Samantha Morton’s career is driven by ‘a hunger and a need’

Samantha Morton, right, plays a brothel owner in 18th century London in the new Hulu series "Harlots."
Samantha Morton, right, plays a brothel owner in 18th century London in the new Hulu series “Harlots.”
(Liam Daniel / Hulu)

“The way I want to act is how I want to breathe,” Samantha Morton says. “There was no point where I said, ‘OK, this is going to work,’ because there was no other choice for me. I had a very tough childhood and I was living in a homeless hostel and I got a play at the Royal Court Theatre. There was no other way. It couldn’t fail, in my mind. There was a desperation and a hunger and a need.”

The Oscar-nominated British actress, who found that fortuitous start at age 12, has made a career of playing strong women. She’s interested in truthful roles, whether as a struggling immigrant in “In America” or an abusive villain in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” and she also doesn’t take the easiest roles out there. Her latest project is the Hulu series “Harlots,” in which she plays a brothel owner in 18th century London. The show’s first season is now streaming, and Morton is hopeful that a second season will follow. “I’d quite like to play Margaret Wells again,” she says. “She’s a force, and I’ve never played anyone quite like her.”

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The 39-year-old actress, who feels she’s “getting better as I get older,” wants to continue to test herself. “When I was younger, it was about just working, like, ‘Thank you, people, I have a job!’ ” she says. “And then you get to the point where it really becomes about ‘How can I play something I haven’t played before and in a different way?’ I really am just a good old-fashioned character actress.”


Here, Morton recalls some of her most prominent roles, including her breakout in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown.”

“Harlots,” Margaret Wells (2017)

“I played a prostitute when I was 16, so it was interesting for me as an adult now to play it from the other perspective. Just to see something from two sides. In some ways, things don’t change. To walk in someone else’s shoes and see the problems those women faced reaffirmed the knowledge that it has always been very hard being a woman and it will continue to be hard being a woman.”

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” Mary Lou (2016)


“David Yates is an incredible director, but how he works is quite intense. It is just as serious as anything else. [My character] was very misguided with her beliefs and her passion. Walking on those sets I was, like, ‘Wow! Look at what you created!’ That was fun. But to play Mary Lou I kind of felt ill at the end of it. I don’t know if I like playing baddies in that way.”

“Cosmopolis,” Vija Kinsky (2012)

“That was a real challenge because it was, in a sense, a huge monologue. It was a huge acting challenge. I hadn’t acted for a while because I often take time away. I’d taken a bit of a gap so I was really nervous to jump back in the saddle and to play such an intellect. It’s a flash of somebody so you have to try and build a character with it – I found that pretty hard.”

“Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” Mary Stuart (2007)


“[The director] and I had tried to work together in the past and it hadn’t come to pass. This part came in and I was thrilled to be offered the part of Mary. She’s iconic. I hope I did it justice. There were people out there who said, ‘You should have played her French!’ And I said, ‘Well, then what would the Scottish people say?’ There are so many books with different accounts of her, so it’s a can of worms.”

“Longford,” Myra Hindley (2006)

“That was a tough one. At the end I was, like, ‘Why did I agree to do this?’ But you get better as an actor. I was very nervous initially and I pulled away from it. She is absolutely hated for her crimes. But ultimately the legacy of Longford and him trying to change the criminal justice system gave me a political motivation in playing the character. The process of having her voice tapes and her letters [to study] was quite harrowing. But I feel really important questions were raised by us making that film.”

“In America,” Sarah (2002)


“I feel I lucked out with that. An actress pulled out of that role quite late on. When it came my way to have a meeting, I read the script and I felt so passionate about it. A lot of time if something doesn’t go my way I’m very Zen about it, but I remember at the time being so convinced that I should play this woman. I got the part and I felt very connected to her, to that family, to the director. I was a young mother myself at the time — I’d just had my first child — and somebody very close to me had just died, so there was a lot of life and art going on. I needed to do that film then with those people. It’s something I hold very close to my heart.”

“Minority Report,” Agatha (2002)

“What can you say? It’s Steven Spielberg and he’s a genius! You get a phone call saying you’re going to get to talk to him about a part and you just go, ‘Wow.’ It was a gift. I loved that project. I had fun every day on that movie. That energy on the set and watching Tom Cruise work was just brilliant. It was just a dream, the whole thing.”

“Jesus’ Son,” Michelle (1999)


“That was a special one for me, in a very, very deep way. Being British and moving to America when I did — I think ‘Jesus’ Son’ changed my life in a way that made me realize that things were possible for me. This was my first American speaking role. She was an amazing character. I pinch myself sometimes looking back at the opportunities I’ve had.”

“Sweet and Lowdown,” Hattie (1999)

“It was a real kind of joy to find this person with Woody Allen — his vision of Hattie and what he wanted for her and what we discovered together. She was funny and she was sweet and she was earnest. I had played all these angry young women who were abused, and this was the first time I got to do anything like that. I felt very proud that I got to play Hattie in a way that I hoped made [Woody] happy.”