INTERVIEW: Dorothy Atkinson for MR TURNER

We catch up with the star of Mike Leigh’s latest film, MR TURNER…

This week, director Mike Leigh turns his eye toward history in his examination of the life of one of England’s greatest painters; MR TURNER. caught up with actress Dorothy Atkinson, to find out more about her character in the film – Turner’s tragically ignored but much loved housekeeper Hannah Danby, and what it was like for her to work with Mike Leigh for the third time…

This almost seems like a silly question, but were you a fan of JMW Turner’s paintings before you worked on MR TURNER?
Dorothy Atkinson: I only knew the obvious ones, and I was a fan of those, like The Fighting Temeraire. Actually, I knew a lot of his seascapes because I love seascapes anyway… And the Rail, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway I knew. I wasn’t a huge fan, but I really am now, without doubt! [laughs] We were so lucky; my character was around when he made the paintings, so I got to see them all, and we got to go to the gallery at the Tate Museum, and just request if we needed to see something. We got behind the scenes and saw lots of his drawings, and I think it’s when I saw the drawings, which were just a few simple brushstrokes, that said so much; that’s when I thought ‘bloody hell, I get the genius now’. We were very lucky to see those.

What drew you to the film?
DA: Mainly, Mike Leigh asking me to do it! [laughs] when you get a call from Mike, you don’t really need to think that hard. I love working with him, but I didn’t say yes immediately; he told me a little bit about the character, but not too much because of the way he works, he didn’t want to reveal too much. As soon as he outlined what kind of character she was I was totally up for it. It’s one of those characters who is marginal in society, and there is a kind of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ feel to her; you see people like that in the street and you think ‘What is their story? How did they get like that?’ and that’s what really drew me in.

The ‘Eleanor Rigby’ comparison is a powerful one…
DA: Yeah, that’s a song I heard when I was a kid and I was fascinated with it, and it’s sort of come full circle because that’s immediately what I thought of.

Your character conveys so much through silence, how did you go about doing this?
DA: From the get go I was really into the character, and we worked very hard on finding ways to get to her through thinking about people I know. It’s just the systematic character research that Mike encourages us to do. We did so much improvisation, and we had a mock up of their house, so we were doing long improvisations. Actually, there is a whole dialogue going through Hannah’s head most of the time, you just don’t hear it. We did explore the fact that she talks to herself because nobody else is actually listening. That said, we did have lots of more improvisations where she was more vocal, but it just seemed to work much better that she’s silent and a bit of a cipher, and she is lurking around. It just worked. A lot of times in the improvisations in Turner’s studio, he was busy working away and they didn’t say much; they didn’t need to, they communicated pretty well without dialogue.

There really isn’t much known about Hannah, how did you go about researching the role?
DA: We had a really good nucleus of fact; the fact that she had the disfiguring skin condition – that was written about in dairies at the time – and the fact that she was there for so long… Turner makes references to her bad cooking in some of his diary entries. There were some bare facts that were very useful, but the rest just came about through improvisation. It was good not having too much there, because then you could put your own stamp on it. Last time I worked with Mike in a substantial role was in TOPSY-TURVY, and we knew lots about the character I played in that because lots was written about her, and in some ways I preferred making up the deficit. It’s more freeing and you can express yourself as well.

You’ve worked with Mike Leigh in the past; what was it like to work together again on this film?
DA: I had worked with Tim [Spall] before as well; he was in TOPSY-TURVY too, and in ALL OR NOTHING, which I’m very briefly in. I love working with Mike, it’s just the business. I had seen Tim at work, but I’d never had many scenes with him so I was absolutely over the moon that I got to work so closely with him. Someone with that skill, sensitivity… He’s just a great bloke to be around. That was a real treat, on and off screen! [laughs]

What do you hope audiences take from the film?
DA: I hope that they will enjoy looking into the art world as much as I have, and to see what lies behind genius. With Mike’s film, I think you get involved with the characters and they stay with you once the film’s finished. I think, because of the way he works, that we have built the whole life of the character and I just hope they take that away, and will be inspired to go and look at beautiful art… Of any kind!

What’s next for you?
DA: At this precise moment I have got my hair in 80s style, I have just had a make up test. I’m doing a two-part crime drama that’s set in the 80s. It’s very different; quite a lot of tears and sadness in this one! [laughs]

MR TURNER is released in Irish cinemas on October 31st 2014

Words: Brogen Hayes