Opening this Friday is the latest Mike Leigh film ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’. Set in London, the viewer is indoctrinated into the world of Poppy, the ever-positive, ever-sunny London born schoolteacher. Designed as a film with Sally Hawkins at its centre, Leigh and his lead lady (Sally Hawkins) take us on a unique trip of London, Poppy’s life there and all those distinct characters she meets along the way.  Some will recognise Hawkins for her supporting roles in two previous Leigh films (‘All or Nothing’, ‘Vera Drake’), others may know her for her part in television serials such as ‘Fingersmith’, but all will remember her for Poppy, her stand-out role to date (and one of Leigh’s finest films in years). We met up with Hawkins to tell us about working with Leigh (a director she freely admits she work with for the rest of her life) and playing Poppy in ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’.

Q:First, congratulations on your recent Silver Bear award win at the Berlin Film festival. How does it feel to be included in a category with actors like Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron and Julia Jentsch?

A:Thank you. Well, it was overwhelming. I mean, it doesn’t get much better; it’s such a prestigious award. It’s like the Oscars of festival awards. With Paul Thomas Anderson (There will be Blood) and Michael Gondry (Be Kind Rewind) in the audience, and then Diane Kruger presenting the award, it was lovely.  It still hasn’t really sunk in. Mike (Leigh) keeps saying “don’t worry, it’ll sink in” but it really hasn’t…

Q:You’ve been doing the festival circuit with the film. How have audiences reacted to your character Poppy?

A:Well it’s always scary to see how an audience will react.  Until the Berlin Film Festival, we had no idea how people would respond. So far it’s been really nice. I mean, of course, there has been some mixed reaction to the character because of who she is. I think some people find her difficult to deal with- probably more due to who they are. She can be a bit relentless, but at the time I didn’t see that and I still don’t. She is just lovely person – a real joy to play. She is just who she is. There is no front or pretence with Poppy. In terms of audiences, each one is different. I saw the film in Dublin too (as part of the Jameson Film Festival) and that was really heart-warming. There was a Q&A after the film and the majority of the audience stayed on even though it was a late screening, which I took to be very positive.  People seemed really intrigued by the film.

Q:Are you anything like Poppy?

A:It’s interesting because she has a real sparkle and love of life. She’s incredibly sociable and I am too but Poppy is on another level. I mean, I’m smiley, optimistic and I do love life so in that sense we ran parallel. There are other times were we split and had to rely on the script. I learned a lot from Poppy. She is about getting on with life. It’s very easy, especially in this day and age, to be negative and defensive but Poppy recognises that she’s been dealt a nice card in life and she celebrates that and realises life is to be celebrated. Of course life can be hard, some harder than others, but it’s about getting on with it and she does that.  I love and respect that in her. 

Q:This is your third collaboration with Mike Leigh. What keeps you coming back?

A:He’s a legend; he’s such a fascinating man. The way he scripts a film, it’s so creative with Mike. You never usually get that opportunity to work so closely with a director. To get to discuss every tiny detail with the director, contribute to everything from costumes, to make-up, to what she looks like, what she’s thinking and how she thinks, it’s a really gift. I’m so lucky.

Q:It sounds stressful?

A:Well yeah definitely! It’s hard work but I love working. And, as I said, to get to work one to one with a director like Mike, to get to build up a character from the beginning, as an actor, it’s certainly worth it.

Q:Is it difficult to go work with other directors after Mike?

A:Well yes. Going on to work with another director can be hard. I always take a slight breather after Mike; mainly because I’d find it difficult to go onto working some other way. To be honest, if I could, I would work with Mike for the rest of my life.  I know that there are different ways of directing and they have their own merits. Some directors don’t need to do that or don’t feel they want to. They want to investigate worlds in different ways, but Mike’s way suits me.  I love it. I really love it.

Q:You’ve worked in a variety of mediums: radio, television, theatre, film. Is it all just acting to you, or do you have a preference?

A:I just love working. They are very different disciplines with different forms of acting. With theatre, for example you get something very different from film. It’s an immediately response from the audience which can be nice, whereas film, you don’t know. The crew are probably bored from seeing the same scene. I was very lucky to have Mike introduce me to world of film with ‘All or Nothing’. So I had that discipline from very early on.

Q:Will Hawkins go Hollywood?

A:Not at the moment. You know, it sounds corny, I haven’t ever been to L.A but if an interesting script came along wherever it was, L.A, France, Ireland, I’d jump at it. I just want to do good work with interesting characters who I learn from. Also to get a chance to work with interesting directors, casts and crew. So you know, if Paul Thomas Anderson gave me a call… (Laughs).

Words: Ian Finnerty

Happy-Go-Lucky is in Irish cinemas now.