Emily Watson: ‘It’s easy to be proud to be Irish. It’s not so easy to be proud to be English’

The actor on learning from Lars Von Trier, working with Paul Mescal and mastering a Donegal accent for her latest film, God’s Creatures

Emily Watson owns up to being a little fragile this morning. Why not? It is the day after God’s Creatures, in which she stars opposite one Paul Mescal, opened the Dublin International Festival, and the film’s personnel are perfectly entitled to oil their wheels at the city’s hostelries. I shouldn’t overstate the case. She doesn’t arrive with an ice pack on her head. But she seems happy to get a comfy seat and a nice cup of something warm.

My phone is recording.

“Oooh … anything you say may be taken down …” she begins.

How does that go on? She must know it from cop shows.


“That’s not my bag. I never did that. I don’t really like things with a high body count,” she says with a slight wince.

No, I suppose she hasn’t done service as DCI Nipper. But she has been everywhere else over the last three decades or so. Nobody who made her debut under the care of Lars von Trier could be accused of playing it safe. Since the sensation that was Breaking the Waves in 1996, Watson has shown her versatility in projects as diverse as Angela’s Ashes, Punch-Drunk Love and Synecdoche, New York. There is an order and calmness to her persona, but she is otherwise hard to pin down. There is nothing grand about her (unlike a few I could name). Nor is she of the earthy school. Am I nagging away at a class issue here? That too often happens when we discuss English actors.

Anyway, we meet in the interregnum between Mescal’s Oscar nomination and his loss to Brendan Fraser at the ceremony in Los Angeles. What does she make of how he’s handling himself? She has some idea of the pressures. She was nominated for Breaking the Waves in 1997 and then for Hilary and Jackie in 1999.

“He’s coping incredibly,” she says. “He is living out of a suitcase and buzzing around the world being the centre of attention and the man of the moment.

“But he is phenomenally intelligent. He’s grounded and a great observer of the human condition. That’s what actors do. So he’s got a sort of philosophical eye on it. He’s having a ball, but he’s got his eye on it. He’s observing. I don’t think he’s been overwhelmed by it.”

Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s God’s Creatures – from a screenplay by Shane Crowley – casts Mescal as a prodigal who returns from Australia to kick up trouble in an Irish fishing village. As the story progresses, it becomes clear the young man may be guilty of sexual assault. His mother, played with flinty resilience by Watson, gradually comes to unhappy conclusions that bring us to places the Greek playwrights visited in the classical era. There is that sense of the love between a mother and son being volcanically dangerous.

[They] told me to go on my undignified way

—  Emily Watson

“I went to see Phaedra at the National a couple of weeks ago and there is that sense,” she says. “I got into the car last night going from the screening to the pub with Paul’s mom and dad. And he said: ‘How does that boy become like that? How did that happen?’ And it’s very much that thing of obsessional love. He comes out of the womb and you’re instantly obsessed with him. It’s often a psychopathic tendency. You have such esteem from your mother that you believe you are above and beyond your siblings, and more important than your father.”

It feels a little reductive to focus on accents, but Watson, raised in London, captures the vowels of northwest Ireland perfectly in God’s Creatures. It is not the first time she has mastered an Irish accent. She did Limerick in Angela’s Ashes. She was Northern Irish in Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer. There was a time when we were asked to put up with overseas actors delivering a generic Oirish timbre for every county. But Watson is among those who works hard at being specific.

“I am blessed with a good ear,” she says. “You can’t do it without that. But you have to put in a lot of work. To me, finding a character is always about finding a voice. My English voice is slightly irritating and nasal and head-based. So it’s always great to go somewhere else. And the character is very in her body. She’s very animal in a way. She is instinctive and not rational.”

Emily Watson had a complicated upbringing. Dad was an architect. Mum was an English teacher. In the past she has talked about living a relatively unexciting middle-class existence as part of a “very loving family”. The parents were, however, part of a mysterious organisation called, misleadingly, the School of Philosophy and Economic Science. Though the body was indeed set up initially to promote economic justice, it evolved – to quote an independent inquiry – “to embrace the teaching methods, if not the basic beliefs, of the Russian philosopher PD Ouspensky and the Central Asian mystic Gurdjieff”. St James Independent School, which Watson attended, was established by the organisation in 1975. She described the School of Philosophy and Economic Science as a “very repressive regime” to the Times in 2020. Yet she appears to have remained within its grasp until 1996 when, following her appearance in the sexually explicit Breaking the Waves, she was expelled. “[They] told me to go on my undignified way,” she has explained.

Does she want to say any more about that?

“I think I’ve probably said enough,” she replies quietly. “It’s there. It’s part of me. Everybody has their hurdles, as it were. So many of the roles that I’ve played I felt a resonance because of all of that. This role has that idea. This is a Catholic community that closes ranks around a rapist. What’s wrong with that picture? It’s that sense of how an institution can be in the fabric of everything you do. And yet you’re not seeing what’s in front of your eyes.”

By that stage, Watson, almost 30, had completed an English degree at the University of Bristol and attended the Drama Centre in west London. She seems to have been chugging along reasonably healthily – largely on stage – until Breaking the Waves kicked her up to another level. It is worth remembering that, in 1996, Lars von Trier was not yet the fully formed public eccentric he soon became. In later years, actors knew what to expect from a man who relishes controversy.

“He was clearly very eccentric and just cut from a different cloth to most folk,” she says. “He was not really interested in necessarily being conventionally personable. But I’ve loved him nonetheless. He was a touchstone in my life. Being an actor is really allowing yourself to be an idiot. All the voices say: don’t go there. That’s not safe. That’s too much. That’s too far. I am going to go there – if I know that somebody is watching me, and catching me and helping me craft it. They are leading you on a story that has a meaning. The meaning may be extreme.”

All around the country – as regards sexual politics and all of that stuff. People are awake and alive to it. It’s easy to be proud to be Irish. It’s not so easy to be proud to be English

—  Emily Watson

In Breaking the Waves, Watson plays a woman from the Scottish highlands whose husband, an oil-rig worker, persuades her to have sex with other men when he is rendered impotent following an industrial accident. The film has much to do with the repressive instincts of the church in which Bess McNeil, Watson’s character, was raised and the wider prejudices of a closed-in society. No wonder she was drawn to it. Breaking the Waves won the Grand Prix at Cannes and catapulted Watson to that Oscar nomination.

“Looking back, it kind of awakened me,” she says. “There is this power. And you can use it to bring things to life. And if you really go with it, it can be a big thing. That is what being in Lars’s world gave me.”

That was a strong year for the Academy Awards. The English Patient won best picture. Frances McDormand beat an all-star field – Watson, Brenda Blethyn, Diane Keaton, Kristin Scott Thomas – to best actress, for Fargo. Watson makes no bones about the fact that the nomination changed everything for her.

“I texted Paul when he got his nomination and said: ‘You know, this means even when you’re fat and unfashionable, in decades to come, you’ll still be able to work and pay the mortgage.’ It’s going to carry on. It opens a lot of doors, and you then can choose which door you go through. At the time, I had a slightly snobby theatre-actor instinct. I wanted to do good work. I didn’t want to wear spandex. Ha, ha!”

Which gets us back to the singular niche Watson has carved out for herself. Plenty of actors have landed an early Oscar nomination and then slipped back into the mist. Yet it was almost immediately apparent that she was here to stay. Bess McNeill was a complicated sprite of an eccentric, doomed to misuse in a misogynistic world. Watson went on to play opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in The Boxer. She was the robust mam in Angela’s Ashes. She was wrenching as doomed cellist Jacqueline du Pré in Hilary and Jackie. Paul Thomas Anderson edged her into another gear altogether for Punch-Drunk Love in 2002. She became an oak of her generation without attracting any of the press hoopla that can make stardom unbearable.

“I wasn’t comfortable around glamour, fashion – all of that,” she says. “I couldn’t shoehorn myself into that. A lot of actors become actors so they can hide. So my choices were very much about trying to find stories that were transformative or had something interesting about them. But, you know, some of it just has to pay the mortgage. Ha, ha!”

I am interested that, either by accident or design, she seems to have maintained a working relationship with Ireland. Both Angela’s Ashes and the Boxer came within six years of her breakthrough. Now, she returns with God’s Creatures. Does she notice the changes in Irish society?

“Oh, yes. The young people in Ireland, to my mind, are very forward-thinking politically,” she says. “All around the country – as regards sexual politics and all of that stuff. People are awake and alive to it. It’s easy to be proud to be Irish. It’s not so easy to be proud to be English – in any way, shape or form. Because of the history. As an actor, you travel the world and you go: ‘Oh, my God. I’m sorry. We did… what?’ With this film we were filming in Donegal and Paul said: ‘You see those ruins over there. That’s the famine houses.’ A lot of those stresses were provided by my country.”

Watson married Jack Waters, then also an actor, in 1995 and they went on to have two children together. In earlier interviews she has explained how Waters, whom she met when they were both at the Royal Shakespeare Company, was “chewed up and spat out” by the acting business. He has, however, been there to keep the household in order while she travelled the world. Like a lot of other families, they found themselves thrust together more closely during the early days of the pandemic. There were upsides and downsides to those rearrangements. But her crew seems to have got on fine.

Ireland to me has always been an incredibly creative, fecund place. It’s a very ancient thing here

—  Emily Watson

“Since my kids were born, I spent many years travelling,” she says. “We’ve never really been there at home for long enough to make it work. We suddenly went: ‘Oh, let’s make this work. Let’s get out all the stuff we’ve collected over the years.’ My husband and I – he used to be an actor – found ourselves concocting daytime characters. We would be cockney deck builders and decorators up a ladder. We just had such a laugh – putting up pictures and doing stuff while the kids were online. But I found it exhausting. It was back to my student days. I was photocopying and printing physics homework.”

I wonder if she is grateful she didn’t really achieve fame until close to her 30th birthday. That may have contributed to her apparently comfortable adjustment to the life of a top-rank screen actor. How different it must be for a 19-year-old thrust into the 21st-century circus. Every minute of every day social media churns out analysis of your private and professional concerns. The trolls are forever tunnelling into your psyche. It sounds frightful.

“Yeah, I think I had sufficient water under the bridge to be a little bit circumspect about it all,” she says. “You get a sense of the machinery of it all. You understand the amount of money that gets spent to make it. Awards are not a democracy. It’s really not a democracy. It’s not a level playing field. A lot of it’s about money. And, yes, the nature of fame has changed incredibly. It’s all there on your phone. If you go looking for it, there are images of you everywhere. I imagine it takes a whole other level of discipline not to look at that.”

Paul Mescal is among younger stars to stay off “the social” altogether. “I got to a point where it was like: either stay on this train until it’s the last stop or get off it now,” he told me recently.

“My advice to younger actors is: ‘For God’s sake, don’t bring your phone to work,’” Watson says. “I’ve always found you learn from watching other people work. But you also learn from the campfire – sitting in green rooms or on the edge of the set, listening to people talk, listening to them tell their stories. That’s something that really has to be nurtured.”

Watson tells me that the second time she was nominated for an Oscar she lost her voice. She laughs at memories of sauntering up the red carpet, nodding at the fans without being able to audibly respond. For all her talk about awards shows being no sort of democracy, she merrily remembers showing her kids photographs of “me and your dad in custom-made Valentino”. So she will admit to enjoying a bit of the old razzle-dazzle? She is not wholly immune?

“Not so much that stuff. You know, it’s lovely to be recognised for your work,” she says. “But the bit I love is coming across a situation that suddenly feels really alive and creative. Like doing this movie. Ireland to me has always been an incredibly creative, fecund place. It’s a very ancient thing here. There is a generation of storytellers, who are very bold and who are looking under the carpet saying: ‘Oh, look in there!’”

I start babbling that she is hardly likely to take on any big flashy franchise work, when she reminds me of an incoming TV role.

“I am head witch in the Dune universe!” she says with apparent excitement.

Oh, yes. She is playing Valya Harkonnen in the incoming series Dune: The Sisterhood for HBO. Why the heck not?

“That has got a sort of kind of kooky sisterhood character to it,” she says. “It’s just a dreamy part. So I am happy to be doing that.”

All schools of Watson are available. She is unstoppable.

God’s Creatures is on general release

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist