Cathy Pryor: Shiny future

It was in 'Fingersmith' as a Victorian thief that Sally Hawkins first arrested our attention. Now she's set for another success, says Cathy Pryor, as a woman brought low by her shopping addiction in BBC's 'Shiny Shiny Bright New Hole In My Heart'

For someone who loves acting as much as Sally Hawkins does, there are a lot of things about the industry that seem to get up her nose. Its obsession with celebrities, for instance. "It's insane!" she says. "So irritating! Celebrity stuff on TV is completely overshadowing drama. It's partly to do with money. I hate the obsession with money. I understand that boxes have to be ticked, but I hate that you have to fight to get an interesting or controversial piece on. Interesting stuff is pushed on to obscure late-night slots on TV. It's all about ratings but it shouldn't be..." Then she backtracks. "But I suppose I'm as guilty as the next person of buying Heat, so I'm adding to it, aren't I? I'm horrified and fascinated all at once."

Hawkins has joined me in the bar of a Covent Garden hotel on one of those steamily hot weekdays we've all been enduring lately to talk about her latest role. As it turns out, there are several of these. She's currently filming a "sweet girlfriend" part in Woody Allen's latest project, which is being filmed in London but is as yet unnamed. She's just finished two other films: Waz, a serial killer movie set in New York, and The Painted Veil, an adaptation of a Somerset Maugham novel starring Naomi Watts. She's to play Anne Elliott in an upcoming adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion. And she's certain to get a lot of attention for her turn in the lead role in the BBC drama Shiny Shiny Bright New Hole in my Heart, playing Nathalie, a woman who leads her lifestyle, her marriage and her sanity into peril with her addiction to shopping. All of that should well and truly put Hawkins on the map, if she's not there already courtesy of last year's Fingersmith, the BBC's adaptation of Sarah Waters' complex Victorian-era novel about two women who fall in love and betray each other (Hawkins played working-class Sue Trinder).

For someone whose star is rising so rapidly, she's not what you'd call an "actressy" actress. She's a slip of a thing who looks rather younger than her age (she turned 30 this April), with clear, pale skin and angular features that can look strikingly pretty and - when occasion demands - frail and worn, even drab. The only flamboyant things about her are her jewellery (lots of it: big earrings, outsized ring, chunky bracelet which she breaks during the interview, sending it tinkling in pieces under the table); and her wild, curly mane of dyed blonde hair, a toned-down version of what she sported for Waz ("I looked insane - like I'd just stuck my head down the loo with a bottle of bleach").

And, I suppose, you could add her love of superlatives. Celebrity culture she may despise, but critical or mean in general she is not: Hawkins is endearingly bubbly and enthusiastic, particularly about genuine creative work. She has high praise for people she admires, of whom there are not a few: Woody Allen, for instance ("Such an icon! I don't believe he's really human"); Sarah Waters ("gorgeous"); director Mike Leigh, who gave her her big break with 2002's All or Nothing ("I've learned so much from him"); her co-stars in Shiny Shiny, Daniela Nardini ("lovely... she is quite scary") and Steven Mackintosh ("brilliant"). You'd think she's putting it on to plug her latest show, and perhaps I should be cynical, but she really seems sincere: someone who takes unaffected pleasure in the serious side of her profession.

As a woman, does she feel any pressure from the acting industry's preoccupation with looks, I ask? "I do find it difficult when it's less about acting and more about how you look. But I'm not a female lead. I don't play romantic heroines, and that's a good thing because they tend to be very dull parts. Except in Jane Austen! I've been lucky enough to have stepped around that. I play a range of characters. Some are prettier than others, some are quite plain. I'm lucky enough to have a face that can shift around.

"I don't much wear makeup - I'm crap with makeup," she adds. "It always makes me panic when I have to dress up and try to look good. I find it uncomfortable. I admire a female that can spend hours scrubbing or buffing, but how can you have the time or the patience? Yeah, you look great, but how dull are you? How boring! But this business is weird with women!"

The way the industry deals with sex has also been a bugbear. "With Fingersmith, the director was very sensitive and clever with the sex scenes," she says. "When we filmed it there was no flesh shown and it was very tastefully done but I know that she had to fight for that. The powers that be were concerned that it wasn't sexy enough, not enough flesh showing. It's ridiculous. But to give them credit they realised they were wrong in the end. I think it's very sexy. Less is more. Sex is to do with the mind. You saw a bit of a tummy and that was it. People were convinced afterwards that we were both topless in that scene, but we kept covered up for all of it. Their imaginations were doing all the work."

I ask if there's anything else about the industry that annoys her. "Actors who take themselves so seriously and carry on as if everything's a chore," she says. "That really pisses me off. I think, how lucky are you to be here? Lighten up! You never know when it might be taken away."

She says that last sentence with a slight wobble in her voice, as well she might, having had a health scare over Christmas that left her facing the possibility that she might never act again - a chronic condition that she doesn't want to name and which now, thankfully, seems to be responding to treatment. "I didn't know how debilitating it was going to be, and I still don't know, because I've just been diagnosed. I thought I was going to have to start again with everything. I love acting - as corny as it sounds, I do. I was terrified, and I couldn't imagine life without it.

"Then I thought, what's the worst that can happen? If I had to give up I'd tear myself apart but what's meant to be is meant to be. There would be no real point in fighting it. If I was to stop now it wouldn't be the end of the world, I've had a really good career. I would do all the things I've been putting off, go off to art school, live in the country and run a little farm... I'd still be devastated of course!"

It's striking, I say, that for someone so upbeat and bubbly, who reacts so positively in the most part to people and life, the characters she's played tend to be dark, or to go through severe struggle. Fingersmith's Sue Trinder, for instance, is double-crossed by her lover and incarcerated in the madhouse. Zena in Tipping the Velvet (Andrew Davies' racy 2002 adaptation of another Waters novel) is thrown out onto the streets. Susan, in Vera Drake (a Mike Leigh film from 2004), is at her wit's end, unsure where she can turn to end her pregnancy. Ella in Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, a BBC drama from 2005, can't bring herself to tell waiter Bob that she loves him or find the words or energy to tell her pesky older suitor Ernest Eccles (Phil Davis) that she doesn't fancy him and wishes he would just go away. Playing Mary Shelley in the 2003 BBC drama Byron can't have been a barrel of laughs, and neither can her recent theatre work, which has included The Winterling by Jez Butterworth at the Royal Court and David Hare's adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba at the National Theatre, both last year.

"People always say that to me!" she says. "I suppose taking those roles is my way of expressing that side of me, it's an outlet. Many of the good roles are the damaged ones. Bubbly and happy doesn't tend to make for aninteresting part. Anyway, however dark a character is, there's always a glimmer of light and what I like to do is uncover that. I like to unpick them. The more I play someone the more I discover about them and I begin to love them." She breaks off anxiously. "That must sound incredibly pretentious! Actor-speak in print always sounds incredibly pretentious... Anyway, I blame it all on the TV executives," she concludes suddenly. "They only seem to be interested in damaged women."

I ask her if the roles ever depress her. "Invariably it can be difficult when you're visiting dark places in the work," she says. "Nathalie, for instance, in Shiny Shiny: she's quite manipulative. I could feel the subject matter pulling me under. I felt quite sad for her, and it was quite dark playing her and quite difficult to even go there. Spending six weeks in her shoes was hard. I loved her of course, but I was pleased to close the door on her as well." Hawkins says that she doubts Nathalie, a bulimic before she turned to shopping, "will ever be well": and indeed you do feel that in the final scene, watching her listlessly crumble tiny pieces of bun onto a plate as though that was all that was left to her.

Hawkins herself, despite her brush with ill-health, seems anything but damaged. She clearly loves her family, which she describes as close and very supportive (her parents, who live in Ireland, have had successful careers co-writing books for preschool children, and she has an older brother who runs an internet company). She had a happy childhood and always knew she wanted to act. "I've loved acting, sad to say, since I was very young. I was obsessed with black and white 1940s films. At primary school I was always creating little theatre pieces to show the rest of the school... whether they wanted to be shown or not. I loved comedy from very early on and that's what I wanted to do, make people laugh. And then as I got older I realised that you could not only make people laugh but move them in other ways that were equally rewarding."

Raised in Dulwich, she went to a private school, James Allen Girls' School, which had a brilliantly well-equipped theatre, she says. "It was huge, bigger than professional theatres that I've worked in since!" They frequently mounted productions with a local boys' school, "which made it even more fun... in fact it's probably another reason I got into acting. But it was a very academically driven school, and to rebel against that I threw myself into the drama." From school, it was but a short step to Rada, from which she graduated in 1998.

If Hawkins hadn't loved acting so much, she might perhaps have been a writer. She loves books - no surprise, given that her parents are authors - and writes her own short stories, though she hasn't as yet tried to publish them One striking factor with her career is that she's often worked in adaptations. "I suppose that's what I've been drawn to, and I've been lucky enough to be offered them. I adore books. Patrick Hamilton, now. He's just incredibly underrated. When I discovered him, I felt: 'How come I don't know about this?' He can make me cry and burst out laughing within a sentence." Other writers whose short stories she loves include Flaubert, Chekhov, Ian McEwen ("his early stories are incredibly dark"), William Trevor and Margaret Atwood ("she's just brilliant. The Robber Bride I could read again and again.")

If she's yet to publish her fiction, though, Hawkins hasn't been so reticent with her comedy work, which she writes with a friend from school. "I"ve had sketches on the radio, on the BBC's The Concrete Cow in 2002. The power of writing something and performing it, and hearing the audience laugh, it almost stops my breath." They also put on a play, Jane and Fern, at the Soho Theatre, because "we had no work and thought why don't we do something ourselves... It was the tiniest, tiniest thing, it was only on for two nights. It was about these schoolgirls backstage during a school play and occasionally one would go off to do their scene or say their line on stage." Her love of comedy has also led her into to small roles in Little Britain, which she loves: she was Kenny Craig's girlfriend in series one and two and "David Walliams vomited on me in series three... Fingers crossed, they'll ask me back for series four!"

And life outside acting? She's unattached, quite happily, she says. "I was in a very close relationship for about five years, but sadly that didn't work out. And there have been a few mini-relationships." She loves painting, and has just got her name onto a waiting list for an allotment ("I love how plants respond to you!"). She's a bit of a greenie, as well. When I ask her what she'd do if she ruled the world she says she'd sort out the environment and get rid of George Bush. And what job would she give George Bush instead? "I don't think he should be given a job! Can you give Bush any responsibility? Perhaps he should go back to school." Anything else she'd change? "Well, air con on the Tube would help," she says, before recollecting: "but that wouldn't help the planet, would it?"

It wouldn't. But more serious drama of the kind Hawkins excels at probably would. Let's hope those pesky industry executives keep on getting some things right.

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