By Chesley Turner
photography: Seamus Ryan
“… You know, the value of art – I’ve known nothing else really – it gives you space to express yourself. I found it so easy to do. It’s like a language for me …”
Sally Hawkins is inspired by the great artists. Not Hepburn and Olivier and Bergman.
Not the lions of the silver screen, or even the masters whose works line the walls of
the Met and the MOMA. No, the artists that Sally can reel off like a whimsical summer reading list are the ones that light every child’s imagination.
“Maurice Sendak, Quentin Blake, Roald Dahl… they’re my heroes, really. A great story is a great story. It sort of transcends age.” When you consider the fact that she grew up in a creative household, the daughter of two children’s book creators, this isn’t surprising. The penchant for the creative never left her. It became her view of the world. “You know, the value of art – I’ve known nothing else really – it gives you space to express yourself. I found it so easy to do. It’s like a language for me.” Children’s books and literature offer a different take on the world. Not the staid structure of adulthood where emotions are often hidden or tucked away. “They’re much more honest and they give that freedom for incredible creativity, which is being human. Usually the most life affirming and heart-expanding stories and books and artwork. I find them eternally uplifting and inspiring. Like Shel Silverstein. I stumbled across him at the Lion Book Shop in New York years ago and just fell so deeply in love with him.”
Sally’s work often reflects this appreciation of the honest creativity in a good storybook. Whether she’s playing a mute woman falling in love with a merman, a happy-go-lucky school teacher, or the foster mother of a remarkable talking bear, her roles are on the quirky side. “It’s more to do with what I’m drawn to. Maybe that’s to do with who I am. I find those characters more interesting. I’m just more interested in people that maybe don’t quite fit.
I suppose everyone feels like they don’t quite fit, if they’re being honest, or haven’t found their place in the world. I like odd shapes in art, and I like odd shapes in characters. And I think that children’s stories are just more honest about looking out of place.”
Fiction readers, Sally points out, are predominately female. So it makes sense that we are seeing more films come to the big screen led by women, written by women, directed by women. But the playing field is by no means level. “I think the real question is, still, that we need to keep talking about pay. You know, I’ve been discriminated against throughout my working life, and surprisingly so.” It’s easy, she says, to go along with things and not question the pay rate, because it’s inconceivable that a woman be paid less than her male counterpart in this day and age. “And yet, until you ask the question and you receive the answer, which is: yes, you’re being paid less than a third of your male counterpart…. It’s so incredibly…it just makes you feel sick.” How many times must we ask the question and raise the argument before we’re taken seriously?
It’s not time to quit yet. “I think that people are very willing to acknowledge the fact that female-led films and protagonists are very much alongside males, but we have to keep asking questions. Unless we do, people will be quite happy paying less, and happily discriminate quietly. I suppose we have to keep knocking away.”
The magic of the movies is undeniable, especially when the right team comes together. The Shape of Water won Oscars for best picture, director, original score, and production design in 2018. For Sally, the entire production was a dream, from start to finish, not least of all because of how it began.
“The way it happened was kind of like a fairy tale. I just happened to be writing a mermaid story,
one that’s set in the future and is very different, about a girl who doesn’t know she’s a mermaid.
Her body is falling apart and – it’s like a modern- day Metamorphosis, that’s what I wanted to do.
So I’m writing, with a view to do maybe a short film. I’m literally sitting in a little cafe in Putney in South London, and I got the call saying: Guillermo Del Toro is interested in a merman-type story. And I sort of almost fell off the chair. I didn’t know if I’d manifested it.”
Guillermo Del Toro, Sally says, is the master of fairy tales. Despite the fact that there was no
script and just a vague description of “quasi- modern-day mermaid story set in the Cold War,” she was in. And so, she became part of a dynamic and diverse cast to tell the tale. When asked about working with former Moves cover man, Michael Shannon, who played the role of the vindictive Richard Strickland with terrifying grace, Sally gushes. “He’s a gorgeous, gorgeous human being. He’s close to genius. I just admire him so much and love working with him, and watching him work. His attention to detail is like a surgeon. But then, the greatest actors play the meanest parts because they’re brilliant. But as soon as you step outside of that he’s just…he’s just the sweetest guy. They all were!”
Sally breathlessly ticks through the cast list. “Stuhlbarg!” (referencing Michael Stuhlbarg). “And then you’ve got Doug Jones, who’s got the biggest heart I know. You don’t see his beautiful face, but it just transcends the inches of rubber suit. And Octavia Spencer…. I was just thinking about Shape of Water this morning. How did that happen to me?” It’s nothing but sheer luck, she thinks, to have landed such an enchanting part in a tremendous story with an incredible cast, led by the master of the genre.
“It is so much luck. You know, this business is kind of like gossamer. One element out and it can fall apart. It was the greatest gift. And I’m so delighted for Guillermo because he just gave his heart. He is a genius. So every single heart was behind that film because of Guillermo. He just goes to the end and back again.”
Perhaps one of the most striking but simple elements of The Shape of Water is that the good characters have kindness and empathy, and the bad characters do not. “As Guillermo far more eloquently put than I ever can: compassion is a great human gift. It transcends everything. Everything.”
Humbly, Sally claims she didn’t have to do a thing in the film. “I just had to be. That’s all I had to do. Be. And learn. And I learned so much just by watching greatness.” And yet she is the emotional lynchpin and the hero, showing us what can be endured if we set our minds to it, what can be realized if we truly see, and what can be achieved when we let our hearts lead. Still, she’s thrilled she didn’t ever have to say a word, during the film or during its after-life in the world. “I could just be there in celebration of it.”
With almost equal enthusiasm, Sally pivots to speaking about her upcoming film, Eternal Beauty.
“It’s a very low-budget film we shot last year with a beautiful dear friend of mine who I’ve known for several years and love eternally.
Again, talking of quirky, interesting characters that don’t really fit, the character here, Jane, really is the essence of that. And then some.”
Sally speaks of Eternal Beauty like a mother bird wanting the very best for her fledgling, just before it takes flight. “You want it to have a life beyond the art-house down the road. You just want its life in the world to expand beyond and beyond. You want people to see it. It’s an important story, tackling mental health in a really unusual way, and I just adored, adored doing it.”
It’s clear that Sally Hawkins sees her acting as a way to connect perceptions and emotions and art – just like the children’s books she still buys everywhere she goes.
“… I think the real question is, still, that we need to keep talking about pay. You know, I’ve been discriminated against throughout my working life, and surprisingly so. It’s easy to go along with things and not question the pay rate, be- cause it’s inconceivable that a woman be paid less than her male counterpart in this day and age…”
Goat black jumpsuit [these pages]
Topshop Boutique print blouse (bottom left) and orange coat
photography by Seamus Ryan stylist Michelle Kelly @ carol hayes groomer Michele Rowbotham