Director Mike Leigh has a knack for putting relatively unknown British actresses into Academy Awards contention, as he did with “Secrets & Lies” and “Vera Drake.”
His latest find is Sally Hawkins, who co-starred in “Vera Drake” and Leigh’s “All or Nothing” and now delivers an enchanting lead performance in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” the director’s charmer about a woman whose unshakable faith in the world is put to the test.
The role earned Hawkins the best-actress honor at February’s Berlin film festival and brought her stellar reviews in Great Britain, where “Happy-Go-Lucky” opened to great acclaim in spring, with critics proclaiming it an Oscar-worthy performance.
“I can’t think of anything better than Sally being nominated, which is not impossible. We’ve been there before,” Leigh, 65, said in an interview alongside Hawkins at September’s Toronto International Film Festival.
“Happy-Go-Lucky” played in Toronto in advance of its U.S. theatrical debut Friday, the film nicely positioned as Hollywood rolls into awards season. Similar timing helped put 1996’s “Secrets & Lies” and 2004’s “Vera Drake” on the Oscar radar.
“Secrets & Lies” earned acting nominations for Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, along with a best-picture slot and writing and directing nominations for Leigh. “Vera Drake” picked up an acting nomination for Imelda Staunton, as well as Leigh’s second writing and directing nominations.
“I unashamedly make it part of my agenda to make parts for women, because there aren’t any, or because on the whole, the parts for women in movies are always a function of some male. Generally. Not always,” Leigh said.
Leigh’s 1999 film “Topsy-Turvy” won Oscars for costume design and makeup, but he is realistic about the prospects of “Happy-Go-Lucky” in major categories such as acting.
“I think the chances of you winning are extremely slim, because the Hollywood movies always get them,” Leigh said to Hawkins.
‘It doesn't get much better’
The mere talk of an Oscar nomination prompts a response from Hawkins that’s much in line with her “Happy-Go-Lucky” character — giggly, gushing, ever-optimistic grade-school teacher Poppy.
“It doesn’t really get much better than that,” said Hawkins, 32. “I’m so proud of this film. I will be forever. It’s just a gift, and to be here promoting this film and to play a character like Poppy, it’s extraordinary. And if that happened, that would be out of this world. It would be phenomenal.”
“Have you rehearsed your speech?” Leigh joked.
“Yeah,” Hawkins replied. “I’ll do it in the loo.”
As with Leigh’s past films, the character and situations were built from the ground up through detailed discussions and improvisation among him, Hawkins and the other actors.
They spent six months in rehearsals, creating a life for Poppy extending back to her suburban upbringing as a wild, anarchic child through her current situation as a capable, empathetic teacher who retains an irrepressible youthful streak.
Surrounding her is a tight knot of friends and colleagues. Poppy’s faith, wonder and sheer giddiness over the smallest things in life is continually challenged but never wavers.
Her commuter bicycle is stolen, so she takes up driving lessons. Her driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) proves a harsh pessimist and control freak, so she sets about trying to break down his despairing demeanor. She injures her back and cracks jokes through a painful visit to the doctor. Poppy deals sympathetically with a bully in her class, her effort bringing an unexpected reward in her personal life.
Because of Leigh’s lengthy rehearsal process, Hawkins knew Poppy inside and out by the time she got in front of the camera.
“It’s a huge luxury. You feel incredibly spoiled. You can play and you can explore, and you work incredibly hard, very intensely in building up these worlds. The work you do is infinite. It can go on forever. Actually, six months isn’t long enough,” Hawkins said.
“You’re building up a life from birth. You’re plotting every single moment, every single year. Some moments have more depth than others, but everything is accounted for as a resource.”
‘She’s a burst of energy’Trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Hawkins began her career on stage and television before making her film debut in “All or Nothing.” Other credits include the crime tale “Layer Cake,” Woody Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream,” the comedy series “Little Britain” and the lead in a 2007 TV adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.”
After casting Hawkins in supporting roles for “All or Nothing” and “Vera Drake,” Leigh decided to build his next film around her.
“I got to know Sally very well, and I knew the thing to do was to get her at the center of things, to collaborate with her to create a character that would tap into her own qualities,” Leigh said. “She’s not Poppy. But she’s a burst of energy that’s there to be enjoyed and exploited.”
Hawkins sees similarities between herself and Poppy, though she’s not as easygoing as her character.
“I have a natural upbeatness, if I can say that. I’m naturally smiley, I suppose,” Hawkins said. “But unlike Poppy, I can tend to overworry and overanalyze, and she has an extraordinary ability to just flow and bounce and not let it affect her. I’ll probably get knocked a bit more. That’s what I’ve kind of learnt from her is her faith in not only herself, but in life and other people, as well.”
The awards buzz over “Happy-Go-Lucky” has Leigh feeling both optimistic and a bit disheartened.
The interviews, festivals, ceremonies and other events that accompany an Oscar campaign keep him from getting to new work, but the awards attention also can mean bigger audiences for a small film such as “Happy-Go-Lucky,” he said.
“We’re not Trappist monks. We don’t make films up mountains for no one to see. It really is a business, and we want people to see the movies,” Leigh said. “Also, we make these uncompromising movies ... European, low-budget, independent films. It’s great to slip under the wire and get to Hollywood with them, with films that nobody’s interfered with at any stage.”