Sally Hawkins: ‘Stories transform how we see others and unlock understanding’

Sally Hawkins and Craig Roberts sat down with The Big Issue to talk Eternal Beauty – a new film that paints a compassionate portrait of a woman living with mental illness

Sally Hawkins has spent the past 20 years becoming one of the world’s great actors. She might shun the limelight, but from a Golden Globe-winning performance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky to the Paddington films via ITV’s wonderful adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar winner The Shape of Water, the British star is comfortable turning her considerable talent to a wide range of material.

And so it is with Eternal Beauty, the story of a woman whose precarious mental health takes a sideswipe when she was jilted on her wedding day. When we meet Jane years later, Hawkins manages to marry the character’s fragility and the unpredictable responses to the voices she hears with a real playfulness.

The film, in cinemas and online services from October 2, is the brainchild of Craig Roberts. He may not quite be a household name yet, but the young writer-director-actor is making a big splash. At 29, the Welsh wunderkind is already an industry veteran, starting his career at age 10 in TV and film, including Tracy Beaker, Being Human, US coming-of-age smash Red Oaks and hit indie film Submarine.

Even when Jane is struggling, the way the film sees her is non-judgemental, non-sentimental, not patronising

While Hawkins was busy turning in an Oscar nominated performance in The Shape of Water and shooting Paddington 2, Roberts spent two years honing his script for Eternal Beauty.

Reuniting with two-time Oscar nominee Hawkins, who played his mother in both Submarine and Jane Eyre, he has produced a rare treat that flips many Hollywood tropes around mental illness on their head, making the fantastical relatable and the mundane mesmerising.

The pair sat down with The Big Issue to discuss the resulting film, one full of care and compassion for a central character whose wild spirit and wit is shown against the backdrop of her paranoid schizophrenia and chaotic family.

The Big Issue: You have said the character of Jane came to you fully formed – was that her internal life or her family existence?

Craig Roberts: All of those things. I knew the woman she is based on very well. I knew the family dynamic very well. So because I grew up with this person, I spent my whole life with this person, I know how she responds in any situation. I felt like I hadn’t seen her on screen before, so the world should get to know her.

They say write what you know…

CR: I mean, I’m not going to write Goodfellas, it wouldn’t make any sense. I’m from the Valleys in Wales. Of course, I wanted to research the condition and what she was going through, and we had Professor Paul Fletcher, head of neuroscience at Cambridge, to make sure I wasn’t ignorant to it. But I didn’t feel like I could be when it came to the character and her family, because it was very real for me.

What does this film add to the conversation about mental health and mental illness that was missing?

Sally Hawkins: It sees it in a purely positive light. Even when Jane is struggling, the way the film sees her is non-judgemental, non-sentimental, not patronising. It witnesses it through her eyes. It unlocks compassion in how we view such things, or at least I hope it begins to. I pray that this film instils hope for those struggling.

Why do we need to get to know someone like Jane?

CR: I don’t believe all the right stories are being told. There needs to be a wider range of voices coming through. Jane is funny. She makes jokes. It was a challenge because it can become uncomfortable, adding humour to this conversation about mental health. Many of us have filters and we’re afraid to say exactly what we want. But what I love about Jane is that she isn’t. That’s like her superpower. There are so many shades to a character.

Was it important to show Jane as funny, smart and capable of love as well as difficult to live alongside?

SH: Absolutely, this is the key to Jane. Her ability to rise above with her humour. She plays ‘roles’, she is sometimes conscious of this and sometimes not. Her nerve endings are very raw, open, almost like a child in that way. She is always in the present moment. She can be extremely challenging and difficult to understand for those around her. She is almost fearless or maybe despite her fear she keeps running on.

How much of a joy or challenge is it to play someone with such a unique voice?

SH: It was necessary to ‘fall’ into that and trust it. It will always be unnerving not really knowing if what one does works or not… especially with such extreme characters who push boundaries.

Having someone brilliant like Craig directing means you are never free falling and when the writing and the vision is there alongside the most truly beautifully cast, well, it is everything. I felt so supported and free to play. Jane has this wild, free spirited unpredictable energy that is impossible to pin down. She is magic in that way. I hope that people are inspired by her, and by her courage.

Often in films when people hear voices it is presented as more malevolent, as a prelude to danger or horror or violence…

SH: Mental health is often seen negatively or something ‘other’ outside of ourselves. And like you rightly say, in a horror-type genre. This only acts as more of a barrier. It casts people that deal with such issues as monsters, as outsiders, as people that almost aren’t human and therefore need to be locked away. Craig wanted to flip that on its head.

Once mental health illness is seen with love and compassion, we can learn and grow and help. This film is about love and made with love about someone who is rather special and magical.

Eternal Beauty
Craig Roberts directs Sally Hawkins and David Thewlis in Eternal Beauty

CR: Exactly. We really need to get away from that horror trope of somebody being possessed. And it was really important to make it about this specific woman and not some genius that has this condition, I wanted it to be about this regular person that’s going about her day. Her life isn’t incredibly exciting all the time.

So you didn’t give it the Hollywood sheen?

CR: I didn’t want to make it like that. The rules are boring. I want to break the rules and show a different story. The Hollywood version of this movie would end my career. It would be terrible. I have nothing against Hollywood, but I needed to show all the sides of Jane – and if that makes it less accessible to some crowds, that’s ok.

What can Sally do that no one else can, Craig – why did you want her for this film so much?

CR: She’s otherworldly. I mean no disrespect or anything to all the other actresses in the world, but I feel like Sally has an incredible ability to go into strange places but always remains very relatable. In one look she can make you laugh, then the next moment, make you cry. She’s just a master of the craft. And she’s super funny and one of the kindest people I know. I want to work with Sally on everything.

She’s quite in demand – that might mean you can only make a film every few years…

CR: Yeah, that would be fine! We have such a good shorthand and even have the same taste in movies and TV, so it is so easy to communicate. I mean, I still get imposter syndrome, I’m wearing that t-shirt every day and I am young, but I’ve been in this industry now for 19 years. So I feel like I know my way around.

How do you feel about working on all Craig’s future films, Sally?

SH: Absolutely! I would be lucky to be in every single film Craig makes from now on. He is a gift. As a human and as a film maker. I was very flattered to be asked to take Jane on, knowing what she meant to him. And I didn’t want to let him down in any way. I knew how important it was as a story and felt that the whole world needed to know Jane.

It doesn’t really get much better than Craig Roberts. He is phenomenal. I feel he is the Paul Thomas Anderson of the British film industry, yet wholly unique, of course. This is the start of a very great, wonderful long career. I know he will be seen as one of the greats. In my eyes he is already there. This type of film by this type of film-maker doesn’t come along very often so when one does, it is a blessing. You grab it with both hands and run like your whole life depends on it. Run, take that leap and pray that all will be ok!

We need to stop putting pressure on ourselves to be happy all the time

You say you have the same taste in films – what were your touchstones for Eternal Beauty?

CR: Every week we would screen a movie for the cast and crew so everybody could be on the same page. We showed Punchdrunk Love by Paul Thomas Anderson – the way he deals with social anxiety in the film is incredible – it is very sad and funny at the same time. A masterpiece. Then we showed Through a Glass Darkly, which felt right for the topic of this film, and Three Colours Blue, which is a lovely movie, and because we have a lot of blue in this film.

Casting Penelope Wilton as Jane’s mother was inspired – I’ve never heard her swear before…

CR: I was a massive fan and saw her doing an interview on Lorraine. That’s what made me want to cast her. Something in the way she was smiling was exactly right for the part. My mind was blown when she said she’d do it. There’s a moment in the film where somebody gets slapped and I said: ‘Penelope, you should laugh after that’. She did, and it was perfect. And, yes, I was so happy to hear her say fuckhead!

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

At The Big Issue, our mission is to amplify the voices of people who are not heard enough in society – did you get a sense of that with Jane?

SH: Yes, yes, most definitely. And for me these stories about the misunderstood are the most essential and vital. They are usually far more interesting people to play and to learn about. Such misaligned people need to be heard and their stories need to be told.

Stories can transform how people see others and unlock understanding. They are essential in order to transform how people can be seen. Stories change and save lives. They do indeed have magical powers.

What do you want people to take from this film?

CR: There’s a quote in the film that is very bleak, but I stand by it: ‘maybe there’s no such thing as happiness, just moments of not being depressed’. We need to stop putting pressure on ourselves to be happy all the time. If you do have a day when you are happy, that is really fantastic.

We should enjoy that, and remember it when we have tough days. And that we should all be kind to each other. Just take a moment out of your day to think about what other people are going through. It is hard, it is a learned behaviour, to constantly step back to think about how other people are, but the more we can do it the better.

Eternal Beauty is out now in cinemas and on digital services.