Emily Watson has a face made for the movies. Like all the great actors, she can telegraph volcanic emotions with just a flicker of her eyes or a tightening of her mouth. Watson made her big screen debut in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) one of the most memorable of the 1990s. Since then she has appeared in many films and TV shows, working with a bevy of famous directors including Robert Altman (Gosford Park) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch Drunk Love). She received two Oscar nominations, for Waves and Hilary And Jackie, and an Emmy nomination for HBO’s Chernobyl.
In the new film God’s Creatures, from directors Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis, Watson plays a mother in a small Irish fishing community who lies to protect her son (Paul Mescal) from a rape accusation. Watson and Mescal’s palpable chemistry feels especially apt since Mescal brought a touching innocence to his debut performance in Normal People (2020), where his character dealt with brutal emotions similar to those Watson brought to Breaking the Waves. God’s Creatures was hailed by critics as a career peak for Watson when it debuted at the Cannes film festival in May. Watson recently spoke to The A.V. Club about her role in the film, her collaborations with filmmakers young and old, and the power—and responsibility—of a close-up.
The A.V. Club: This film seems like it marks a special point in your career. Is that how it feels for you?
Emily Watson: Absolutely. I do. It was a very profoundly satisfying and a full experience creating this movie as an actor. The script was brilliant, the directors were thoughtful, clever, and smart. It’s a film about a subject that is very current, very relevant. It examines why it is that we as a society can turn a blind eye to the monstrous presence of sexual assault in our midst. It doesn’t do that in an obvious way, or tell you what to think. You don’t see the sexual assault. It’s all about the relationship between a mother and a son. She’s a mother who’s never had a conversation with her son about consent ever. But they live in a beautiful moral framework called the Catholic Church that absolves them of everything.
AVC: Can you talk about finding the character? I noticed that Aileen doesn’t really talk that much. She smokes a lot though. How do you make an impact when you don’t have a lot of dialogue?
EW: I agree with you, she doesn’t talk that much, but actually a very important way into her was the voice. I’m English and when you speak with an English accent, it’s very defining. My accent is very much in my head and it’s slightly nasally and a bit ugly and places me very precisely in a social bracket. I needed to get away from that. Clearly. All those Irish actors welcomed me as an English woman because we have history (laughs). And it took me a while to find my way into the voice of it, and to bypass that coolness of being English and judge-y and be somebody who was quite an animal, and instinctual. That’s where I found her.
AVC: What was the easiest thing and the hardest thing about playing this part?
EW: The easiest thing was that we had a real rapport and such joy together despite the subject being very dark. Playing scenes together we had a lot of fun and we laughed and just had a great time making the film. The hardest thing was when the story got very dark, it was a lot of going to some quite dark places. And being away from home for all of that because it was Covid, we were in a bubble on the coast with just the company of the film and I’d never been away from my family for that long. That’s really hard.
AVC: How long was the shoot?
EW: We were away for nine weeks. I’ve only ever been away for two or three weeks at a time before that. I’ve always managed to come and go.
AVC: You mentioned how easy and fun it was to work with Paul. Throughout your career, what other actors have you found that easy rapport with while working?
EW: Stellan Skarsgård, of course [from Breaking the Waves]. When I worked again with him on Chernobyl, he and Jared Harris and I had a really special triumvirate. That was a lot of fun. Obviously the subject matter wasn’t fun, but it was a precious and intense time being part of that story. The challenge of it was to wrap our actors’ brains around the science and be on top of that. It was great to be doing that together. I’ve had some wonderful times with other actors over the years. I did a TV show called Apple Tree Yard with a dear friend, Ben Chaplin, who is just a delightful human being. I’ve done quite a few films with Rupert Everett. I was in his film about Oscar Wilde and he is a very special person. Actors get such a bad rap. They are called pretentious, self regarding, and demanding—blah, blah, blah, nonsense. But actually the good ones are great golden company. They are philosophers and psychologists. Dissectors of the human experience. And that’s a great thing to be around. All of them are really funny, and I love them.
AVC: I love actors too. I’m always interested to know what happens in that time when you’re playing together?
EW: One piece of advice that I always give to young actors is never bring your phone to work. Because there’s a place and it’s usually just to the side of the set on a film, where you’re waiting for the lighting or waiting for something. And those conversations that you have there are absolute gold dust. They’re fired up by the excitement of where you are and what you’re doing. You can learn so much from listening to other people talk about their work and what they’ve done and who they know. It’s like passing down their stories. If you sit there with your phone. You miss it.
AVC: I was watching a clip from an awards show the other day and Glenn Close thanked her director for believing in the power of the closeup and for giving her so many close-ups. You have many of them in God’s Creatures. Do you believe in the power of the close-up?
EW: It is a very powerful thing. And I think Anna, Saela, and I have quickly developed a relationship through it. I have that kind of face that is a storytelling face. It allows you to do so much. With a close-up, the director is surrendering the story to the actor. It’s something that directors don’t like to do. They want to be in control of the picture and the close-up is not necessarily part of their plan. But Anna and Saela quite often will just let the camera roll and play on my face for a while. She’s really put herself in a terrible moral dilemma and she’s got to try and figure out what to do and how to be. So there’s a massive internal struggle going on all the time for most of the film. The close-up was a very good tool in portraying that.
AVC: The other thing that I really found wonderful about your performance is the interplay between you and Paul Mescal. The relationship between Aileen and her son is very tactile, very physical. How did you build that rapport?
EW: I didn’t really have to build anything. It was just so easy. Oh my God, he’s so lovely. We all fell in love with him when he was in Normal People. He’s such a total actor and turned up so excited and ready to work and wanting to learn and ask so many questions. We had a great working rapport.
In terms of the relationship of the mother and son, we really leaned into that and it is on the edge of being quite dodgy. That’s very much part of the story is that she’s obsessed with her son. She’s blinded by his light, and he knows it and he manipulates it and it’s ultimately very destructive to that relationship.
To me, the film is bookended for Aileen by two moments. One is when she prays to God for his return. And she’s literally holding her grandson and with their eyes closed praying to God and as she puts the baby down, she looks up and he is there. So her prayers were answered. His presence is like divine intervention, the most blessed thing. So therefore he can do no wrong and she cannot see who he truly is. And then another prayer, I won’t spoil the ending, but there’s a moment where she decides to let God decide what happens next.
AVC: Throughout your career, you’ve worked with titans of directing. Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson. Is it different when you have more experience than your directors like with this film?
EW: Yes, there is a difference. That’s as well to do with playing the central character. When you’re playing the central character your relationship with the director is very much a partnership and you’re sharing the story together.
Anna and Saela are powerful, quiet, and immensely talented. They are incredibly interesting in the way that they want to tell stories. They don’t want to demonstrate. They don’t want to tell you what to think, they don’t want to lay it all out for you. They just want to slowly reveal and ask questions rather than give answers. I don’t think they’re good at blowing their own trumpet. I really feel like these girls are incredible. People should sit up and listen and watch and be excited by their presence on film because they’re quite something.
AVC: You mentioned that it’s different when you’re playing the central role, which reminded me of a few films where your role was small. Like The Theory Of Everything. How do you manage to be impactful when the role is peripheral to the narrative?
EW: Well you just turn up and try to occupy the space you need to occupy even if you are not there for very long. Mostly doing those things is about taking something that’s small and near home, so I can see my family and be with my kids. To be honest, a lot of those kinds of roles are just very useful because when you take on a lead role you don’t only disappear physically, as you are not there. But you disappear mentally and emotionally as well. And if you’re raising a family that’s quite hard, and I don’t want to have to do it all the time.
AVC: You’ve had a long and varied career, and some of your films continue to be talked about many years after they’ve come out. What remains with you? Is it the experience of making them or how they were received?
EW: Sometimes how it was received can be gratifying or it can be very disappointing. That can be quite tough to experience. But absolutely, for me, the thread that runs through it all is the experience of making it and spending time with those people and inhabiting a story that’s interesting or special and exciting in some way. All that happens and then it’s gone. Robert Altman called his film company Sandcastle because, he said, making a film is like building a sandcastle on the beach. You sit back on a chair, have a beer and watch the tide take it away. It’s a very Zen thing. I suppose every walk of life has those things that come and go. There’s a moment when everything’s ablaze on fire and then it’s gone.
AVC: What are some of the most memorable experiences for you?
EW: There have been many experiences that have been very special and powerful. Sometimes it can just feel like a job. That can be enjoyable. And then sometimes it feels like you’re walking on sacred ground. That’s really special and you can’t make that happen if you try. I’d say God’s Creatures is for sure one of those. Some of the films that you’ve mentioned, Gosford Park, Punch-Drunk Love, and Breaking The Waves. The Proposition, a film which didn’t get that much play at the time, but I think stood up over the years. It’s astonishing, written by Nick Cave, directed by John Hillcoat, an Australian Western about the brutality of the British Empire. It was 10, 15 years ahead of the conversation that’s happening now about race.
AVC: As an artist do you feel a responsibility to take on projects that tackle social issues like God’s Creatures?
EW: It always ends up that people would write about what’s happening. About what people are concerned with, what’s the pressing issue. People write about it naturally. As an actor, I don’t seek out issues. But good writing tends to reflect where we are, who we are. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few pieces that are really about something that matters.