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Samantha Morton: ‘I felt a lot of anger when I was a teenager in care’

The actress, director and activist opens up to Jane Graham about her younger years, sharing her experiences of living in care

At 16 I was living in a homeless hostel in Nottingham – it was called an independence unit but basically it was a dumping ground for kids who had to leave care. We were just forgotten about really, with no support or follow-up. The people who ran the unit were great, they were as helpful as they could be with helping you get your money or applying for college. But it was a very tough time. I felt a lot of anger when I was a teenager. I’d been in care since I was a baby, so it had been a massive part of my life.

I was angry at the system, the state, for failing to take care of me in the most basic common-sense way. Why was I being abused by residential social workers but I couldn’t stay the night at my friend’s house because their parents hadn’t been checked out? Of course I was angry.

My stepfather, who I adored, was Glaswegian and very outgoing. If I’m anyone’s child it’s not my mother’s or my father’s, it’s my stepfather’s. I’m very like him – he was very outspoken and a real character.

Despite my unstable upbringing, I was never shy. I loved fighting for the right to do or say something. I always had my hand up in class. And my stepfather supported me in everything I did. I lost touch with him for certain reasons. But when I was with him I did say thank you. He knew how grateful I was.

I told him I wasn’t into crime any more and I’d cleaned up my act,

Sometimes all you need to turn a child’s life around is one person who notices, who cares, who goes the extra mile. For me it was Mr Thompson at my junior school. He saw something in me. He knew I liked doing school plays and he encouraged me to visit the Central Junior Television Workshop run by Ian Smith. So I went to an audition and the rest is history. I found drama and I found Ian Smith.

Ian became my teacher, my mentor. He was the guy I phoned when I was in the cells again. He was incredible to me. I was in and out of the Workshop from age 14 and when I was 16, and ready to really turn my life around, I got back in touch with him. I told him I wasn’t into crime any more and I’d cleaned up my act, having been part of the rave scene. He put me back into the Workshop, got me to auditions, and I started to get proper speaking parts. I owe so much to those two teachers. 

1993: The year Samantha turns 16

  • Cult leader David Koresh is among 77 killed at Waco
  • The Queen opens up Buckingham Palace to the public for £8 a visit
  • Jurassic Park is released

If I hadn’t found drama I still believe I’d have had an amazing life. It would probably have been in socialist politics or activism but I always had a feeling I was going to be alright. I was bright and determined. By 16 I had found an inner strength, I felt I’d sorted myself by then, I’d found a calm. People have a misconception about kids in care. They assume they have no love in their life. The state were no help to me but I did feel love and support by certain individuals who were trying to do their best for me. So I always had hope. That’s what the film I made, The Unloved, was all about.

If I could go back in time and really impress the 16-year-old Sam I’d tell her about the family she’s going to have. Not the movies, the Oscar nominations – that world would seem shallow to young Sam. But she would be so excited to think that one day she’d have a family that she loved and loved her in return.

It was bloody hard work being a mum. And it was scary.

If I really wanted to show her a great achievement I’d show her Esme, my first child. It was bloody hard work being a mum. And it was scary. Having had 12 foster parents I didn’t have any reference points for that consistent kind of family. But I loved it from the start. I have three children and I’m proud of all of them and I feel dead lucky.  

When I had a daughter I didn’t feel sad for my younger self. What I felt was angry at the lack of support for my mother when she was suffering. She was in a very abusive marriage and when she tried to find help with her children everybody turned her away. And she didn’t know who to go to when she was running away. Now I think, God if I could go back and grab my mum and say, right Pam, this is what you need to do. Here are the agencies who can help. 

Read more ‘Letters To My Younger Self’ here

I think I’ve had some real close shaves. As a young unaccompanied actress going to auditions with strange people in strange places, being asked to do things that were not in the script but not feeling able to say no. I remember when I was in Band of Gold [the ITV series from the mid-Nineties), there was a scene a particular director wanted me to do topless, though that wasn’t in the script. I was 16 years old. Sixteen! And I was having a sex scene with a man in his sixties. I was sobbing in the trailer and it was all, ‘Sam’s being tricky…’ I didn’t understand that I had a right to say I didn’t feel comfortable. I felt I was from the streets and I’d won the lottery even being in the show, rather than feeling I had earned the right to be there. Some of the male directors working in TV drama in the Nineties were delicate and kind. And some were bullies and brutal. 

Once I started making films in America I’d started speaking out about the industry and lots of people just didn’t employ me. If, for instance, I saw crew being overworked, not being properly paid, having accidents because they’re so tired, I’d speak up against it. And lots of people don’t like that, they don’t like trouble causers. And there are plenty of people who are media trained and they go to work and they’re just not themselves. They put on a smile and they play the game. But if you grow up in the care system then work in the film industry, which is basically an old boys’ club… it used to put my back up quite a lot. 

I sometimes get very tired looking back at a life which was once… I feel like I lived 100 lives before I was 16. Now I don’t like big drama in my life, I like it to be smooth. So for me the good thing that come with age is peace inside. But with that peace is the fear of mortality. I think, I’m 41. If I’m lucky I might get to 80. Oh… I’ve done half my life.

I do for various reasons live each day as if it were my last. Which can be very intense. But I try to be in the moment as much as possible. I think I’m still very ambitious as I feel as an actress I get better as I get older. So I’m hungry for the big parts. But in my private life, I want to relax and enjoy it. I know what makes me happy now. And I feel lucky.

Samantha Morton stars in Harlots Season Two, available on STARZ Play from February 14