Emily Watson on her Apple Tree Yard role: ‘Sexuality is powerful at 50’

The award-winning actress has never been scared of being provocative – now she's having sex in a House of Commons cupboard...

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There’s an edge to actress Emily Watson, a quiet but persistent crackle of something different. It’s in her movie career choices, from her Oscar-nominated debut in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves to her portrayal of a beleaguered mother in Alan Parker’s adaptation of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. There are her stand-out television roles, including a grieving 7/7 mother in A Song for Jenny and a voluntary social worker in Appropriate Adult (for which she won a Bafta), and it’s there personally, too.

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When we meet to discuss her role in Apple Tree Yard, the BBC adaptation of Louise Doughty’s bestselling psychological thriller, Watson is all friendly bustle, giving off the aura of any other mother of two with a school run and a job to do. Brown tendrils of hair frame her face and there’s only the merest scrap of make-up, but the crackle is there, in the mischievous glint in her eye, and the halting, soft speaking voice. Sometimes alarmingly soft – I find myself nudging the tape recorder closer to catch her voice.

One of the reasons that Watson was attracted to Apple Tree Yard was that it was a “very female” project – including Doughty, screenwriter Amanda Coe, and director Jessica Hobbs (who, says Watson, has now become a friend). It mattered to Watson because she felt that the role was “hugely exposing”. Her character, Yvonne Carmichael, embarks on an affair that begins with an intense sexual encounter in the parliamentary cupboard that suffragette Emily Wilding Davison hid in overnight in order to be able to put the House of Commons down as her address in the census (“Isn’t that really cool?” laughs Watson), but then darkly escalates into violence, rape and murder.

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Louise Doughty, author of Apple Tree Yard

Carmichael’s lover, Mark Costley, is played by her friend, Ben Chaplin. “We’ve known each other a long time, and we didn’t want to fumble about, waiting for someone to shout ‘Cut!’, which usually happens. We plotted and planned every detail. We wanted it to be realistic – what would it be like in that situation, in a cupboard with a complete stranger? Which was great. I’d never laughed so much and it felt… empowering!

How great to be playing a woman who’s my age [she’s just turned 50], and sexual, complicated, grown up, aware that female sexuality is a very powerful thing at this age. It’s a very different thing from being a sexualised being in your 20s – it’s a vibrant, creative, powerful thing, which isn’t necessarily about having affairs but just part of who you are. As you grow older, you really feel that this isn’t culturally acceptable or acknowledged in storytelling.”

I mention the Amy Schumer comedy sketch about female ageing, where Schumer, Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette celebrate fellow actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s “last f***able day”. This is when an actress, usually in her 30s, is last cast as an object of desire. “Yeah,” says Watson wryly. “That’s why it felt great to be doing this – because I definitely had that experience. Someone once said to me that I’m a character actress who gets laid, and I’ve certainly done a lot of playful sexual creatures, but it got less and less as time went by, then stopped! And suddenly here I am, in every available doorway!” She laughs, the glint on full-beam.

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Emily Watson as Yvonne Carmichael with her co-star and friend Ben Chaplin as Mark Costley in Apple Tree Yard

Her breakthrough film role, 1995’s Breaking the Waves, was sexually graphic. Director Lars von Trier has a controversial reputation, and has been accused of misogyny, but Watson encountered no problems working with him. “He’s got a bad rep, and he’s a distinct flavour as a film-maker, an eccentric man – but I liked it.” However, as someone who’d previously acted with the RSC, Watson found the ensuing fame disorienting. “I was sort of tumbling for a while, in this bubble, just holding on, wondering what was going to happen next.”

What “happened” was a varied and garlanded career that any actress would be proud of, working with everyone from Steven Spielberg (War Horse) to Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love). She turned down the lead in Amélie, which had been written for her (the film made a star of Audrey Tautou), but it doesn’t haunt her. “Casting is always a bit of a revolving door. I only did Breaking the Waves because Helena Bonham Carter pulled out”.

She seems to have plotted an eclectic artistic course, in the manner of a French actress. “Thank you!” she says, pleased. “Though it’s not necessarily by design!” An actress who’s worked all over the world, she grew up in London. Her late father was an architect, her late mother a teacher. A bookworm as a child, she attended a “progressive”-type school run by the School of Economic Science, who have been accused of using cult-like mind-control methods (though this didn’t happen to Watson).

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Emily Watson’s debut in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves with Stellan Skarsgard

She makes it clear that she doesn’t wish to discuss the school again: “It was just very… ideologically different. I look back and I’m grateful to some parts of it and angry about others. Life is a complicated beast.” When I ask if maybe it contributed to her having a heightened interest in child welfare (Watson supports the NSPCC, and starred in Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine, which retold the true story about how British children were forcibly relocated to Australia), she says, “Well, I’m very wary of big institutional control of young people. It’s a real trigger for me.”

The death of her own parents made Watson feel grown up for the first time. “It was, ‘Oh my God, I’m really in charge now.’ ” At the same time, she feels that her own children have made her a stronger performer: “Somebody said that, with acting, you have to prepare for it, do it, and then beat yourself up about it. But when you’ve got kids, you haven’t got time to do all of them, so the thing that has to go is beating yourself up. So that’s healthy! It’s a physical thing, too. When you have children, you feel kind of liberated, just less precious about everything – there’s a feeling of ‘My body has housed two other people – it’s quite strong’.”

Watson lives in south-east London, with her husband, Jack Waters (whom she met at the RSC), and two children, 11-year-old Juliet and seven-year-old Dylan, and tries to balance her work projects. “Something really stonking will come up like Apple Tree Yard, but I couldn’t go wall to wall like that. I wouldn’t survive and my family wouldn’t survive.”

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When Watson is working, Waters looks after the children, in what sounds like a very modern equal arrangement – is this a non-issue for them? “I wouldn’t say it’s a non-issue. We have to work out the balance for everything. He recently retrained as a potter, which is amazing. When I’m working, he doesn’t have much time to do that and he’s the spine of the family. But then I don’t work for a while and I do all the stuff.”

She seems to have been absolutely determined to hang on to a normal life. “Yes, it’s interesting, I do try to psychoanalyse why I did that. I think it’s partly for the kids, but it’s also about wanting to take something of substance from what I do. Not get…” she considers, “…sort of sucked into all the shallowness.” Similarly, she doesn’t regret not relocating to Hollywood. “I don’t think I could have lived with the scrutiny. I feel like here I’m an actress and there I would have been a product.”

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As things stand, Watson says she feels like “a fairly substantial fish in a small pond”, who enjoys a highly satisfying level of work, which includes the forthcoming series Genius, about Einstein, co-starring Geoffrey Rush. Watson has mentioned here and there that she’d be interested in doing comedy – why does she think she doesn’t get offered it? “Because I’m sad, bad and dangerous to know!” she intones, self-mockingly, and there’s that glint again.