Watson made her first big mark onscreen with Lars von Trier's 1996 "Breaking the Waves." Thereafter followed roles opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in "The Boxer," as cellist Jacqueline du Pré in "Hilary and Jackie," opposite Adam Sandler in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love," with Geoffrey Rush in "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," as Beatrix Potter's chum in "Miss Potter," and dozens more.
Now, she takes on a relatively unknown real-life figure to recount a sadly shameful part of British history. "Oranges and Sunshine" is based on social worker Margaret Humphreys' efforts to remedy the "child migration scheme" that took children from parents and sent them out of the country to fill labor shortages. The film is directed by Jim Loach, its screenplay by Rona Munro from Humphreys' book.
Back Stage: How did the role come to you?
Emily Watson: I was sent the script by Jim Loach and read it. Shocked beyond belief that I had never heard of that story. Some sort of human rights abuse on a scale that's never been: 130,000 humans had their human rights violated in the most appalling fashion, and it's as if it never happened, as if it doesn't matter. And all that's happened so far is an apology. If you did that to 130,000 people from an ethnic minority, there'd be someone standing trial in The Hague for war crimes. But our children, they don't count somehow.
Back Stage: Did you immediately start doing research on Margaret Humphreys?
Watson: When I first read the script, my son was about 4 weeks old. So I was a bit like, I'm not reading anything. I'm not ever going to work again. And then I saw this one and thought, "Well, that does look a little bit like I ought to read that." In between breast-feeding I read it and thought, "I've got to take this meeting; how am I going to manage that?" I'm the size of a house; I can barely walk. I had a caesarean section. And I said, "Look, I can meet you, but it has to be in the café around the corner from my house, 'cause I'm not going anywhere." It was snowing in London, and when it snows in London everything breaks down; nothing works. So Jim walked miles across London to come and meet me, and we sat in this café and just talked. And it kind of became clear that I ought to do it. It felt like a story that should be told. And in a way, although it is an amazing leading role, it's not really about her. And that's really very much the way she has lived her life, Margaret Humphreys. She's an incredible woman. And she always says, "It's not about me." I think that's a very important part of her being a social worker, that you take yourself out of the picture. I didn't meet her until afterwards, partly because I saw her on film, and I thought, "You've a very English, sort of slightly quirky mannered thing going on, and I know if I meet you I will have to do an impersonation of you, and I don't want to." So I didn't. But I did study everything else about her. I saw a film of her telling somebody that she'd found their mother, and she doesn't present them with the information; she waits for them to ask questions. And she just sits there very quietly, and they say, "So did you…?" "Yes, we did." And eventually he says to her, "Have you found my mother?" And she says, "Yes, we have." "Is she alive?" "Yes, she is." So it's the most peaceful, serene, quiet—imagine for that person, it's probably the most important thing that's ever happened to them. They thought they were an orphan for 40 years. And somebody is saying, "No, your mother is alive." Can you imagine the impact of that moment? And she makes it about them. And she was completely as still and as quiet and as peaceful as she can be, so that it is a gift without her personality somehow all over it. Which was very important to me, because she was two things: She was very compassionate and an impassioned angry campaigner, railing against governments and charities and the church to try and get something done. But at the same time she was doing this role where she had to be quiet and selfless. It was the obvious way to do it. I think it wouldn't have been truthful, and really this wasn't a film about giving a good performance; it was about telling a story as well as we could, for the sake of those people. It's so thrilling to be part of something like that, which isn't about "Let's cover ourselves in glory." Let's cover somebody else. It had to be a very sensitive operation, really. I think Margaret was very nervous for the migrants, how it would affect them.
Back Stage: What was the hardest part of the casting process, if you know?
Watson: I said to Jim, when I first met him, "This film will stand or fall on the performances of the day players in Australia. How the hell are you going to do that, 'cause you know getting somebody in for a day—and they have to be fantastic—is very difficult." And of course when we got there, the cream of Australian Actors Equity were lined up to do it. They were all amazing.
Back Stage: What was his process in filming, and how did you work with him? A lot of rehearsal, a lot of discussion?
Watson: We had a lot of discussion. If he ever [gave] a note, it was, "Less." He just wanted everything to be as real and natural as possible. We didn't have a lot of time; we didn't have a lot of money. So it was very straightforward: Just tell the story. He'd hate me for saying this, but he's very much cut from the same cloth as his dad [director Ken Loach]. He's very much about the actors, and he's a filmmaker with a social conscience. But the whole experience was very gentle. It was very quiet on the set; you were very unaware of the crew; it was all about the performance. And he did little things like, on the day we filmed, it was one of the first days, when we filmed the [support] group, the extras in that were people who had been adopted. He'd gone out, quietly, and gone to an adoption support group and said, "Anybody interested in being in this film?" And they all turned up. And that was them, telling their stories, which was like a mind-blowingly brilliant way to kick it all off. And I remember turning to Lorraine Ashbourne after and just going, "Was that a rehearsal or a take?" I had no idea, because the process was so unflashy. It was lovely.
Back Stage: What was most technically challenging in filming?
Watson: Everything was geared to it being easy for the actors. But it was shot in extreme hot—that's always challenging—and extreme wind. And the flies. Horrendous. Flies up your nose and your ears. Ugh. And my mother passed away during the film, quite suddenly, and I had to go home and then come back, straight back out and carry on. And they were so lovely. As a company, they were the most supportive. The producer said to me, knowing that the film might fall apart—we'd shot in England, and we'd just got started in Australia—and she said, "Get on a plane and go. I don't care, just go." Not every producer would do that. They were prepared for it to fall apart. And they said to me, "Look, if you can get back in a week, we'll probably be able to carry on, and if it's longer than that, we might not." But it was very tough getting back and then shooting all those scenes about mums. It was very tough. But they were the most wonderful group of supportive people to be in that situation with.
"Oranges and Sunshine" opens Oct. 28 in limited release.