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"If you imagine something strongly enough it feels real"

Bafta-winner Emily Watson plays the mother of a 7/7 victim in a harrowing new drama. She talks about what the experience meant to her

By Gerard Gilbert

As I'm waiting to interview Emily Watson the publicist tells me that the actress's father died just a few days earlier - the request to inform me of this fact coming from Watson herself, in case I thought her behaviour to be "strange". I'm a bit surprised that she still wants to go ahead - "it's only marketing" as Watson will tell me later in a different context - but the 48-year-old star of Breaking the Waves, Hilary and Jackie, Angela's Ashes and The Book Thief seems determined to keep our appointment.

What's more is that we're here to discuss grief - her simulated grief in a new BBC drama to commemorate the London bombings of 2007. In A Song for Jenny, Watson plays Julie Nicholson, whose daughter Jenny was killed at Edgware Road Underground station. It has been adapted from Nicholson's own account of the tragedy by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, who is most famous in these parts for his brilliant drama Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. Now, this finely judged film follows Nicholson, who was a Church of England vicar at the time of 7/7, through her grieving and subsequent loss of faith - because she couldn't forgive those who had taken her daughter's life.

"It (the bombing) was an act of religious-based hatred - and she lost her faith - and yet ... I come away from it with a most incredibly profound respect for her as a moral human being," says Watson. "She had gone right to the edge of life and looked into the abyss."

The same could be said of Watson, who does indeed have the raw, shell-shocked look of someone still fresh from personal tragedy. The eyes that meet mine are, however, clear and unwavering. Her mother, Katherine, died in 2010 while Watson was flying back, on learning of her mother's sudden illness, from Australia (where she had been filming Oranges and Sunshine). The death of her father, architect Richard Watson, was, she says, less of a surprise.

How, I ask, returning to her performance in A Song for Jenny, does she act grief? Does she access her own private sadness?

"It's not so much accessing my own moments of sadness," she says, followed by a long pause. "Sometimes that's there and it feels like it comes in because you open that door and it's suddenly there, but it's really the power of imagination ... if you imagine something strongly enough it feels real.

"In a way it wasn't so hard to do because it was just so awful. We go from the minute that she hears something has happened, and there were probably millions of people in that situation who couldn't reach somebody, and over the day that group of people diminished and diminished and diminished until it was in the hundreds probably; and those people then had this whole thing playing out in the national consciousness ... worldwide actually ... on every TV screen ... over and over and over ..."

Does Watson remember what she was doing on the morning of Thursday, July 7, 2005, when 52 people were murdered on London's transport system?

"I was in London and I was six-months pregnant and about to go and get on the Tube, but just heard on the radio before I went out that something was happening so we thought we'd just check the news. I just remember that moment when you heard there'd been an explosion on a bus and you knew that this was a deliberate act - a very chilling moment."

Watson lives in south-east London with her husband, writer Jack Watson, whom she met while at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and their children, Juliet (9) and Dylan (6). Her own childhood was spent in Islington and then all over west London, her parents ("lifelong followers of all things spiritual") sending her to St James Independent School in London, which was run according to the principles of the Hindu philosophical system Advaita Vedanta.

After university at Bristol, where she studied English but gravitated towards the drama clubs, she went on to study acting at the Drama Studio London.

"Then I got into fringe-y stuff and just really went from there," she says with considerable understatement since what she's talking about is stepping directly into the lead role in one of the most controversial films of the 1990s, Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, the movie that would win Watson an Oscar nomination for her very first film role.

She played a young woman in a remote Scottish community who submits to sexual degradation out of love for her paralysed husband - a role that required nudity and graphic sex scenes. Was this something she took in her stride because she was young?

"Yes, in a way, but I didn't find it easy," she says. "I wasn't comfortable but I did it because I wanted to give myself completely to this role. It was an absolute life-changing thing for me: it just completely put me on the map. I was an actress in demand after that."

The rush of worthwhile and interesting films that followed over the next five years included The Boxer (opposite Daniel Day-Lewis) and Robert Altman's Gosford Park.

Her CV is littered with awards and nominations, including an Olivier Award for her stage performance in Uncle Vanya at the Donmar and a Bafta for Appropriate Adult, in which she played a charity-worker employed to sit in with killer Fred West during his police interviews.

This year she was awarded the OBE, being presented with the honour by Prince Charles.

"It feels almost spiteful sometimes this job; I'm in my late forties, I've been given an OBE for my services to drama, and I still don't know where my next job's coming from."

September sees the release of Everest, the 3D movie about an ill-fated 1996 Mount Everest expedition, which co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Keira Knightley. There's also a BBC adaptation of Ronald Harwood's The Dresser, with Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins. Does she think there will come a time when she might like to give it all up?

"Maybe depend on it less," she says. "I love it and it's how we keep food on the table, so it's a necessity that we keep going. John and I have a pottery at the end of our garden and we'd like to do more of that and less living out of a suitcase."

  • A Song for Jenny, BBC1, tomorrow, 9pm

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