The film stars Sally Hawkins ("Happy-Go-Lucky," "Persuasion") as Rita, a young factory worker at the plant where a group of 181 women who sew leather upholstery for car seats have been reclassified as unskilled labor. Rita, although shy and well-behaved, is spotted by the union representative (Bob Hoskins) as the best woman to meet with Ford's industrial relations department. Rita finds her voice and leads the women to strike and hold fast for pay equal to that of their male counterparts. In the process, she is asked to meet with and secure the support of Barbara Castle, secretary of state for employment and productivity, played by the fiery Miranda Richardson ("Tom & Viv," "Damages," "Blackadder").
Back Stage: How long were you given for preparation, and what did you do?
Sally Hawkins: I came to the project quite early. But actually you never know whether a film is going to get made. And then the money comes, and then it's all incredibly quick. I didn't really have that long, but I suppose a few months to put in the time and to research and to learn how to sew. I did a few trips to Dagenham, firstly to have a walk 'round and get a feel for the area. And I met three of the women. They were very kind enough to give me some of their time, and we had a cup of tea and a chat. There's a lot of stuff you can do. The Internet's an incredible resource to use: articles that ran at the time, and testimonies of women that were around at the time, and seeing footage of them on YouTube, as well as meeting them in real life. And also seeing news footage of the Ford factory at the time—just showing images of where they worked and of the machinery and hearing that engine noise. And then at the end of the day you have to let it go because you have to then be in the moment, and be spontaneous, and be keeping it alive and fresh to make it relevant and to make it interesting to watch, because that's what we're interested in. We're interested in seeing real people onscreen, at the end of the day. And they're not political animals. They were having to learn on the hop. And their worlds were comparatively quite narrow, compared to someone like Barbara Castle, who's highly educated, even if it's self-educated.
Miranda Richardson: Not a great deal of time. I think I had like three weeks. I just said throw me everything you've got, because this is a real-life person, and this takes responsibility, and I'm not just going to wing it. So I got a biography from them, I got some news footage, the biography had photographs, which I also love—just still pictures, just sinking into that world, that moment. I said, 'Please, can I work with a dialect coach?' So I worked with Penny Dyer, who is famous for producing real-life people out of actors' gobs. And once that's all kind of grounded in your body and in your mind, you're also dealing with hair and makeup; you need some time for that. And there was no getting around Barbara's hair. It was red and big and a beacon. And iconic. It was her look, a signature thing. And of course the script, which I thought was very true to Barbara's character. It felt authentic, to me, so I didn't have a great deal of problem with it. I'm saying that now. Sometimes it's hard to remember exactly. You forget the bad bits and you concentrate on the good bits. She's a juicy woman. She's got a lot going on there. And she loved life, she loved to drink, she loved to smoke, she loved men, she was an alive human being. And very humane. And she'd been politicized at an early age, attending rallies with her father. I think their dinner table was one at which you were free to speak your mind and debate. I think good parenting. With not very much in terms of worldly wealth but just constantly seeing the reality of life.
Back Stage: Tell us more about the dialect coach and what you worked on, specifically.
Richardson: I just wanted to ground her speech rhythms. When she's delivering a speech to the press, when she's out there, she seemed to have particular rhythms, and I thought it was important to, I suppose, mimic, but get them into my body and understand where she was coming from. She doesn't do a lot of "ums" and "ers" and pauses. She seemed very to the point. Utterly charming. You feel she could field anything that is thrown at her.
Back Stage: Did you lower your voice for her a little bit?
Richardson: Not consciously. But I never forget that she was an inveterate smoker and she didn't mind drinking spirits, so it will have had an effect. Long nights debating will have had some effect on her. But if you noted that, that's quite interesting. It wasn't absolutely conscious. I was just trying to sound as much like her as I could.
Back Stage: Sally, you changed your voice and accent for Rita.
Hawkins: Yes. Well, you sort of—I don't think of that consciously. You do all this research, you do all this preparation, and then you have to let that go on the first day of filming. Rita wasn't confident initially in that situation. She's never had to talk publicly. Things are being asked of her in this film, and through the progression of this film, that she never, even in her wildest dreams, ever thought that she would have to. She is the voice of these women. I didn't want her to be politically aware or to have that language at her disposal or to be natural to her.
Back Stage: Was Rita a specific real-life person or a composite?
Hawkins: She's a composite. There was no Rita O'Grady as such. There were various women who were there around the beginning who led the way and acted as spokespersons for the women. There was just this incredible passion but also this incredible intelligence. An intelligence that was not highly educated intelligence. A real raw intelligence. Which spoke to me of women that were similar in my own life I had grown up around. It reminded me of my grandma and also of my mother. And my grandma was from working class; she worked incredibly hard for every single day of her life. She had a really tough time. And my mother worked very hard. She sort of leapt from working class into middle class, if you like, through being very bright and working very hard and having the opportunities that came her way and making the most of those opportunities. I saw that similarity, and I recognized something that I admire in women I've grown up around, and also women I still see today in life.
Back Stage: Do you remember a challenging line or moment of filming?
Richardson: Sometimes the smallest scenes are the most challenging in that respect. I remember just shutting the door on the guys the first time you see me. I'm saying, "You're assuming the girls will do as they're told." And I remember a hiccup on the word girls, thinking, "She's sort of setting herself above these women, calling them girls. No, she's allowed to call them girls." All these complicated thoughts. "How do I shut the door? It's not in anger. She doesn't need to slam the door; it's not that sort of a moment." I was thinking all that kind of thing. "Or does she want to make more of a point of it?" There's always this thing where you can get more out of something, and you wake yourself up in the middle of the night thinking about it, and six months down the line go, "Ah, damn, I should have…"
Back Stage: At that point did you ask the director if you could—
Richardson: Nope. It was my first day.
Back Stage: And you didn't want to say, "Can I give you a couple of different takes?"
Richardson: I think we did a couple of different takes, and I wasn't sure that Nigel was convinced by any of them. And I'm sure he'd 'fess up and say the same thing. You never really know. And there are endless possibilities, if you sit with something for a bit.
Back Stage: You worked with Sally in two scenes. One was in Barbara's office, one was outside for the reporters. What did you notice about her work habits?
Richardson: I consider myself a smash-and-grab artist, because you're made very aware on British movies of the time-money equation. So therefore you think, "People will love me if I get this on one take or two takes." And if somebody says, "Okay, do you want another one?" I won't always say, "Yeah." Whereas Sally will go, "Um, I'm not sure. Maybe we should just do it again." And I'm thinking, "Yeah, I don't think I've ever been like that." And that's really a good thing to be, because this is the moment. This is the film. You're doing it now. There's maybe not a "getting it right," there's "getting it more right than you thought." There's different. There's always a different variation.
Back Stage: Can you point out a scene in all the projects you've done where you were really "in the moment?"
Richardson: I had a very good day on "Tom & Viv." [Laughs.] I had a scene where I was being quizzed to see if I was mad or not. And I really felt like I was flying. And I know that it was a special day, because a long time down the line, Simon McBurney, who was working on the film just for that day, I think, said to me, "God, you were flying that day." I went, "Was I?" slightly disingenuously, because I remember feeling that something was working through me. It was like, give me another one, let me have another go. On that instance, I did 10–12 takes, but I know every one was different, every one was valid, and I kind of felt expressed and happy. And actually, she was a character anyway who was expressed, so I actually felt very healthy on that movie, even though she was constantly being told she was ill, mad, hysterical—variations on the theme. She was the one person who was being honest in the movie. So it was kind of a breeze for me, playing it. I didn't go to a great deal of angst or anything, playing Vivvie.
Back Stage: Sally?
Hawkins: When Rita's speaking with her husband, and he tells her that she should be grateful for him having not beaten her, because it just created this incredible energy and fire and passion and anger and many complex emotions in me at one time. Every time Danny [Mays] delivered that line, I couldn't help but be fired up and ride that emotion, and forget where I was and what I was doing. And of course there's always a small part of you that's third-eyeing yourself and realizing you're aware, but you hope the detail will be in place. That scene, for me, but also that scene at the trade unionists conference, all the sea of men in suits, when she's pushed up on stage. I realized at that point Rita's fire was in tandem with my own. I realized her truth was very similar to mine. It still gets me, when I think about what these women went through and the fact they did that. And they were sort of going where no woman had gone before at that point in history. And thank God they did. It can't help but get you stirred up. I hope so.
Back Stage: In your scenes with Miranda, what did you notice about her work habits?
Hawkins: I don't know if she actually knows this: She's one of the reasons I wanted to become an actress. She's phenomenally disciplined at what she does, highly intelligent, and eloquent, and brilliantly funny in her work and also in her day-to-day life. Her attention to detail is impeccable. And we didn't have any rehearsal time, and I'm so grateful that we didn't. Our first day of working together was Rita's first meeting, their first meeting. And that just creates an energy and a rawness on the set that you can use to your advantage. We were both as nervous as each other. It's incredible to me that Miranda Richardson would be nervous, because she's Miranda Richardson. But she's human, and she just wants to do a good job. Her work in "Damages" is incredible. Everything she touches, absolutely. And also "Blackadder." For me, she's still the show, and that's a male-dominated sitcom. But her work in that was so inspiring to me, growing up. Watching that, I had never seen anyone so funny. And incredibly bright. You know from watching that, there is an incredible mind behind that work. That's highly inspirational as an actress.