Sally Hawkins breaks down the challenges of portraying mental illness in Eternal Beauty
Sally Hawkins has a fondness for characters that, in her words, "fall in the gaps."
"I'm aligned with people in life that may not be noticed or are generally stigmatized," she tells EW. "Those stories are always more interesting. Every single person has a voice. Whether it's somebody who's not sorted out or is part of a section of society that is not necessarily treated with compassion. Spinning that on its head and seeing them with love -- as soon as we open our hearts and our minds, then we can begin to change."
Hawkins has earned Oscar nominations for her portrayal of two such people, the eternally optimistic Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky and mute cleaner Elisa in The Shape of Water. She's adding another such figure to her resume with Jane, the schizophrenic woman at the heart of Eternal Beauty, which debuted in limited release and VOD on Oct. 2.
The film, written and directed by Craig Roberts (Just Jim), follows Jane through a slice of her life, as she navigates the challenges of her mental illness. Things are thrown into upheaval when she strikes up a romance with Mike (David Thewlis), a musician and fellow lost soul.
In advance of the film's release, we called up Hawkins to discuss everything from her affinity for playing wounded characters in the midst of eccentric romances to how she fought to avoid some of the worst stereotypes of mental illness in media.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What drew you to Jane and this project?
SALLY HAWKINS: She's totally unique. Craig Roberts happens to be a dear friend of mine, and he happens to be insanely talented, so I was just honored to be asked in the first place. It's somebody basically handing you your baby and something that is very precious to his heart. He wrote this beautiful script that is based on somebody he knows. He approached me years before we actually got to do it. But that was just a gift really. You always want more time. Because of the subject matter itself, it's quite sensitive. We share references. Because we're friends we have a similar taste in film and music and humor. Because of his understanding of the condition, because he has an insight into somebody very close to him, I felt I could trust him and he could trust me.
We have seen mental illness represented in many ways in media, but often schizophrenia is something that is over-exaggerated and misunderstood. Can you tell me how you worked to avoid that in your portrayal?
I did focus on the little bit that I'm doing. You just make sure it's really grounded in reality. She's got a map of the brain, it is like ley lines, they're sort of all over the place in it. But knowing the thread of each single one of those lines and thoughts and where was the root was. You can't ever do enough [research] for me. Every person who has such an issue is unique in the way they experience their world, and what they see and what they're feeling and what they're having to struggle with. Every case will be different. But to read about such people, to look at videos online, to find that firsthand source material is invaluable. You do all that, and then, because it is unique to this experience, this person, this energy, this soul, you almost have to let that go when you're filming and just trust that you've done the work. You have to do it that way because it's all so personal and subjective.
You seem to gravitate toward playing slightly broken people caught in the midst of unusual love stories. Why is that a story or type of role that keeps attracting you?
Stories have an incredible ability to transform people's viewpoints, and I'm always fascinated by that. Everything I do, always feels different and hard, even the seemingly simple characters can be the hardest. All Jane's nerve endings are very on the surface. She's very much like a child and that can be challenging to watch and to play. It never stops; she's unpredictable and that is really exhausting. But that's the same [with people] in life as well.
Jane has what some might deem an invisible illness, though it obviously manifests more visibly than others. You’ve spoken openly about having lupus. How much does something like that factor into telling her story, wanting to get it right, and start a conversation about these things?
Maybe that's why it meant so much to me. People are extraordinary in what they go through. Every single person has something that they're dealing with. And it's all relative. You always pull those things in and you take courage in stories like this. How amazing is she? How amazing is that person? How amazing are you? The fact that you get up, every single day, because you just keep going. And that's what's so wonderful about her. Despite the fact that walls are falling away, literally, and the whole world spins on its axis at a moment's notice, all she does is keep going. She keeps running on. I find her bravery so profoundly inspiring. It's about the human spirit.
It’s very difficult to suss out what is happening in Jane’s head and what’s real. Did you have a firmer grasp of that or is it less important to know because to her it’s all real?
I did chart it, just for me outside of Jane. I wanted to know. When I was in Jane, everything's real. She's not aware of what's not real because that's what she's experiencing. That's what's so frightening. She sees those arms, those limbs in the fridge. She believes that voice on the phone. She sees the past through a hole in the wall. She feels the wall spin, and then suddenly, she's in a dark place. It's a very scary thing. But she just knows that that's what she has to deal with. That's what so's moving about her story. Despite that terror, she's able to have this incredible heart. Ultimately it's all real to her. It's terrifying, but also beautiful. It's on the edge of life. She vibrates by being so alive and so in the moment. She's present tense all the time.