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Seven minutes with the powerhouse that is Emily Watson
Image / Living / Culture

A24

Seven minutes with the powerhouse that is Emily Watson


by Sarah Gill
24th Mar 2023

In honour of the highly anticipated release of God’s Creatures in Irish cinemas, we sat down with Emily Watson to chat about the making of this quietly devastating film, her compulsion to play characters with complex inner worlds, and finding meaning in the spaces between the words.

It’s been close to 30 years since Emily Watson made her grand film industry debut with Breaking the Waves, for which she received a Best Actress nomination at the 69th Academy Awards in 1996. From Angela’s Ashes to Punch-Drunk Love and HBO’s Chernobyl, Watson has been steadily honing her craft to the point of sheer perfection, and her performance in A24’s God’s Creatures is a testament to exactly that.

A truly magnetic presence both on screen and in the flesh, God’s Creatures sees Emily take on the role of a woman caught in her own self-inflicted purgatory, battling grief in a myriad of different iterations. A character whose journey spans from excitement, love, happiness and friendship, before descending into anger, repression, and eventual abdication, the film chronicles just how far a mother’s love can be stretched before it all comes crashing down.

emily watson

Co-starring Paul Mescal and Aisling Franciosi, the story of God’s Creatures centers around a prodigal son’s return, and an allegation of rape that causes a deep seated rift in this dangerously close knit and uncomfortably familiar coastal fishing village. Depth of meaning is communicated through every frame with just a glance, and long stretches of silence are imbued with more emotional significance than these characters could muster up with words.

Emily Watson’s character’s inner world plays out on her face, and the final scenes will absolutely leave you with goosebumps. The recipient of this year’s Volta career achievement award at the Dublin International Film Festival, Emily carved out the time to speak with IMAGE.ie during a recent press junket in The Westbury. Read our interview below…

Your character carries so much emotional weight in this film. Aileen goes from being blinded by the light of her prodigal son to essentially grieving for the person she hoped he would become. What drew you to this character and made you feel compelled to tell this story?

The utter page turning brilliance of the story. It’s like a Greek tragedy. But also reading it, in the first few pages, I was asking myself, who wrote this? I could smell it, it felt so authentic. Obviously, the story is the brainchild of Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly and Shane Crowley, who grew up in a community just like this in Kerry. It just has such a ring of authenticity off of it.

The mother/son bond is so instantly apparent and utterly real from the very beginning. How did you set about creating that connection with Paul?

We had to get stuck in pretty quickly really because everyone was isolated and alone and away from their families for a long time. We just didn’t have any other choice than to just go for it. We had to rehearse on Zoom for a week because we were all in quarantine, and coming out of that isolation and being in a room together was like being sprung from a trap. We immediately got very physical; running around and playing ball. We began to really get into the sense of who these people were, in their bodies. It just felt quite bold.

The film takes on such a universal issue, but approaches it with an emotional specificity and cultural authenticity. From gutting and fileting fish, to the dialect and physical challenges of filming in the sea — what was the experience like immersing yourself in this community and bringing these qualities to your character?

It was absolutely vital and brilliant to have that as a way into this woman, because she’s quite a long way away from who I am. She’s very physical and instinctive, she’s quite animal. To have all that — the water and the blood and guts of the fish and the rhythm of all of that — it really just drew you in.

emily watson

God’s Creatures is like a study in repression. It’s a film that really carries a lot of weight in its silence, communicating a lot in what’s not being said. How did you tap into that ability to genuflect to those pauses? That sense of restraint, is that indicative of how you engaged with the script?

I think I was probably more baffled by the script than everyone else because I’m English. There’s a rhythm to these things that, if you read it, you would feel it more naturally than I would. I had to spend time around the other actors and feel the logic of those silences. It’s almost as if people from that part of the world talk very musically and very fast when they don’t want to talk, and when they’re really engaging with meaning, they’re very quiet. That was my sense of it. People will babble away about shallow nothingness, but if there’s a really serious topic sitting in front of them like a hot potato, people find it very difficult to speak.

Themes of grief, guilt, and being caught in purgatory are central to the film. You’ve spoken about Aileen’s abdication of morality in those final moments with her son — what role does God and religion play in this story?

For me, purgatory was the sense of where my character ends up, because she has destroyed everything by her own actions, and she’ll always live with the pain of that. It’s really heartbreaking, and I still get choked up by it.

I’ve read you say that you think of that climactic scene in the boat, it’s like an abdication of morality — this woman is leaving justice in the hands of a higher power. What role does God and religion play in this film?

Here we have a very tight knit Catholic community that is devoted to the rituals of the church that they go to the blessing of the boats and everyone sings the songs. They go to the wakes and the funerals and what have you, but they close ranks around a rapist. That, to me, is a gaping hole, not just in Catholicism, but in most religions. Where is the teaching about consent? It just doesn’t exist, and a whole moral structure has been built around that.

Emily watson

Lastly, you’ve said that playing troubled characters is something akin to the catharsis of crying, it leaves you feeling different afterwards. What would you say you’ve taken away from your role in God’s Creatures?

In your career, you do lots of things and it’s very episodic and piecemeal and you go to different things and they have different qualities but quite a lot of it is fairly within your comfort zone. And then something like this comes along that takes you to a place that surprises you. I loved being slightly baffled by the script, not being able to understand things and knowing that this was going to be a journey. Then, encountering all these young Irish storytellers and these two beautiful women from New York [Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer] who directed this movie. There’s a new generation who are telling stories in a different way, and perceiving women in a different way, and I just feel really lucky to be there.

’God’s Creatures’ starring Emily Watson, Paul Mescal, and Aisling Franciosi is in cinemas Friday 24 March.

Imagery courtesy of A24.