'I can't begin to imagine what Maud was going through, but we have all felt pain, we're all human'
Sally Hawkins, the star of tear-jerking biopic Maudie, tells Gemma Dunn why the story about a Canadian folk artist with rheumatoid arthritis resonated so deeply with her - and how much she values her privacy.
You would expect someone of Sally Hawkins's stature to be up to date with awards season gossip - but my news of her being tipped for Oscar success next year has come as quite a surprise.
"Really? Ah that's great, I don't read any of it," she quips, genuinely taken aback.
"Oh gosh, to even think about that is very flattering," she says, before pausing and adding: "You sort of don't do it for that; you just want to focus on the work, but of course anything that gets the film out there and people talking about it is wonderful.
"All I care about is making people happy and doing the best job I can," she adds, her voice quietened. "I tend to try and avoid (reviews) because inevitably it's not healthy either way, good or bad."
The stellar performance that has sent the rumour mill into overdrive is, of course, Hawkins's upcoming portrayal of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, in Aisling Walsh's tear-jerking biopic Maudie.
Tipped for the Best Actress gong, the London-born star - who was previously nominated for an Academy Award for her part in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine - excels in the film that charts the unlikely romance between Lewis and curmudgeonly recluse Everett (played by the remarkable Ethan Hawke).
Landing the titular role opposite Hawke was a "true gift", gushes Hawkins.
"I just fell in love with (Maud)," explains the RADA graduate (41). "The fact it is a true story and someone who is having to deal with so much in her life and, despite everything, fought hard to be free in order to create her art... I was very moved by that.
"I think we can all relate to that," she confesses. "It's something we all know - how important it is for your heart and soul to be free in order to do what makes you happy, whatever the sacrifice."
Hailing from a creative background (her parents were authors and illustrators of children's books), Hawkins beams as she recalls the time she spent replicating a number of Maud's favourite works.
"I painted already but I learned to paint in a way that was similar to Maud," she says. "I really wanted to do that. (It was) an excuse to paint and pick up a brush again, which I just adored.
She adds: "I have kept art going throughout my life, but if I was in art school that would be my life now.
"You've got to become one thing and in order to do that one thing well, you have to focus solely on that, I suppose," she says tentatively. "But that being said, there's a balance and it reminded me that actually art is incredibly important to me and it makes me happy, just as writing makes me happy and acting makes me happy.
"They're not exclusive to one or the other."
Since making her film debut in Mike Leigh's All Or Nothing in 2002, Hawkins has garnered much praise for her work including Happy-Go-Lucky, for which she scooped a Golden Globe Award, Made In Dagenham and Paddington. Not to mention her impressive turn on Broadway in Mrs Warren's Profession.
She's a risk taker who always gives her all, so when it came to channelling Lewis - an intelligent woman, hunched with gnarled hands from arthritis - the stakes were high.
"You're representing her to the world, or a version of her, and people who knew her loved her," she says of the responsibility. "The family members and friends, the people who brought her up, they all still exist and the story is very personal.
"To even be dealing with a real life person, you want to do them justice because that's what your job is."
While Hawkins admits to watching a lot of YouTube videos to master the physical makeover, she, like Maudie, was keen to not let it define the story.
"It's part of the costume that you put on," she says of the transformation. "For me, I can't do it enough or put in enough work. It always feels like I don't do enough, you always want to do more, because you're creating a real-life person but without imitation.
"You never really know if what you're doing is okay," she confides. "I am not disabled and I am highly aware of that but I have a true responsibility to all the people in the world who are dealing with this condition."
As for the human element, Hawkins, who is painfully shy and has previously described herself as "not being Hollywood fodder", has compassion by the bucket load.
"We all feel very different and we all are very different to varying degrees in everything," says the actress, who also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, but to a far lesser degree.
"I can't even begin to imagine what (Maud) was going through, but we've all felt pain, we're all human, we know what it is to feel alone and different.
"But that's why human beings are wonderful and forever inspiring," she adds. "Whatever they're thrown, they come through. Life is hard, whatever you are, whoever you are, and that's part of it." As for her own life, Hawkins keeps details close to her chest. Previously stating she likes to "disappear" in between roles.
Is she worried that will become increasingly difficult as Hollywood beckons?
"Of course, inevitably, I do worry that you're less able to disappear into parts, because you're less able to do your job well when people no longer see the character, but see you..." she muses.
"I am incredibly private. It's what I value; I value that it's a part of myself, my heart, it's sacred who I am in my private life. That's for me and that's for me alone.
"All I care about is the work. I love acting, but I'm not very good at being a celebrity. Not that I have ever wanted to or need to be," adds Hawkins, who will reprise her role as Mary Brown in Paddington 2 later this year.
"But it feels for me there is more of an interest towards celebrity and that's something that if... if I ever became one, if I do find myself in that kind of position when I no longer have privacy or find it difficult in that way, then I would probably have to think about doing something else.
"When it's out of balance, and that would be completely out of balance, then I'm no longer able to do what I do - and do it well."
- Maudie is in cinemas today