Emily Watson on Everest and how playing grief-stricken characters has taken its toll

As she plays a New Zealander caught up in the 1996 Everest climbing tragedy, the actress reveals that she had to seek professional help after her last role

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If you have followed Emily Watson’s career these past 20 years, you will be aware of her capacity for portraying the traumas of her subjects so convincingly that you fear for her own emotional safety. You wouldn’t be alone. In her latest role, she has to portray the agonies of a woman caught up in Everest’s greatest climbing disaster.

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In 1996, in her late 20s and after a successful if unspectacular stage career, she made her screen debut as the tragic Bess in Breaking the Waves, Lars Von Trier’s film about love, and the lack of it, in remote northern Scotland.

Two years later she starred in Hilary and Jackie, the highly controversial account of the life of the great cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whose performing career was cut short at 28 by multiple sclerosis. Or, most recently, Julie Nicholson in TV drama A Song for Jenny, the mother of a young woman who died at Edgware Road underground station in the 7/7 bombings. To describe these roles as harrowing is something of an understatement. As one critic said of Watson’s performance as Nicholson, she was not so much portraying a grief-stricken woman as grief itself.

Given the real story behind her new film, Everest, this is a horribly apt time to talk of such things. Back in 1996, the great mountain was in the headlines because of the apparently freakish cluster of deaths that befell the various expeditions attempting to reach the summit: eight fatalities in a single day in May, and a total of 12 in the season. It was Everest’s blackest tally, and it forms the climax of Baltasar Kormakur’s formidable movie (in cinemas from Friday 18 September). 

To rehearse all the arguments as to why so many died would keep us here for ever. A combination of deceased witnesses, fierce subjectivity and memories scrambled by the altitude makes consensus elusive. What is certain is that the weather turned vile, some climbers had limited experience, and there were simply too many people from too many expeditions, all trying to reach the summit in a brief window of opportunity.

Watson, 48, plays New Zealander Helen Wilton who, as base camp manager, was responsible for liaising with the climbers as they entered the perilous “death zone” of 25,000 feet, and with their loved ones back home. In the case of her compatriot, the heroic Rob Hall, this meant linking him by phone to his pregnant wife, even as he lay dying in the blizzard.

Watson says she began to feel a powerful sense of identification with Helen, notionally in control of welfare and communications, yet utterly powerless in the face of grief befalling the whole bold, arguably crazy expedition.

Did she meet Helen? “No, but we Skyped. She was a little guarded to begin with but she was lovely, very helpful. She had entered a competition in which the prize was a trip to base camp with the company Adventure Consultants. She enjoyed it so much that she asked if she could go back again. That’s how she came to be there. She told me that phone call was awful, a dreadful thing to have to do, but at the same time one of the best things she had ever done. I can see what she means. It was an incredibly hard, important thing to do. When the whole thing started to go down, she had to step up to the plate, emotionally, and she did.”

In a way, says Watson, chaos itself is the principal character of the film; chaos in the form of this huge high landmass in which the usual codes of human exchange simply do not exist. “I mean, they go to this height where everything is telling their bodies to shut down. Yet they have some need to override these commands and carry on. It’s a strange activity for sure… people saying to their families, in effect, ‘I’m going off to climb this mountain, there’s a good chance I won’t be coming back.”