The Sisterhood’ Star Loves The Camera – Deadline


“There’s a lot of work around, I’ve been busy,” Emily Watson declared, brightly, over tea and crumbly biscuits at The Union, a private club in central London, as she chatted with Deadline about why she loves working in front of the camera.

She indeed has been busy. Hot on the heels of her extraordinarily compelling portrait in God’s Creatures, playing an Irish Catholic woman who has an obsessional bond with her wayward son (Paul Mescal of (Normal People and Aftersun), Watson has taken on a slate of roles including HBO Max and Legendary Television’s prestige project Dune: The Sisterhood, leading the cast with Shirley Henderson (Harry Potter), playing sisters Vanya and Tula Harkonnen, respectively. Both siblings have secured power in the Sisterhood. The series serves as a prequel to the Dune film versions created from Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 story of the planet Arrakis. Shooting will get underway in Hungary next month.

Dune: The Sisterhood is based on a trilogy of novels entitled Sisterhood of Dune that go deep into the past of the Dune universe. They’re written by Brian Herbert, Frank’s son, and Kevin J. Anderson.

After Dune: The Sisterhood, Watson will star with David Tennant in psychological thriller Quicksand, followed by Late in Summer, a cherished project set in Cornwall, England, as World War II draws to an end about a romance between a farmer’s wife and a Black American GI, played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (His Dark Materials).

Watson said that she has been on the right side of the moment regarding “the proliferation of streaming, and all this happens because people know that women want to see stories about themselves. … That’s a marketplace thing, apart from anything else, ” she told Deadline.

But roles for female actors aren’t always meaty and dangerous. Hers are. Watson mentions her two children and how, often when they watch films and TV dramas, they see an actress and go, ”Is there something wrong with her? Does she speak?” “They say that because often the leading actress doesn’t have anything to say, doesn’t have any lines.”

Shows like The Sopranos helped hasten a change, she said. “That kind of led to a revolution in television, and I think it’s probably spawned a lot of crap as well. But for the last decade there’s been a lot of work around, but it used to be — well, it was very wobbly for actresses. There’s a lot of work around. I’ve been busy,” she declared.

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“Yes, it’s an amazing role. And roles in film a like [God’s Creatures] don’t come around that often,” she said. “They really don’t.”

God’s Creatures, based on a story by Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly and Shane Crowley, with a screenplay by Crowley, stars Watson as Aileen O’Hara. Set in a close-knit Irish fishing community, similar in parts to the one O’Reilly and Crowley grew up in, the film focuses on Aileen, manager of a seafood plant. The daily drudgery of gutting fish is enlivened with fag breaks where village gossip is shared with the women who work alongside her. Family and religion are the prime topics of their break-time conversations, though they turn darker as the film progresses. Directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer, who both worked on The Fits, guide their shots on Watson’s face, which is like a map of Aileen’s world. Zeroing in on Watson’s eyes, an audience gathers all it needs to know about this fisherwoman.

Aileen’s face brightens when son Brian returns from Australia; he’d clean disappeared from her life years before. “She’s kind of been in love with her son from the moment he was born,” Watson said. “She’s completely obsessed with him.”

Mother and son embrace in a babble of lyrical small talk, but what they really want to say remains suppressed. Aileen knows that something went on with Brian whilst in Australia, but it’s never fully perused because she’s just so happy to have her lad back. “He’s the apple of her eye. When he comes back she gets younger,” said Watson. It’s true, too. The actress’ face-shifting dexterity in those early scenes is a measure of her surefooted thespian gifts. ”Yes, it’s an amazing role. And roles in film like this don’t come around that often, they really don’t,” Watson said with a hint of sadness.

She credits Davis and Holmer for allowing cinematographer Chayse Irvin’s cameras, at certain moments, to just keep rolling at times “where you don’t expect or anticipate how you’re going to feel,” she said. “It was a little bit like how I always want directors to be with small children: Just be with them and roll the cameras and let them do what they do. There were moments where it felt like that. It was that gentleness in allowing you to be in things.

“But also, that’s the lifetime of having being in front of the camera and just being that relaxed. It sounds very egotistical but being in front of a camera for me is a level of honesty that you don’t have in life.

“To me,” Watson told Deadline, “a camera is like a confessional, in a way. There’s something very liberating about it and that’s just because I’m lucky enough to have spent a lot of time doing that kind of work. ”

From early on, she noted, “when I did that first film [Breaking the Waves] with Lars von Trier, the camera was like a character in the scene, it was just there with us and it was looking at us, inquiring with us into what we were doing, and it made me very comfortable with [the camera]. You can see that with some actors over time, they just get better and better. It’s like being in a room with a friend that you don’t have to worry about, you know. It’s not always like that, but it can be. It was in this [God’s Creatures]. ”

Watson’s clearly happy about reactions to her performance in God’s Creatures, and about filming Dune: The Sisterhood and the other projects. “I tell you, I’ve been around forever, as you know, and I’ve done a lot, all different things, and I felt like I kind of hadn’t occupied this kind of territory in a while, particularly not in film,” she said. “I just really care about [the film]. Particularly, I think, because we were in in Donegal for nine weeks straight. Because of Covid, I couldn’t go home. It’s the longest I’ve been away from my family. I’m usually only two weeks away, so it was incredibly intense and we all formed this very tight-knit group.”

Also, lovely, she observed, to be surrounded by “gorgeous actors” like Aisling Franciosi (The Nightingale), Toni O’Rorke (Calm with Horses) and Mescal. “Paul Mescal! Omigod!” Watson exclaimed. “He’s one of those kids where to know him is to love him. He’s so scarily talented, he just sort of turned up fully formed; very, very powerful instincts, really eager to learn, very humble. ”

Watson was equally wowed about working with directors Davis and Holmer, describing them as “two incredibly intellectual, emotionally astute women. Spent a long time with this material and thought about very minute very carefully, and in a way unafraid not to demonstrate things: just let’s put a stone in the water, let it travel and see what happens. Being directed by them is amazing because there wasn’t much noise coming out of them. They were very, very quiet, they’d sit by the camera and we’d do a take … one of them would go to camera, one of them would go to the actors and they’d discuss, and quietly return, it was never the same one. I don’t know how they did it, but the communication was so clear, very simple and very quiet. It was beautiful to watch. They had this Irish crew absolutely eating out of their hands. It was amazing.”

Watson gave kudos to producer O’Reilly for assembling “a team around them [the directors] where everybody was utterly emotionally onboard and sort of sympathetic to the nature of the project …That’s such a skill not to have people who don’t get your way of doing things.” 

Watson has employed the same skills in picking her projects.

DEADLINE: I have a memory from a few years ago of arriving at Heathrow airport, picking up a bunch of newspapers and you’re on the front pages of most of them with headlines going on about sexy romps and getting your kit off in a film or TV drama — what was that? I was shocked, of course.

WATSON: It was Apple Tree Yard. I didn’t get my kit off [laughs]. There was a lot of sauciness. It was quite saucy. The director of that is a really good friend of mine now. Jessica Hobbs … she directs quite a lot of The Crown. She’s fabulous. When we met about the script, we got along like a house on fire. And she said, “The great thing is, I’m four days older than you, so let’s do this story as us, from our point of view.” So, that felt like a really good experience.

I remember when that whole thing came out. I did a photo shoot for a magazine and it came out on my 50th birthday and I looked [she whispers] f*cking fabulous. Do you know that Amy Schumer sketch ‘Last F*ckable Day’ [featuring Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette] about, you know, when the media decides you’re no longer [whispers] f*ckable?

DEADLINE: But there you were… 

WATSON: There I was. Well, that’s also changing a lot also, because a lot of the people telling the stories are going, “This is my living experience, let’s put it on the screen.”

DEADLINE: The headline thing suddenly flashed in my head there. Let’s talk about the directors of God’s Creatures because they sure know how to elicit super performances. Was it all there on the page from the get go?

WATSON: Actually, from the page to the finished film has been streamlined. So they carried on writing after we’d finished and quite a lot of material … less dialogue, just in the edit. The levels of trust required to work together like that and also having a very great depth of understanding of the material, so you know you both think the same way before you even begin. They’d really known what they wanted, but they went about it very quietly so you didn’t feel like you were being told what to do, you were just being so gently led in a direction. It was a beautiful experience.

DEADLINE: An experience that has produced great work…

WATSON: I think we had a unique situation. It felt like we knew we had something special with the script; it felt like an important subject. We know this as actors, we know this ground is really fertile and we’ve a chance to really go for it. We all looked at each other and went, “Let’s really go for it.” And because we were all away from home, in solitary, there weren’t any distractions; obviously I was doing algebra on FaceTime with my kids at the end of the day. That’s one of the really tough things about being an actor at my age [55], and nobody told me when I was 22 that I would be living the rest of my life out of a suitcase.

DEADLINE: I’m fascinated by the mother-and-son relationship in God’s Creatures. My own son, he’s grown-up now, knows he can get certain things out of me, but if he really wants something, he’ll go to his mother, my wife. You know that, too?  

WATSON: It’s so true. It’s exactly the same in my family. Mum cash. “Can you give me some money?” It’s like a bond that’s dangerous.

The film tackles such extraordinary territory. The world of film you and I used to inhabit has gone. All those middle-sized films … really tiny indies, or with the fragility of something like this. … I feel grateful for A24. They seem to have carved out a niche for these kind of films, and they’re cherishing things that are unusual and challenging. That’s amazing.

My kids are very switched on with film and their analysis of the Marvel Universe is: They loved it up to a point and they said, “Now they’re just trying to please everybody, and it’s just fracturing, it’s like too much, you’re not interesting. Shut up. Go away.” I didn’t say that [said with hand across mouth].

DEADLINE: Have you ever been asked to do one?

WATSON: No, I haven’t. It’s a very different life. [Dramatically changes subject.] I’m just remembering when we were in Venice and you were the first person I spoke to when Princess Diana died. It was for Hilary and Jackie. It’s a long time ago and we’re still here.

DEADLINE: Brings me to longevity. Did you think you’d still be here — working?

WATSON: That’s such a difficult question. Of course, you always hope. I think the fact that I’ve always been more of a — ages ago somebody described me as a character actor who gets laid. I think that’s really helped me; that I’ve not been sort of an ingénue. I dunno, you never really know, it’s like every few months you have to reinvent the wheel like, “OK, kids, I’m off … I’ll see you.” You have to keep going and be like a bit of a goldfish [makes a facial expression]. You know it’s going to be OK, and — touch wood — it has been OK.

DEADLINE: The last time I saw you on stage was when you were in the last plays that Sam Mendes directed at the Donmar Warehouse – you were in Twelfth Knight and Uncle Vanya [the ensemble included Helen McCrory, Simon Russell Beale and Mark Strong]. You played London and at BAM in Brooklyn. Do you hope to return to the stage one day?

WATSON: That was the last time. It was great, wasn’t it? And Helen [who died in April 2021]! It seems like yesterday. During the show we were really tight. I was so shocked. I didn’t know she was ill even. Amazing, amazing woman. That was a brilliant experience.

DEADLINE: Was that about 20 years ago?

WATSON: I know, it’s like when anniversary editions of movies I’ve done come out. I go, like: “What! When did that happen?” It’s like when your kids grow up, isn’t it? They could fit on my forearm five minutes ago.

It’s eight shows a week. … That’s the thing about theater, every time I do a job I think, “How long will I be away for?” Also, at the moment, I’m really loving working with the camera.




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