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Emily Watson: Always Living Inside Other People’s Heads

NEWSDAY

She has a face that would serve as a poor hiding place for an emotional wound. “I can’t think of the right word . . . physiognomy, right?” says Emily Watson. “That’s my advantage, I suppose. To have a face that reveals everything.”

Even, on this particular afternoon, a courtly prepossession (she offers tea to her visitor) that might startle those who know the 32-year-old British actress only for the unguarded, unsettling passion of her two Oscar-nominated roles. Her performances as Bess, the fanatically devout wife of a crippled oil-derrick worker in “Breaking the Waves” (1996), and as Jacqueline du Pre, the doomed genius-cellist, in “Hilary and Jackie” (1998), have vaulted Watson to the front rank of her generation of film actors.

A recent assortment of Emily Watson films is, by comparison, relatively low-profile. In “Metroland,” released in the U.S. in ’98, she is the level-headed wife of a suburbanite having an arrested-development attack, while in Tim Robbins’ recently released “Cradle Will Rock,” she is part of an ensemble of actors trying to change history before being crushed by it.

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And although Watson plays, in essence, the title role in “Angela’s Ashes,” the filmed version of Frank McCourt’s best-selling childhood memoir that opens this month in wide release, Watson is less of a central presence in writer-director Alan Parker’s adaptation than the three boys--Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens and Michael Legge--who play McCourt at three different stages of his youth.

“Well, it is Frank’s story more than anything else,” says Watson, who took the role because “it’s very rare for an actor to get involved with something as pure as this. And by pure, I mean something that has the authority of being drawn directly from someone’s life as opposed to being hatched in a producers’ meeting.

“In fact, it’s very much Frank’s story, to the point where nothing was re-imagined or reinterpreted. Alan used the book as a bible. Whenever Robert Carlyle [who plays Angela’s ne’er-do-well husband, Malachy] or I would have a question about something, even while we were shooting, he’d say, ‘Go to the book. It’s all there.’ ”

If there is a link between Watson’s performance in “Ashes” and her turns in “Breaking the Waves” and “Hilary and Jackie,” it comes in--if you will--the method. She seems to lose herself in Angela the way she does in Bess or Jackie.

“Yeah, that’s a fair description of the process,” she says. “It’s really sort of a safety mechanism. I find myself on a set feeling very insecure, and I have to put myself through the procedure of finding the absolute truth of a character. After all, I’m not playing myself. I’m playing somebody else.”

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So what would be such a source for interpreting Angela? “The loss of a child,” Watson quickly replies. “And then the loss of another and the loss of another. That, to me, is what kick-starts the part.”

Where does she go from there? “There are very specific things that I try to find on my own. I know people who have lost children and so I talk with them. Somebody who was working with the film was telling me she’d had twins, one of whom died. And she told me just when we were shooting the funeral scene for the first dead child that she couldn’t be as focused or involved enough to be grieving. All she remembers is being terribly confused, far more confused than anything else by what was happening. I mean, this was her child and she was leaving it in the ground. So that’s what I tried to play in that scene is the utter confusion, like, it’s illogical that my child is there.”

Watson, the London-born daughter of an architect and a teacher, was establishing a reputation on both stage and British TV--where she captured a measure of nationwide fame as Maggie Tulliver in the BBC adaptation of George Eliot’s “The Mill on the Floss"--before being cast in “Breaking the Waves” by Danish director Lars von Trier. That her first feature film role created such an international tidal wave of acclaim probably surprised Watson most of all.

“I didn’t know I was going to be . . . well, that type of actress,” she says. “I’d always thought that if I had a career in the movies, it’d be playing sort of soft, naive English girls. Actually, when I started, they didn’t know what to do with me or where to put me. I was asked to play 16-year-olds, which,” she deadpans, “was rather flattering.”

Now she fields all types of scripts, many of them giving her chances to walk the emotional high wire. “And that’s all good because I enjoy taking risks, and I’m lucky to be at the stage in life where I can do those sorts of things. Still, I didn’t want to be regarded as someone who could only do tragedy, you know? You can get exhausted by carrying too heavy a load in every job you take.”

So that explains why her subsequent movie roles have included the title role in the forthcoming “Trixie,” a comedy by quirk-meister Alan Rudolph (“Choose Me,” “Afterglow”), in which she plays a security guard longing to be a private eye. Nick Nolte will co-star. Watson enjoyed the chance to do comedy (“I said, ‘Yes! Finally!’ ”) and to work with Rudolph, whom she describes as being “as much in touch with actors as a director can be. He knows what you’re thinking before you do.”

Anything more she’d like to do? “More Shakespeare,” she says. “I’ve done a bit in the past. But it’s like learning to play a musical instrument. It stretches you in ways you didn’t know you could be stretched.”

What about more conventional movie roles? She’s got the stature and fluidity to play, say, a Bond girl. “Heaven forfend!” she says and laughs. “Seriously, though, I wouldn’t rule out anything in what can be called a genre picture if it allowed me to bring something different, more shadows. . . .” She thinks a bit. “A baddie, perhaps. That’s the way to go!”


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