The lucky star with reasons to be cheerful

Sally Hawkins is best known for playing characters with a sunny disposition, but Leigh Singer finds steel behind her smile

The first time I meet Sally Hawkins, on the set of Gurinder Chadha's supernatural farce It's a Wonderful Afterlife, she's playing a young, ditzy India-obsessed psychic, gamely going through a stage-packed Bollywood dance routine in a baby-doll-pink sari. She confides that they're under-rehearsed but Hawkins's infectious enthusiasm steals the show – even drenched in flying curry. "It's always good to throw yourself in," she sighs, "although on a day like today..."

Six months later, in remote Welsh countryside she's filming coming-of-age comedy Submarine, done up with a helmet-like hairdo as a frustrated middle-aged mother in a failing marriage.

Impressively, neither part even remotely recalls Hawkins's award-winning, breakout 2008 performance as sunny primary school teacher Poppy Cross in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. In person, it's Poppy's good-natured, unassuming warmth that seems closest to the pretty, petite 34-year-old, even her endearingly iffy puns.

"I've got red-eye and I came in on the red-eye," she jokes, exhausted at having flown in overnight from her current Broadway production of Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession.

What's less evident at first glance is the steel and self-assuredness that Happy-Go-Lucky's buoyant Poppy gradually revealed. Indeed, if one reads some past interviews with Hawkins, there's a patronising tendency to tag her cripplingly shy, almost awkwardly bumbling off-screen; as if the one role she really hasn't yet nailed is herself.

As an actress, however, the only labels Hawkins has accrued are rave reviews and she's busier than ever. Today, London, last night Broadway, the week before, the Toronto Film Festival, where she had no less than three acclaimed films: Submarine (subject of a bidding war won by Harvey Weinstein); Oscar-tip Never Let Me Go, in which she has a cameo as a supportive teacher to doomed public school kids; and her starring role in another award-bait movie, Made in Dagenham, in which Hawkins leads a group of striking 1960s car factory women machinists fighting for a fair wage.

A kind of Estuary-based, feelgood Norma Rae, the film is based on the real-life female Ford employees whose protests helped bring about the Equal Pay Act. Hawkins's Rita, an amalgam of several Dagenham workers, is the linchpin for industrial action, though the gentle, likable film is political with a small "p". For Hawkins, this mirrors the women themselves, "who weren't political animals" and helps reflect sexual inequality across a wider context and timeframe.

"When you think how recently these women went through this, my God we've progressed," she points out. "But there's still so much to do." Apparently, Hawkins's own comfortable south London childhood – with her parents, renowned children's books authors Colin and Jacqui, and brother – resulted in quite a culture shock when she left home.

"I was brought up with a fantastically bright, strong-minded, independent mother," she says, "and quite shocked by how I was treated as a young woman. Even on the bus. And the subtler it is, the more undermining and dangerous it can be."

Take her own industry. "It's been male dominated for so long," she says sadly. "It's great that the first woman [director, Kathryn Bigelow] won the Oscar this year, but the first woman? Now? It's insane. I can count on one hand the amount of female directors I've worked with. But having said that, I think it is changing."

If there's one word that keep cropping up in Hawkins's descriptions of herself and her career, it's "lucky", whether it's her creative relationship with Mike Leigh, her New York stage stint ("I never thought I'd be on Broadway! 42nd Street's the first musical I ever saw!") or her tongue-in-cheek pact with good friend James Corden to get hitched if they're still both single at 35. "I think he's probably got a long list to get through before then, but I'd be a lucky lady if I married James Corden," she grins, simultaneously – and deftly – deflecting any revelations of her own relationship status.

Mention her surprise Golden Globe win for Happy-Go-Lucky, where she beat the likes of Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep, and she relives the shock, wide-eyed. "I was totally gobsmacked and I'd completely discounted it because I wasn't sitting in the winners' pit," she recounts. "I remember meeting Johnny Depp backstage but he was backing off as I told him how much I loved him – and this was in the dark so it's obviously a bit sinister. He was just trying to give me the envelope and leave but I wouldn't quite let him go..."

Perhaps it's this hesitancy and modesty that have marked Hawkins out in the press as somehow too meek and mild; and smacks of the same insinuating discrimination she's been outlining. She's a naturally private person, true, but decline to typecast her as a wallflower and she responds with forthrightness and a quick, playful wit, even on such difficult topics as the dyslexia that inhibited her as a child.

"I have to underline that some people are crippled with it and it was nothing like that," she asserts, "but I still panic when I sight-read. I need to have the text and almost know it by heart because otherwise I'll say something else entirely." She laughs heartily at the idea that such unplanned diversions might have appealed to the famously improvisational Mike Leigh.

"I don't find [publicity] easy and when you have someone who's difficult, it just clams me up," she explains. "I'll know that they want an easy interview to pigeonhole me, or for me to come out with these amazing soundbites. But I can't do that, I'm not that kind of person. And I don't want to be, really."

Still, exposing yourself off-screen is part of the job of acting on-screen, and one she recognises that she has to work harder at. "Like [Made in Dagenham's] Rita, you learn it on the hop," she says with a wide, accepting smile. "You're on your own and nobody tells you how to do it."

Nor does anyone, it seems, need to. Sally Hawkins is going places. She seems happy. She says she's lucky. But happy-go-lucky? Not this actress, a woman so hard working, so quietly clear about what she wants – and doesn't. Like Poppy Cross, like Rita O'Grady, underestimate her at your peril.

'Made in Dagenham' is out on 1 October; 'Never Let Me Go' opens the BFI London Film Festival on 13 October and goes on general release on 21 January 2011

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Adolf Hitler's 1914 watercolour 'Altes Rathaus' and the original invoice from 1916

Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible