People keep telling Emily Watson that she’s so different from her character in Breaking the Waves. They mean this as praise, but to Watson they’re merely stating a fact. ”Well, it’s acting,” she laughs, shrugging off a stunning debut with characteristic modesty. But this isn’t just any old acting. As Bess, the childlike saint/sinner who debases herself sexually to prove her faith and save her crippled husband, Watson is innocence personified — albeit with regular blasts of naked, messy passion that seem even more impressive once you’ve met this quiet English scholar who refined her acting technique with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
”It’s incredible how fast she took to the part,” says Stellan Skarsgard, who plays the husband. ”She didn’t try to be ‘professional’ or ‘skillful’ or any of those stupid things people do to be impressive. It was more like she stripped away all the things civilization plants on you, and went back and became a child — with all of a child’s naïveté and directness.”
Watson, 29, deflects much of the credit to Lars von Trier, ”the mad, wonderful, genius director who inspired incredible loyalty from everyone on the set. Having never done a film before, I needed to be able to put all my trust in him — to just let go and jump in.”
Which she did, without a safety net, from her awkward and intimate lovemaking scenes with Skarsgard to Bess’ humiliating transformation into holy whore to a death-defying scene in which an abandoned Bess stands screaming on a stormy quay, all but engulfed by the angry sea. ”That was a bit scary,” Watson says. ”It was actually more dangerous than it looks on film. I had enormous waves crashing over my head, and this little rope tied around my waist. If I had fallen in, the guy holding the other end would have gone in as well. I was quite enjoying myself, but everyone else thought, ‘We’re never going to see her again.”’
That we’re seeing her at all in Waves is due only to a twist of show business fate. The role originally belonged to Helena Bonham Carter — but she reportedly had second thoughts about baring so much of herself on screen and backed out of the project, leaving von Trier without a leading lady. Enter Watson, who showed up at the Copenhagen audition with only a few Royal National Theater roles and one BBC telefilm on her résumé. One quick screen test later, she’d landed her ”once in a lifetime” role.
”Some British newspapers have already decided that I’ll never do anything this good again,” she laughs. Still, the future for this daughter of a London architect and a teacher looks promising. She has already finished her third film, based on George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, and she’s about to begin Metroland, costarring Christian Bale. There has also been some Hollywood interest, although Watson is doubtful. ”I don’t fit into any of the obvious brackets,” she says, neither bragging nor complaining.
”This is a bad profession to have ambitions in,” she adds. ”There are so many opportunities for disappointment.” But just in case, let it be known that her favorite directors are those maverick independents Robert Altman, Woody Allen, and Quentin Tarantino.