One day my body went ‘I can’t cope with this’. I was physically sick

Emily Watson is like one of those T-shirts emblazoned with the George Orwell-inspired slogan Inside I’m Skinny. In her case, the actor known for her intense performances in confronting films and dramas is in real life a person with a highly attuned sense of humour who longs to be offered a comic role.

Actor Emily Watson at the 63rd San Sebastian Film Festival in 2015.Credit:Juan Naharro Gimenez

Asked to nominate a comedy that tickles her, she picks the 2011 American film Bridesmaids written by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig: “It was revelatory because of that whole thing of women just being really funny and doing the thing that men have always done of grossing out. I love that gang of actresses, like Melissa McCarthy − she’s just so funny. I couldn’t do what she does in a million years.”

How do you know? “Well, you do never know and there is some lighter fare in the pipeline for me, fingers crossed.”

In the meantime, there is Too Close, a three-part psychological thriller adapted by author and actor Clara Salaman from her own novel (published under the pseudonym, Natalie Daniels). Watson plays forensic psychiatrist Dr Emma Robertson and her patient is Connie Mortenson (Denise Gough who won a brace of awards for her acclaimed portrayal of an addict in Duncan Macmillan’s play People, Places and Things).

Connie has committed a terrible crime but claims she cannot remember a thing about it. Emma is the psychiatrist who is called on to deal with the cases no one else has been able to crack and is assessing the patient’s truthfulness and fitness for trial. However, Dr Robertson is dealing with her own trauma and has ignored that ancient proverb “Physician, heal thyself”, making herself dangerously vulnerable to Connie’s manipulation.

Emily Watson plays psychiatrist Dr Emma Robertson in Too Close.

When we meet Connie in the psychiatric hospital, her face is bruised, hair shorn in wayward clumps and her eyes are wild; more creature than human shuffling around the room in crab-like movements. But flashbacks show her to be the archetypal vintage-dress-and-cardi yummy-mummy, living in a beautiful home, seemingly without a care other than some fault lines that start to appear, including pills taken for depression.

Watson has never had to visit anyone in a forensic psychiatric hospital where offenders with mental health problems are treated and assessed (albeit the vast majority of serving prisoners also have mental health issues). She did have access, however, to a forensic psychiatrist who spoke to her, ” generously and freely about what her job entailed, how she approached it, how she lived her life and kept the two things separate. She was obviously a very mentally healthy person and robust in a way that the character I play isn’t”.

It is easy from the first episode to be pulled into the dark undertow of the drama but how realistic is it that someone who has reached the professional heights of Dr Robertson would allow her psyche to be played upon in such a way?

“The answer lies further down in the story really,” the actor says.” It takes maybe 15 years to get to that level of experience and expertise but … she has survived an incident in her own life [it is intimated in the opening scenes that something has happened to her child] and at the centre of that event is a secret she has never dealt with, leaving her with an oppressive guilt. She knows that it has to come out and it’s like Connie is witnessing and probing all these little earthquakes and you sense that there is going to be a moment when it goes off and Emma cracks.”

Prison interviews: Emily Watson (Dr Emma Robertson) and Denise Gough (Connie Mortensen) in Too Close.

The issue of mental health has been brought dramatically to centre stage in recent months, with its reminder that no one is immune to losing their grip. Watson is keen to emphasise that even people who may be characterised as monsters “are not bad people. What’s profound about this piece is that this could happen, really, to anybody − if the circumstances are right and things conspire to send us in a direction. Connie and Emma in another life would have been great friends. What I love about this story is that it’s two women who are emotionally very similar mirroring each other’s unfolding.”

Watson has had close members of her own family struggle with depression and is concerned that the complexity of mental illness tends to be treated with the one-stop easy fix of prescription drugs that can seem like: “Diagnose your patient according to how much profit we [the pharmaceutical companies] are going to make when what it should take is an incredible amount of time, effort, patience and understanding of trauma and that really just isn’t there.”

The plasticity of one character merging into another is something Watson knows a little about; on occasion, she has become “too close” herself, as it were, to the person she is playing. When you consider the roll call of her roles, and the emotional demands of the stories, it is perhaps not surprising they can sometimes take their toll.

Her breakthrough part − after years with the Royal Shakespeare Company − where she was suddenly catapulted into fame, nominated for an Oscar and Hollywood came calling (but Watson decided she wasn’t in) was in controversial director Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves in 1996. She plays a young woman living in a remote Scottish community who has sex with men at the request of her husband, who has been immobilised in an accident, and later pays the ultimate sacrifice with her life.

Emily Watson in her breakthrough role in Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves,

In 1998, Watson was nominated for an Oscar again for her role as Jacqueline du Pre in Hilary and Jackie. Other stand-out roles and dramas include: Chernobyl; Appropriate Adult where she played the volunteer Janet Leach (for which she received a Bafta award) who sat in the police interviews with serial killer Fred West; Apple Tree Yard as another respectable professional, a scientist, who goes off the rails after embarking on an affair (sparked by sex in a former broom cupboard at the House of Commons after giving a presentation), and A Song for Jenny, the BBC drama about the 7/7 bombings, in which she played the vicar Juliet Nicolson’s struggle to come to terms with the death of her 24-year-old daughter who was killed by a suicide bomber on a tube train at Edgware Road.

It was this project that threatened momentarily to unmoor Watson. At its screening in 2015, which marked the 10th anniversary of the bombings, Watson wept on stage. Our expectations of sealed objectivity, be it of a psychiatrist or an actor, can be challenged when a person’s fragile humanity erupts through the professional veneer. Watson has been open about seeking professional help to recover from immersing herself in Juliet Nicolson’s turmoil.

How typical was that for you? “That experience was actually very extreme because of the experience of that woman,” Watson says. “She shared with me very intimately what her journey had been in the loss of her daughter and that she felt it was her duty to go through every single detail of the path that her daughter took to the moment of her death; to live it and breathe it and discover it and look at it in all its awful detail. It was almost as though she went to the very edge of life and looked into the abyss. Her eloquence and her intelligence really affected me.

“There was one day when my body went ‘I can’t cope with this’. I was physically sick and it was because it was real, very real. We were at Edgware Road tube station and people were there who had been there on the day it happened and that was quite extreme. My Dad had also died around that time so I think I just got into a bit of a mess. But I didn’t actually lose anybody in a terrorist attack. It’s not for me − real. You’re here and you move on and to claim trauma from that is a bit …” her voice trails away, “it’s just a process that as an actor you put yourself through and you tread the neural pathways experiencing that.”

It was almost as though she went to the very edge of life and looked into the abyss. Her eloquence and her intelligence really affected me.

What is likeable about Watson is that while she treats her craft with the utmost seriousness − underlined by her willingness to submerge herself into her characters “so that it can be hard to differentiate between them and me” − she seems not to take herself too seriously. Talking on Zoom in a bland room in a city in Western Europe where she is making a film (but unable to offer any details), she appears make-up-free behind her spectacles and is engaged, thoughtful, alert and interested. Also, funny.

Emily Watson in the mini-series Chernobyl with Stellan Skarsgard and Jared Harris.

When Amelie was created for her (the film that made a star of Audrey Tatou), her reason for turning it down was that she didn’t speak French and just had “an instinctive feeling that I would make an utter tit of myself”. She went to Hollywood with her agent, to discuss mouthwateringly well-paid roles but, again, declined. Part of the reason, in both instances, was not wanting to be away from her family; she and her husband Jack Waters met at the RSC, married in 1995 and live in Greenwich, London with their two children, Juliet (15), Dylan (12), and a beagle. Waters is a potter and holds the home together when his wife is filming. If she had her time over again, the actor says she would have gone to art school.

Emily Watson at the 68th Berlinale International Film Festival in 2018.Credit:Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

There were other things at play, however, that contributed to her sense of ill-ease in Hollywood: “I had an overwhelming sense that I could get lost,” she says. “I was fearful of the whole set-up there. I didn’t want to get sucked into it and I just felt that I had to hang on to my integrity because that would make me survive.”

This was when independent filmmaking was on the ascendant and Harvey Weinstein was king. She never experienced the criminal behavior that we know about now but “you always heard stories that he would be very disrespectful and controlling with directors, like the films were his property. He didn’t care about anybody and you could sense there were unhealthy power relations around. It just didn’t smell right.”

Surviving her upbringing in what she refers to as “The Organisation” had its uses in that Watson developed a psychological radar that helped her see through undesirable elements in Hollywood. “Because of where I was brought up, I had an intense bullshit detector that was just like an alarm bell going off: ‘Not safe! Not safe! Not safe! Just be really careful here; pick through this very carefully.’”

She was born into what its critics have called a cult − a quasi-spiritual-philosophical set-up named The School of Economic Science, founded in 1937, with a guru and influences from Hinduism to Gurdjieff. In 2020, nearly £1 million in compensation was paid to at least 45 former students at St James in South Kensington (attended by both Emily Watson and Clara Salaman, who have been friends since they were toddlers) after an inquiry found that pupils had been subjected to “criminal levels” of violence over two decades from the 1970s.

Watson describes the school as “quite strange and weird and a bit damaging, to be honest”. Damaging to you? ” Um not so much to me as to other people. In some people’s lives it has had a very long-reaching trauma.” Knowing that she grew up in Islington along with her older sister, Harriet, I wondered whether their late parents − Richard, an architect; Katherine, a teacher − were the sort of left-liberal arts folk who had wanted to explore the self-enlightenment courses that were so fashionable in the late ’70s and early ’80s?

Watson describes the school as ‘quite strange and weird and a bit damaging, to be honest. Um, not so much to me as to other people’.

“No, no” Watson says firmly. ” They were much less knowing than that. People like that will drift in and also drift out again but it preys on more vulnerable people who have a need to belong somewhere. For my Dad, and possibly my Mum, as well, it gave a sense of validation and an intense sense of meaning and purpose.

“But my experience was that I was born into it and it took me a very long time until I got to the point that I could stand back and see it.”

This wasn’t until Watson had reached the age of 28 and accepted the part of poor Bess McNeill in Breaking the Waves. “Yes, that was when they told me to go on my ‘undignified way’,” she says. Because there was a particular way women should be? “And that wasn’t it. Definitely. The outlook of the place was intensely misogynistic in many, many ways and a lot of the damage, I think, comes from that.”

A middle-aged woman in the grip of a fierce sexual momentum: Emily Watson in Apple Tree Yard

She has talked about being “this character actress who gets laid” but as she aged, the bed scenes stopped until Apple Tree Yard came her way with its depiction of a middle-aged woman in the grip of a fierce sexual momentum, which Watson applauded. There is an increasing awareness and discussion of the potentially empowering aspects of perimenopause as well as menopause. Has she experienced this herself? “Yesss,” she exhales. “I’m sure it’s a hormonal thing but also that you’ve reached that point in your life where you’ve answered a lot of the questions and you feel your authentic self in a way that maybe you haven’t in earlier decades. And part of that is being connected to your body and feeling sexual.”

How do you feel about ageing? “Well, it’s very stark when you’re an actress because you see yourself on screen and you go Oh My God!“. She bursts out laughing. “Between projects, you know, you go ‘Wow! It’s really happening!’ So you have to be very philosophical about that. It’s quite healthy in a way.”

I ask her to describe what the kitchen would look like if she had been Zooming from home: “Cluttered!” Another big laugh. “There’s our beagle in it and the dining room and kitchen are all in one room, with always three or four things happening at any one time: somebody’s on X-box, somebody is cooking, the dog is calling for his dinner, the radio’s on, the football’s on − it’s the crucible of family chaos.”

Watson and Waters have recently introduced their children to the joys of vinyl records “the Oxfam online vinyl collection is pretty amazing. When we first bought it, the kids kept leaning over and saying ‘What is this magic thing?’ You know, in the way that we would marvel over a phone or something”.

She smiles as though unable to prevent herself laughing at a punchline yet to be delivered: “My daughter was at home by herself and she had bought a copy of I think we’re alone now [the ′80s version by Tiffany] in a thrift store as a vintage piece of weirdness.

“The record player was there and we talked her through putting it on over the phone and she said, ‘Oh Mum, it’s just some old guy [Watson imitates her singing very low and slow as though drawling underwater] going ‘Iiiiii thinnnnk we’rreee aloooo —–nne nowwwww’ and she had put it on at the wrong speed, which is absolutely priceless!”

Too Close premieres on BBC First on Foxtel and Fetch from June 20 at 8.30pm

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