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

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...