mind her success?" (well, just a little bit); "Did they want children?" (on the list, but not an immediate plan). She was similarly dutiful when it came to the controversial biopic Hilary and Jackie (in which she played the explosively vulnerable cellist, Jacqueline du Pré). But then Emily got shyer.

Despite parts in Angela's Ashes, Gosford Park, Red Dragon, and Paul Thomas Anderson's wonkily wonderful Punch-Drunk Love, somehow Watson managed to sidle out of view. Even her body seems in on the joke. At 37, she sports scrubbed-white skin, a swinging pony-tail, sunglasses and a frilly, low-cut red top. From some angles, she could be Sarah Miles à la Ryan's Daughter - preternaturally young, precociously sexual, the voluptuous urchin as leading lady. From others, she's Celia Imrie in Acorn Antiques - middle-aged before her time, adorably sloaney, a marginal, if brilliant, comedienne. But which - if either - is the real Emily?

The mystery is unsolved in her new movie, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. She's perfect as Sellers's "sensible" first wife, Anne, conveying low-grade hysteria and wit without chewing a single piece of furniture (Anne was an actress before she married Sellers, and once chased him round the garden with a knife). In one scene, she tells her outrageously demanding spouse (played by Geoffrey Rush) that she's "fucking bored" of his little-boy act. Then she buries her face in his, making the audience hold its collective breath. Has she forgiven him? Like a flesh and blood human going through life without a script, Watson keeps us guessing till the very last beat.

It's a supporting turn (Charlize Theron, as Britt Ekland, gets just as much screen time; Sellers' other two wives disappeared in the edit) and director Stephen Hopkins admits that he "couldn't believe" Watson would want to do this role. Besides, the "madness" surrounding Hilary and Jackie had made the actress wary of "non-fiction" stories. And this one had already caused trouble - Hopkins' off-the-cuff reference to Sellers as a "loony" apparently infuriated the comedian's son, Michael. (Now, having seen the film, the Sellers' only criticism is that the portrait isn't dark enough). So Watson is determined not to be embroiled in fresh scandal when she says of Sellers' relationship with Anne, "With her, he was the most rooted, and the most sane." Then she looks at me, startled. "And that's a very, very dangerous word to use." A stern pout. "And I don't mean that ... " She starts again: "I don't want you to imply that I didn't mean ... " One last go: "With her, he was the most connected to a normal life." Phew.

It is apt that Watson should attach so much anxiety to this question of sanity, while wondering if her own profession isn't slightly crazed. She was doing a play recently, she says, and she'd get home and find she herself fussing over the lights. "I'd been on stage all night with these incredible lights, so bright. And I'd go around the room, rearranging ours."

Self-conscious to a fault (she's listening to herself even more carefully than I am) she looks across at me anxiously. "It sounds like I'm complaining. But this year I've had the most amazing adventures!"

Watson has just finished work on a film called Wah-Wah, written and directed by Richard E Grant, about his childhood in Swaziland, in which she plays Grant's step-mother. And before that, she did a session on The Corpse Bride, an animated feature, co-directed by Tim Burton. "Do you know anything about it?" she asks cheerfully. f I've read that she plays the down-to-earth wife, waiting for the return of her husband. She frowns, "No, no, I'm the wife in the world of the living." Yes, I say, and Helena Bonham Carter plays the underworld creature who lures the husband away ...

Watson springs forward in her seat: "I hear pigeon-hole!" Her voice has risen several notches. "Is this the angle we are taking by any chance? N'est-ce pas?" No, I say, taken aback by her excitement. Though now she mentions it, I suppose she has played quite a few wives. Watson guffaws. Then looks flustered again. "The waiting wife, is this what you think I've become?" Oh no, I say. "Actually," she adds kindly, "I'm off to Australia soon, to do a film called The Proposition which I'm very excited about. It's an Australian Western. And ..." a shriek of laughter, "I play the wife, waiting at home. I do actually. Touché!"

The trouble is, Watson admits, she finds it easier to play "nice" parts. "When you have to be these angsty, difficult people, you have to create a bit of a thing, and stay in it, and be concentrated and you can't really connect to people. When you're playing someone rooted and open, you just have a really nice time."

We're back to the notion (explored in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers) of art as a form of vampirism - something that drains the life from an artist, and wreaks havoc on their relationships. "Why do we find that kind of destructiveness so fascinating?" asks Watson pensively. "And we do. In a way, it's something that defines us."

I say that lots of people would class her old mentor, Lars von Trier, in the evil genius bracket because of his confrontational - some would say brutal - way of dealing with actors. Bjork, after starring in his Dancer In The Dark, observed that working with him was like having petrol poured on her soul.

"You know what," replies Watson sweetly, "he likes to be seen as a trouble-maker and difficult. But I think it's a big load of bollocks myself! I didn't find him difficult. The first thing he said to me, almost, was, 'I've just left my wife and fallen in love for the first time in my life!' [His new love was his children's nanny]. And I was like, 'OK - there ain't gonna be no small talk round here.' He wanted me to be open and naked, but he was, too."

As far as she's concerned, Von Trier is simply "ruthless in his pursuit of excellence". "I do have a horror of people thinking I'm rude and difficult," she says dreamily, "but if you're too concerned about what people think of you, you can't get on with it." The experience of working with Von Trier, she adds, is something she keeps as a talisman: "I hold on to it - that willingness to take things seriously, to risk being called pretentious - even when I'm on the Universal lot, with the tourist bus going round, and Michael Jackson visiting the set, for God's sake!"

Listening to her, one might almost think she was a little bored by her new, nice take on acting. She nods, warily. "I've got to that stage in my career where I'm well respected. I can turn up on a movie and do my thing. But I don't want to think 'Oh God, it's Tuesday, so it must be ...'" She laughs. "I don't want to get bored, but it's amazing how easily those little selfish things get in and eat away at you."

What keeps her going is her husband Jack, who now accompanies her on most jobs. He came to Africa, for example, and when Emily wasn't needed on set, they went on safari. Watson herself prefers visiting orphanages, but no matter, because Jack finds "paying thousands to be nearly savaged by wild animals" absolutely thrilling. They've been collaborating on two scripts - one has been optioned and has a director attached, the second has just been completed.

"It's a huge, long process," she says, with a sigh. "And, of course [a small smile], I have other things to occupy my mind." The almost-cruel implication is that Jack doesn't, but Watson is just stating a fact. She's the breadwinner - she's got to keep her mind on the fee-paying job. And it's not easy.

A few years ago, the director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet told her he'd written a part for her. The film was called Amélie (French for Emily) and was a love-letter to Watson's wisely innocent self. Watson turned it down because she'd been "away from home forever - I'd spent more time being fictional people than myself and really needed to stop for a bit."

This seems reasonable, but she had another reason for saying no. Jeunet wanted her to act in French, and "I just knew if I did that, I'd make an idiot of myself." But wasn't she just saying how paralysing it was to care what other people think of you? She shrugs. "I don't regret saying no. It's a lovely film, and beautifully constructed. But it's much more fun, for an actor, to work on something that's more about emotion. Anyway, it happens all the time - someone gives way, stands back, and a star is born." She adds, perhaps a little too quickly, "It happened to me with Breaking the Waves. It was going to be Helena Bonham Carter. That's what happens. You step into somebody else's shoes, and hey presto!"

Peter Sellers, of course - Britain's paunchy Peter Pan - was always stepping into other people's shoes, always slipping into something more comfortable than himself. Watson calls him an "empty vessel". He was, she says, full of that conflict of "who am I? And the answer is nothing and everything."

Men who are fun to live with rarely get labelled geniuses, while women are rarely associated with genius at all. So you can't help admiring Emily Watson for trying to rewrite the rules. She's in search of white-hot excitement that doesn't isolate her from her husband. And contentment that doesn't reduce her to a neutered frump. She wants to be a responsible, conscientious, private adult, without losing the child-like, egocentric ability to let rip. She'd like to be, I think, the Peter Sellers who didn't lose Anne.

The photographer arrives and Watson - who's been hugging the cushion all this time - looks stricken. That cushion, I say, it has to go. She laughs, throws back her shoulders, sticks out her chest and exclaims, "I'm ready!" Alas, the photographer isn't keen on the red top and wants to know what's underneath. Watson's face falls. A black dress, she says, but it's too worn, and shows her arms - she doesn't like her arms! Then she has an idea - why doesn't she wear a sheet?

Next thing you know, she's got one tucked under her armpits and is standing proud - more covered-up, yet exposed, than ever. Now you see her, now you don't.

'The Life and Death of Peter Sellers' is released on 1 October