How meeting Mike Leigh raised Sally Hawkins' game

For Sally Hawkins, a role in Mike Leigh's first feel good comedy was a serious education. By Stephen Applebaum

When Sally Hawkins won the Silver Bear at this year's Berlin Film Festival for best actress in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, it was a triumph not only for the engaging 31-year-old south Londoner, but also for positivity. While other directors at the annual festival traded in misery and pessimism, Leigh and Hawkins mined a sunnier seam of warm-hearted laughter and optimism.

Leigh's first feel-good comedy, the film surfs on a wave of good cheer, supplied mainly by Hawkins's charming and subtly drawn portrayal of a north London primary school teacher, Poppy, who meets the world with a smile and a generous spirit that not even Scott (Eddie Marsan), her racist driving instructor, can dampen.

A familiar face from television dramas, such as the adaptations of Sarah Waters's period lesbian novels Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, as well as a recurring role as the girlfriend of Little Britain hypnotist Kenny Craig (Matt Lucas), it was Hawkins's own personality that inspired Leigh to want to collaborate with her, following her smaller roles in his previous two films.

"Apart from being very creative and intelligent and good to work with, and all those things," Leigh gushes, "she has this kind of openness and humorous-but-serious take on things. She played very different characters in Vera Drake and All or Nothing. So I just felt yeah, we could make a character who was multi-faceted and complex, but energetic in some way."

It is easy to see why he was charmed by Hawkins. Like Poppy, she exudes positive energy and a zest for life, though thankfully not the character's taste in gaudy clothes – the kind that stop traffic for all the wrong reasons.

"Where we're similar is I'm naturally smiley and optimistic, and I love humour," she says. "The reason I got into acting is I love comedy. What was fun is having that space to be quite cheeky and mischievous and naughty, and to laugh openly and not care."

Unlike Poppy, Hawkins says she normally tends to over-analyse things. "I'm a perfectionist. I worry myself to bits. But what I learnt from her is her ability to sail through life and let it go, and not give myself a hard time. I think that's fantastic!"

Although she was aware that Leigh was using her a lot in the film, Hawkins says you can never take anything for granted when you work with the veteran auteur. "You have to go into a Mike Leigh film like, 'I don't know what I'm doing, I don't know where I will end up, what I'm playing, what film we're making, or if I will end up on the cutting-room floor at the end of it.'" It is an act of faith, and Leigh tells of actors who have turned him down because they do not want to take that step. He demands total commitment, and his actors are not allowed to work on anything else while they work with him. Not that Hawkins would have wanted to. Leigh's method of creating characters and scenes and dialogue through improvisation over months requires absolute concentration.

"All your time is given over to him and the part and creating this world," says Hawkins. "You'd go insane trying to keep other worlds in your head."

Numerous actors have attested to the challenging and exhausting nature of Leigh's process, but Hawkins says she has grown through the experience. "He instils in you a discipline and a focus. He asks you to use your brain." She chuckles conspiratorially. "If actors can get away with the bare minimum, they will. I'd not known any other way. You think you're doing good work and then you meet Mike, and you think, 'OK, I've got to step up my game.' I hadn't even been scratching the surface."

The irony of Hawkins's performance is that all the hard work is subsumed within a character who dances through life, though she can be serious when required. The intensity of the work and Leigh's demands were offset, to some extent, by the joy of being in Poppy's skin. Apologising for risking sounding corny, it was a "lovely feeling", enthuses Hawkins. "It was like riding this bubble of excitement. For me, she's like on the edge of a giggle all the time. And if that wasn't there, it wasn't connected to Poppy. It's like when you're a child and you're told to be quiet and you're holding in laughter. She's that for me."

Hawkins says that as far back as she can remember she has enjoyed making other people laugh. She "fell into acting" because she loved improvising sketches and working with her mates during lunch hour at school, creating "mini-playlets" to make their friends laugh. "I loved the buzz of that," she says excitedly. "And I still do."

The actress grew up in Greenwich and Blackheath, south-east London, with parents Colin and Jacqui, who are successful children's authors. Their daughter has written comedy sketches, but baulks when I bring this up. "Um, well, yeah, but I hate saying that to writers," she says, embarrassed. "I have written sketches and, recording them with a live audience, you think, 'My God, I've written these words and they're having an effect on people.' There's nothing greater than that."

Her parents started to write to encourage Hawkins to read, because she was still having difficulty when she was five. And, although it is hard to believe today, watching her garrulous, quick-witted performance in Happy-Go-Lucky, she did not speak until she was nearly three.

She cites Peter Sellers as a "huge influence". "He was a great comedian because he's a fantastic actor, and his life is so funny because it's so difficult. You've got this dual thing going on, and the darkest moments are the ones that can be the funniest."

Her work has switched between light and dark. Before Happy-Go-Lucky, she worked on Woody Allen's new tragic-comedy, Cassandra's Dream, with Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell, and on Tom Shankland's gruesome serial killer thriller Waz, starring Stellan Skarsgard.

"That was certainly an experience. It was such an extreme character, incredibly dark. She was tough to play because she had been so damaged by drugs, and was incredibly self-destructive." Luckily, working with Leigh on All or Nothing had taught her how to detach herself from a character, so she was able to rid herself of the effects quite quickly.

"He demands that you step in and out of your character, and refer to your character in the third person," she explains. "I think it's very good, because that's you and that's your character, and you can leave them at the door and go home."

Hawkins says she would like to revisit Poppy to see where life takes her. Leigh, however, is adamant that this is Poppy's one and only appearance. Life is too short, and money in too short supply, to return to characters, he says drily. Meanwhile, Hawkins has moved on to Lone Scherfig's Nick Hornby-scripted movie, An Education. Would she work with Leigh again if called? Of course, she exclaims.

"If you're lucky enough to be asked to be in a Mike Leigh film, you don't turn it down."

Happy-Go-Lucky is released on 18 April

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits