More MS news articles for January 1999

There's Something About Emily

'Hilary and Jackie' Made Grueling Demands. This Actress Answered.

By Sharon Waxman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 1999; Page G01

LOS ANGELES-Most actresses work their way up slowly, from bit parts to leading roles, from laugh-track sitcoms to adult dramas. Even good actresses sometimes start out in daytime soap operas, like Meg Ryan, or sleazy B-movies, like Sharon Stone. Or they slide into acting from modeling careers, like Cameron Diaz and Charlize Theron.

Few leap headfirst into the most complex, soul-baring, high-risk roles there are.

Emily Watson did.

Two years ago, the actress debuted in a bleak, obscure, three-hour film called "Breaking the Waves" that hardly anyone had seen. She was completely unknown and her performance as Bess, an otherworldly innocent in an austere Scottish town, left critics gasping.

"Emily Watson breaks the acting barrier," wrote Interview magazine. "Her performance leaves you shaken, off balance, haunted," rhapsodized Newsweek. She was "strange, fearless, bewitching," said Entertainment Weekly. Noted Time: "She acts volcanically. . . . She is pure emotion." And the New York Times remarked: "The role calls for a trusting, absolutely unguarded performance, and the film would have been destroyed by anything less. Ms. Watson creates Bess with a devastating immediacy." The actress was nominated for an Oscar (she didn't win) and could be seen wandering through the post-awards parties looking dazed, like a stranger at the wedding of a distant relative.

Now Watson is back, burning up the screen as cellist Jacqueline du Pre in "Hilary and Jackie." As du Pre, the British classical music superstar who died at 42 of multiple sclerosis, Watson, a decade younger than her character, is fierce, selfish, petulant, brilliant and pathetic, a performance that lingers long after the film ends. Even the most inveterate fans of Cameron Diaz in "Something About Mary" (she just won an award from the New York Film Critics) might see this and conclude, "Now this is acting."

The critics are just starting to weigh in on "Hilary and Jackie" -- "a blazing performance" says one review -- but even this early it's pretty clear that Watson has once again delivered something unique. For first-time director Anand Tucker, there wasn't much question of who would play Jacqueline. He later cast Australian actress Rachel Griffiths in the role of Hilary, the cellist's sister.

"I thought to myself, 'Who on earth has the skills to play ages 17 to 42, be a cello genius and take on the physical challenge of multiple sclerosis -- as well as be a force of nature?' " Tucker says. "I looked around, and there were a lot of wonderful actresses but no one with that quality -- that extraordinary, fearless, childlike otherness. That plugged-into-Heavenness."

Then one night he happened to see "Breaking the Waves." He immediately called Watson, took her to lunch and told her the story of "Hilary and Jackie."

Watson cried. Tucker bought her a cello and got to work on a screenplay.

Taking on Jacqueline du Pre is more daunting for a British actress than Americans might realize. The cellist, despite her flaws, remains a national heroine in England, and both musical purists and du Pre die-hards are wary of any attempt to tamper with the legend.

To prepare for the role, Watson took three months of intensive cello lessons, learning to play passably well and succeeding in miming the cello concerts. She also spent time interviewing doctors about multiple sclerosis and visiting victims of the degenerative nerve disease.

That was plenty hard. The hardest part, however, was to get inside the mind of a deeply complex musical virtuoso. Du Pre was the product of a conservative, middle-class British background, yet she attacked the cello with a near-sexual intensity, long legs astride the instrument, blond hair flying, arms flailing about. Telling demands of performing took their toll on du Pre, and in moments of turmoil she turned to Hilary for support. Among her many unfathomable acts was demanding, during one such moment, to sleep with her sister's husband. (Hilary's unfathomable act was to agree.) Then, at the height of her career, du Pre suddenly abandoned performing and sank slowly into the vortex of her fatal illness.

"I knew her recordings, I knew what she looked like, but I didn't know what a tormented soul she really was," Watson says in an interview on a sunny terrace at a Los Angeles hotel. She slips off her shoes and tucks bare feet under her legs, lighting a cigarette. Watson's hair is a deep auburn and shorn at the shoulders; she looks far more adult, more poised, than she does on screen as the blond, long-locked, gawky du Pre. She goes on: "You start with a girl from a sheltered, middle-class BBC background. Sandwiches on the beach and all that. Somebody without a lot of social skills. Then all of a sudden she picks up the cello and out comes an emotional range so sophisticated, so pure, so filled with melancholy and regret -- things that she had no business knowing about at her age. This was the basis for her trouble."

But how does one go about trying to become such a complicated character? There are troubling aspects to du Pre that Watson does not attempt to make sympathetic (another Hollywood rule that she breaks), and yet she clearly has great regard for her protagonist.

"The hardest thing for me to understand is the episode with Kiffer" -- Hilary's husband. "You hear that, and you think, 'What a monster.' But it's at a stage in her life when she is incredibly depressed, she's starting to get symptoms. People think they're going mad when they start to get these symptoms, and she's going through that while she's circling the world. She really just panicked and fled to her sister." Watson pauses to drag on her cigarette.

"Now you or I might say, 'Help me.' But the only way Jackie could express herself was through the cello. So she said, 'I want to sleep with Kiffer.' It's an awful thing to ask, but you can kind of understand it."

Not really. Who can understand the sort of life Jacqueline du Pre had to lead? "I really wanted to be clear. I wanted the audience to understand why she wanted to sleep with Kiffer, that it wasn't just monstrous." She pauses. "As an actor you have to develop a psychological vocabulary, one that not only helps you analyze the character, but that helps your life in a way."

There is a moment of silence as Watson gazes into the distance. "I didn't really get close," she finally confesses. "But I hope I got some kind of essence of what she was."

She got more than close, says Hilary du Pre, who wrote the book (with her brother, Piers) on which the film is based. "She's really put her whole heart and soul into Jackie, and Jackie has crept into Emily Watson's soul," she says in an interview from London. "I've seen the film eight times, and I wouldn't have seen it more than once if I didn't think it was right. I am immensely grateful for what she's done."

Director Tucker takes offense at suggestions from music experts that Watson's  playing may be less than exact. He recalls a scene in which Watson had to mime playing the Elgar Cello Concerto in E Minor -- which became du Pre's particular passion -- in front of an audience of 500 extras, backed by a professional orchestra.

"Emily came out and launched herself into it. And I kid you not, at the end of the first take, there was this weird silence. There were sniffles from orchestra," he says. "People came up to me afterward, and one said, 'I played with Jackie, and I was dubious. But that was Jackie. I had to keep double-taking, I couldn't get my head round it.' "

The distance from there to the film's most wrenching moments is considerable. In a scene near the end, a helpless du Pre sits crumpled in her wheelchair, listening to a recording of herself playing the Elgar, and dissolves into a sea of despair.

"I don't know how to describe what it was like shooting that," Tucker says. "Emily had a photograph of Jackie that she kept with her all the way through filming, Jackie at her most beautiful and vibrant. In that scene Emily came and put that photograph on the other side of the camera." Tucker pauses. "I don't know where she went inside herself to do the scene. She's weeping for Jackie, for whatever part of Jackie she had internalized. It's true emotion."

Not unlike Jacqueline du Pre, Emily Watson comes from a solid middle-class British background. She grew up in London, her mother a teacher, her father an architect. She has a big sister who chose the path of marriage and children, not unlike Hilary, though Watson says there was never the intense rivalry that existed between the two musical sisters.

A tall, chunky teen, Watson was a quiet, introspective student. Her interest in acting began in school dramas. She performed in plays at the University of Bristol, where she studied English, but was twice rejected by drama school when she applied. She finally got in on her third try, and after completing the course began appearing in Royal Shakespeare Company productions like "The Taming of the Shrew" and "All's Well That Ends Well."

"I did a lot of understudies and spear-carrying," she says. But Watson gradually won larger roles, and appeared prominently in productions of "The Three Sisters" and "The Lady From the Sea."

How Watson came to a role as ambitious as that of Bess in "Breaking the Waves," written and directed by the dour Dane Lars von Trier, is oddly simple. Helena Bonham Carter was initially cast in the part, but backed off; a new Bess had to be found, and quickly. A casting director saw Watson perform onstage and asked her to audition; the audition tape went to Copenhagen -- "and that was that," Watson recalls, as if catapulting oneself into the film world were an inconsequential matter.

But even Watson doesn't shortchange the challenge posed by her leap-of-faith performance as Bess. Much of the film's power hinges on Watson's eerie dialogues in a deserted stone church between Bess as herself, the innocent supplicant, and Bess as God, a stern, judgmental force. "I thought -- 'Okay, I'll do this movie.' And no one told me to stop, so I just jumped. AAAAAH! I just went -- 'Okay, I'll jump!' " The experience, she says, left her exhausted and a bit traumatized, "but I love Bess to pieces. She's so pure."

It is a bit odd to hear Watson analyze a character that she embodied with such naked emotion on-screen. Somehow you expect her to be as fragile as Bess, or as unpredictable as du Pre, and surprisingly, neither is the case. She seems utterly at ease in an interview, bantering with a photographer and mocking the celebrity treatment she gets in Los Angeles. Only her limpid blue eyes remind you of the mischief and melancholy they can reflect in her most powerful moments.

Watson's co-star, Rachel Griffiths, was struck by this dichotomy. "You'd think that to have this ability to lose yourself in a character, she has to be wacky. But she's not," she says. "She's this nice middle-class girl with this ferocious talent that she doesn't let dominate her life. It's like Emily has this lion in a cage, and she lets it out when she needs it, and when she doesn't she puts it back and it lies there while she makes the tea and renovates her house. She's like a perfect person."

The instant fame that came to Watson as a result of the Oscar nomination for "Breaking the Waves" has not changed her life as much as it could have. She still lives in London with her husband, stage actor Jack Waters. After "Waves" she took a role in "The Boxer" as the struggling wife of a convict who falls in love with ex-IRA member Daniel Day-Lewis. She has completed a small role in a Tim Robbins musical comedy, "The Cradle Will Rock," due out this spring. And she has just finished filming "Angela's Ashes" in Ireland, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Frank McCourt.

The actress stars as Angela, the mother of a huge Irish brood who suffers with her family through illness, hunger and a wayward alcoholic father.

Has she considered, perhaps, a starring role in a comedy, just to mix things up? Sure, she says, but "my career goes by scripts and directors." An important criterion is that she not be away from home for too long; anyway, for the moment, she is mainly being offered what she calls "mad screamers."

There is a sense of clarity to Watson's acting that may have something to do with her ability not just to emote, but to absorb emotion and reflect it. Every close-up on-screen helps convince you of this. So do the close-ups in real life. During her research for the film, she visited a man at a London hospital, a patient with advanced multiple sclerosis. His right arm was strapped to his body to keep it from waving wildly. In a slow, tortured conversation Watson asked him about the disease, about when he had been diagnosed. "It took a long time for him to form sentences," she recalls.

The man stared back at her. "I can tell by your eyes that you have more questions," he told her.

Watson gulps hard at the memory, as if to say, "Am I that easy to read."

Well, yes, she is. And the patient is not the only one to have noticed.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company