Sally Hawkins, star of 'Happy-Go-Lucky'

Mike Leigh's latest film, " Happy-Go-Lucky," centers on the unsinkable Poppy Cross, a teacher who tries to make everyone around her happier. It is an effort rebuffed by some, welcomed by others and at times even difficult to watch. In dealing with an unstable homeless man and a troubled driving instructor, the potential for danger hovers closely. But God apparently protects fools, children and the decidedly cheerful. Poppy walks a fine line between grating and endearing, even down to the little laugh that punctuates her sentences. For her performance, Sally Hawkins has captured critics' hearts, winning the Silver Bear for acting at the Berlin Film Festival, and a recent nomination for a British Independent Film Award. As is Leigh's method, the cast went through six months of rehearsals, creating the characters from scratch. Hawkins, a British actress who also had a small role in Leigh's "Vera Drake," talks of the process of creating her character, the unexpected hoopla that resulted and the importance of being joyful.

In the U.S. we have a term, Pollyanna, that refers to a person who is extremely cheerful and optimistic in the face of adversity.

How lovely.

It's usually considered an insult.

But surely it's a good thing. I find that it's always quite weird when people tend to dismiss people who have that lovely attitude of life. . . . Like it's something weak and not to be celebrated, when it's exactly what we need.

I have to admit I spent some time worrying that something horrible was going to happen to Poppy, especially in the scene with the homeless man.

People have said she's being stupid and naive, and actually Poppy's not naive, she knows what she's doing and she knows she's potentially putting herself in danger, but what I love about her is that it doesn't stop her doing it. There's something bigger than her, and that guy could be in danger himself, needing help, and that goes beyond her concerns for her own safety.

She engenders some strong responses from those around her.

What's interesting being Poppy in this film and her interactions with different characters, was their reactions to somebody like that who is so effervescent and full of love and life and wanting to do good, and also just funny, and how different people have completely different reactions to her, always quite extreme, some embracing it and some reacting quite badly.

Are you talking about people in the film, or those watching it?

Both, actually (laughs). I started out talking about the characters and ended up talking about the audience.

How did he first approach you about the role?

If Mike invites you as an actor to work, you just jump at the chance, you can't worry about what you're going to do or what the story is or how much you're going to be involved because it's so organic. He had nothing and he kept mentioning that throughout the rehearsal. That's what's so exciting about working with Mike and also terrifying because it could go any way at any particular point, and one day it might go off. There were so many roads of possibility.

There's been a tremendous critical response to your performance, with awards and nominations and buzz for more. How does that feel?

I can't really get my head around it. It's so nice, a bit more than nice, really, but I mean, that's not going to happen. . . . All that incredible talent, you don't want to put yourself up there because you can fall. I'm trying not to think about all that. I'm so proud of this film, and so proud of Mike, and I think it's an important film and Poppy is an important character. It's a truly collaborative process, if there's one tiny component that wasn't there, we wouldn't have had the film we made. I know it's cheesy but it's this whole family, not just me, all of us there. With good films like that it's the tiny moments, the tiny characters that just pop up, that's what makes a film is that richness. So I do wish everyone were here enjoying it.

What makes this an important film?

I've heard Mike talk about this, we are destroying our planet and we are in a state of flux financially and environmentally, it's all up in the air. And somebody like Poppy who, no matter what life throws at her, is able to see the positive in it, that's quite rarely seen on screen. Especially at the center of a film. I just think that's a really important message. It's so easy to be cynical, especially in these times and it's so defeatist. Actually, the wisest choice in life is somebody who sees the world like that. It makes me think of a quote from Benjamin Franklin: "The mouth of a wise man is in his heart."

Rosen is a freelance writer.