SALLY Hawkins had just 10 minutes to impress Woody Allen and land the role of her career. The Dulwich-born actress, 37, was working in New York when she received a call asking her to audition for Allen’s new movie.
THE EXPRESS Sep 29, 2013
“I didn’t even know he was casting,” says the bubbly, bright-eyed Hawkins, who had enjoyed a small role in Allen’s little seen London-set drama Cassandra’s Dream.
She hurried to the director’s Manhattan office without any knowledge of what she was auditioning for. With only the barest preliminaries she was handed a few scraps of the script. Literally.
“I was given a scene to read that was made up of bits of paper stapled together which he’d edited and re-written,” remembers Hawkins whose breakthrough role came in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in 2008.
She was shuffled off into a side-room and given 10 minutes to rehearse her reading. “It was a little terrifying, I only had a few seconds to get a feel for the character,” she says.
“But that’s the way he works, you have to get it all from the writing.”
And what writing! Hawkins was auditioning for Blue Jasmine, a haunting and hilarious drama about the trauma of a wealthy New York socialite who loses everything after her financier husband is imprisoned for fraud.
It is a faultless and riveting picture that for once earns the oft-declared claim that it’s a return to form for the prolific but erratic Allen. It may even be his best.
It’s certainly one of his finest acted, with Cate Blanchett giving a towering performance as the damaged and delusional Jasmine and Hawkins matching her brilliantly as the down-to-earth sister, Ginger.
Hawkins landed the role after being called back a few days later for another reading. “And then that afternoon I heard I’d got it, which was magical,” she remembers. “I never thought I’d have the opportunity or be lucky enough to work with him again.”
Finally she was allowed to see the full script. Did she feel any relief that it wasn’t one of Woody’s duds?
“I never see them as good Woody or bad Woody,” she answers diplomatically. “I just love his work. He’s one of the best dramatists and incredibly prolific. I adore him.”
Then she discovered she would be starring opposite Blanchett (“how lucky could I be?”) and found herself dispensing advice to the Oscar-winning actress.
“I had an insight that Cate didn’t, having worked with Woody before. She said, ‘What’s he like? Does he like to talk?’ And the truth is he doesn’t. He’s honest and tells it how it is and he’s incredibly to the point and precise in his thinking.
“He doesn’t suffer fools and he has no time for sycophants. He’s very direct and that’s partly from his Brooklyn upbringing.”
Knowing that any questions on set would receive short shrift, Hawkins and Blanchett decided to get together and explore their characters for themselves before shooting started.
“Woody has no time for rehearsals but Cate and I love them so we got together in New York where she was acting on stage and filled in the blanks. All the clues are there in the script but we filled in their backstories and fleshed out their childhood relationship.”
Allen’s no-fuss approach is the polar opposite of Mike Leigh who crafts his screenplays in deep collaboration with the cast, as Hawkins experienced while making Happy-Go-Lucky.
She played the perennially chirpy primary school teacher Poppy and won a Golden Globe, a success that she built on with Made In Dagenham in which she played the machinist who leads a walkout at Ford’s car plant in the Sixties.
“Woody has done all the work in his head on his own and you have to catch up and try to piece it together, while Mike creates it with you,” she says of the differences between the two men.
“Yet they both create rich, complex and highly interesting characters and worlds.”
There’s a timeliness to Blue Jasmine. This is not simply because of its associations with the financial crisis, which Allen maintains are purely coincidental, but because it explores the frightening ease with which we can lose touch with reality.
“It’s so easy to spend the day without even speaking to anybody in the world of email and all that,” says Hawkins, whose character Ginger threatens to lose touch with reality.
“There is a delusion that goes with the modern world. Look at the avatars people create for themselves on the internet. It’s fascinating but also terrifying. How far does it go? How far removed do we become from ourselves?”
And what chance of Hawkins having her head turned by all the acclaim for her performance and the anticipated attention during the awards and turning into a red carpet prima donna? Can she see it happening? “God no!” she splutters.
The daughter of children’s book illustrators and writers, Hawkins was raised in Blackheath, south London.
She went to the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts after attending James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich.
“All this is very rare for me,” she adds, gesturing around the five-star London hotel where we are meeting.
“It’s lovely and it’s nice to get dressed up for premieres and things but I like keeping it real.
“If I ever did get airs and graces I’d probably get a short sharp smack.” Still, the attention is only set to increase. Hawkins has some big movies in the pipeline.
They include British drama X Plus Y in which she plays the mother of a maths prodigy and her first blockbuster, a remake of Godzilla directed by Brit Gareth Edwards.
Then there is Paddington Bear. Hawkins will play Mrs Brown opposite Hugh Bonneville’s Mr Brown in the live-action adventure in which Paddington will be computer generated and voiced by Colin Firth.
“We start next week, it’s why I’ve got this perm!” she says, twirling her dark locks.
Not on her list of upcoming projects is the Broadway production of the hit play Constellations in which she co-starred with Rafe Spall in London.
The dizzyingly clever love story premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre and transferred to the West End last year.
Bizarrely, the play is transferring without its original stars.
“I think they want bigger, better stars,” says Hawkins. “It’s so sad having worked with it from upstairs at the Court. But it will be another thing now.”
You can be sure the producers will be regretting their decision when the Oscar nominations are announced.