Emily Watson: I don't want to be in the thinner, prettier, tighter, whatever it is club'
As she plays a caustic German washerwoman in new film The Book Thief, actress and mum-of-two Emily Watson tells Jeananne Craig about tapping into her character's softer side, keeping up the accent off-camera and why she really no longer cares how she looks
In an industry where image is everything, and a nip and tuck is as commonplace as a scale and polish at the dentist's, Emily Watson is refreshingly relaxed about her appearance on screen.
In her new film The Book Thief, the British star plays a nagging wife and foster mother with lank, scraped-back hair, a permanent scowl and an array of deeply unflattering dresses.
"It's a very liberating thing to do that," Watson admits. "Not to have to be part of that club – the sort of thinner, prettier, shorter, tighter, whatever it is club. It just allows you to get on with your job."
That's not to say Watson's eyebrows didn't rise when she first saw her character, Rosa, on camera.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, I really went for it!"' she recalls, smiling. "But no, I'm kind of over the way that I look. Although for a long time I was completely over it, and now I'm like, 'God I'm getting old ...'"
Watson – who is shiny-haired, dewy-skinned and looking younger than her 47 years when we meet – was once described as "a character actor who gets laid" in her films. Now, she jokes: "You get laid less and less frequently as you get older."
While there are meaty roles for mature women, they're few and far between, which is why Watson does get to play "a lot of straightforward mums".
"[The parts] necessarily reflect the age that you are, and some of that is slightly less interesting," she adds. But at the same time when the roles are interesting, they're really interesting, in a complicated and mature and grown-up way. I love that. I didn't get that when I was younger."
Interesting and complicated is a good description of The Book Thief's Rosa who, along with her kind-hearted husband Hans (Geoffrey Rush), agrees to foster 11-year-old Liesel (played by young Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse), and take her into their home in a small German town.
Based on author Markus Zusak's bestselling novel of the same name, the story follows book-loving Liesel and her new parents as World War Two looms and their lives are thrown into uncertainty – all the more when they help a Jewish refugee hide from the Nazis.
As the film progresses, we see Rosa's sharp edges soften, and her love for Hans and Liesel becomes more evident. Watson could also see an "inner goodness" in the brittle character.
"I was playing someone who was really angry and bitter and abusive, and really pretty mean and nasty. And yet she's married to this very sensitive, awake, poetic musician and painter, and you think, 'Those two things don't quite add up, so there's got to be some pretty interesting history there'," she says.
"I think she was young and beautiful once, and probably more soft-spoken, but the times have changed her."
The film gave Watson the opportunity to reunite with The King's Speech star Rush, who she previously appeared alongside in 2004's The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers as the comedy actor's first wife Anne Howe.
"He's one of life's natural clowns and he's a great raconteur. If you ever wanted to know where Geoffrey was on the set you'd just listen out for the laughter."
Watson was at home with her children, Juliet (8) and five-year-old Dylan, when she received the script, which she describes as the best she's read in years. "I sat down to read it that night, and I wept my way through it."
She hopes the film, from Downton Abbey director Brian Percival, will help educate a new generation of youngsters about Nazi Germany and World War Two.
"My kids are a bit young, but I was walking down my children's corridor at school and the Year Eight kids were talking about this book and how much they love it.
"I think it's going to be a very good teaching tool apart from anything else," she says.
Watson brought her daughter and son over to Germany during filming. "They came out for a bit at half-term and they loved it. We were in a hotel and there were chocolate donuts for breakfast," she says, her brilliant blue eyes lighting up.
"But it is hard. I was sort of semi-commuting weekly between London and Berlin, which isn't that difficult to be honest, but it's quite a juggle to put it all together."
Despite being a self-confessed homebody, the actress is still clearly passionate about her career. She received an Oscar nomination for her debut film role in 1996's Breaking The Waves, and another for her portrayal of cellist Jacqueline du Pre in 1998's Hilary And Jackie, but remains critical of her performances.
"I try not to think about that once they're done, because there's nothing you can do. Once it's done it's done, you've got to walk away. But during it, yeah I think you absolutely have to be [critical]," she says.
"In a way, film is a great discipline for that. I've been doing this long enough that I know if I get a quarter way into a take and it's crap, I can just go, 'Hang on a second, can we start again?'
"I never like to commit something to film that feels really phoney. It's probably a terrible habit, I shouldn't do it, but there you go, I do."
In her pursuit of authenticity, Watson kept up Rosa's German accent between takes on The Book Thief.
"I have to stay in it to make it feel real. I'm not good enough, I don't think, to be able to flip in and out," she confesses.
"When you're playing somebody that's a long way away from you, I'm never quite sure I'll get back there."
ALL ABOUT EMILY
* The daughter of an architect and an English teacher, Watson grew up in London
* After studying English at Bristol University, she trained at Drama Studio London before joining the RSC
* Her acclaimed performance as religious Scotswoman Bess in Breaking The Waves "really opened doors for me", she says. Parts followed in Angela's Ashes (1999), Gosford Park (2001) and Steven Spielberg's War Horse (2011).
* She won a TV Bafta as trainee social worker Janet Leach in the Fred West drama Appropriate Adult
* She enjoys painting