Sally Hawkins shines once again as the unexpected leader of a group of spirited British factory workers who fight for equality. It's way more fun than it sounds!
Back in 1979, a diminutive actress named Sally Field found her inner rally-cry and led her factory-worker colleagues to equality in Norma Rae. Fast-forward 31 years, and we’ve got another unionizing firecracker named Sally to contend with, and she’s a sheer delight.
In Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham, Sally Hawkins (Golden Globe winner for Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky) is Rita O’Grady, a seemingly ordinary woman who works with 186 other women sewing car seats, etc., in the Ford factory in Dagenham, England in 1968. Once the women figure out they have been designated as “unskilled workers,” a label which only affords them half the pay of their male counterparts who actually build the cars, they decide to fight back. At the start, Rita is a quiet and unassuming wife and mother, but her sense of justice transforms her into a leader—one who organizes a strike, meets with government ministers, and inspires camaraderie wherever she goes.
In a recent roundtable interview, scheduled in between her Broadway performances in Mrs. Warren’s Profession (in which she stars with Cherry Jones), Hawkins discussed finding her character, following in Sally Field’s footsteps (all the way to the Oscars, perhaps?), and her advice for “ordinary” young girls everywhere.
Q: Tell us about your character, Rita O’Grady. How did you create her?
Sally Hawkins: Rita is an amalgamation of several women. I had a lot of material at my fingertips and [I wanted to make] sure I knew everything I could know… but then [I had to let it go] because my character didn’t know; it hit her as the story unfolded. I went to Dagenham and met three of the women who were all still living in Dagenham, because it always gives you a bit of a hook to work from.
[They] were all still friends. And I don’t know why that surprised me, but it did. These women were still very much involved together, and that’s what I really got from them—that that friendship was actually what gave them that strength throughout the 20 years that this fight evolved. This fight spanned 20 years, more or less, and there were several women at several points in different years who took that battle and ran with it.
Q: Rita is an ordinary woman but Bob Hoskins’ character, who is really a closet feminist here, says to her, “I knew we needed somebody who could inspire them.” How did you approach this woman who is such an ordinary woman but yet can step up to the plate and be so courageous and smart?
Sally Hawkins: She’s a very ordinary woman but she is also very practical, and has to be, and she’s very down to earth and she deals with what she has to deal with in the moment, and it just hits her and she has to learn very fast. She unearths this intelligence—she’s not really aware of her strength or that she has this ability until she’s doing it, and until she’s talking to those men and having to hold her own…
I think she’s chosen because perhaps she isn’t extraordinary, but because she does blend in, and if you look at Rita in that crowd she’s probably somebody who wouldn’t make a fuss or speak out—and suddenly she does. I think we all have those moments in our lives.
Q: The theme of the movie is really basic rights, isn’t it?
Sally Hawkins: Totally, absolutely. And I think we’ve all experienced discrimination and power struggles in our personal lives or in our working lives. We come across it to a greater or lesser extent, every day. And relationships, that’s the balance of relationships and the balance of power, whether you’re male or female. It’s about being human, and respect, and that just taps into something in us all. And I think that’s why it’s so important, and I loved playing this role.
Q: What did the real women think of the film? We’re they just delighted?
Sally Hawkins: I think so. There have been several screenings, a few of them came to [the Rome Film Festival, where the film was called We Want Sex(!)], and from speaking to the producers of the film who developed this film from its early stages, [I understand] the women were delighted.
Q: What fun for them.
Sally Hawkins: Yes, you hope. And that’s the ultimate compliment.
I think we can think of women in our own lives, whether they’re our mothers or grandmothers or friends or just people who’ve been huge inspirations to us. And I think it is usually the ones you don’t know about that have that great influence on us, and are the ones that give you that push and that step up into the right direction; I think we can all relate to women like that. And what is lovely is that now, this relatively small story—although it had a huge global impact at the time—is being told. Because I think when you can relate it to very “normal” women, you realize that you can actually have an influence and that it is important to speak up when you need to speak up.
Q: Did they come to you with this role or did you campaign for it when you heard about it?
Sally Hawkins: No I was very lucky. It just landed like a gift from the skies. I got a letter from [the producers] and a very early draft of the script. This was after the filming of Happy-Go-Lucky and before I had won the Golden Globe. I received this beautiful letter… introducing themselves and the film and Rita and her story. And I didn’t have to read much of this letter to know I wanted to do it. I didn’t know about these women, and I’m ashamed to say not many people do from my generation, and I think that’s why stories like this are so inspiring when they exist in reality. And I just thought, well, I’d be an idiot not to do this film!
Q: Can you talk about the atmosphere on the set? It just looks like you were having so much fun. And so much of the charm of the movie was that great group of women.
Sally Hawkins: I remember at one point when we were filming—again another one of those industries which has been influenced and ruled by men—and to then look around at these extraordinary group of women when filming at one point, it did really move me and I felt really proud. And I think a couple of years ago, that might not, sadly, have been the case, especially with a film that has garnered so much interest. It’s a female-led film and it’s about female issues, but actually when you pick away at it, it’s about human issues. It just happens to be about this collection of women.
Q: Have you talked to Sally Field at all about Norma Rae? The other Sally in a factory…
Sally Hawkins: No actually, a friend of mine said when they read the script, “Have you seen Norma Rae?” They sent me the film, which I didn’t open and didn’t watch because I didn’t want to until after all the post-production. I just came across it when I was moving and then didn’t stop watching it and there were floods of tears. And I was like, “Oh my God, this is too similar!”
Q: That factory location had to inform you too. That was one dilapidated looking place.
Sally Hawkins: Interestingly, [the set] was a Hoover factory, and it was in Wales. And it went through a similar thing that the Ford Factory in Dagenham did. It’s in deepest, darkest Wales, this beautiful 1920s building, and it’s now not being used. A lot of the supporting artists in the film and in the factory were actually working in the factory, but they’re now redundant and it’s having a huge impact on the local industry and the local community there.
Q: Did you learn how to sew for this?
Sally Hawkins: I did, yes, and I wanted to do it. As soon as I heard I was given this role and I knew we had the money, I got this very old machine, as close to an industry machine as possible, and I’ve still got it. It’s this beautiful Bernina machine. I’m not very good. But I’ve done a very basic skirt, which I still need to hem. I just thought I should know how to sew. It’s a great skill.
Q: What do you look for now that you’re famous—after winning the Golden Globe—and are able to choose roles more carefully?
Sally Hawkins: Of course, more people know who you are and that’s great, but in terms of my career… I mean, lots of people said “You must be inundated with scripts,” but there are only so many really well-written scripts and brilliant projects in the world at one point. If it’s a good script and it’s got great people you want to work with, that’s great. But I don’t see how you can plan, because it can change every week. So for example, I don’t really know what I’m doing after Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
Q: You used to contribute some writing at BBC Comedy. Did you use any improv elements while working with Nigel Cole on this film?
Sally Hawkins: Yes, there was a bit and I always love doing that. I mean, Mike Leigh has a very particular way of working in his films, and you can’t really transpose that onto other films. You’d really be working in this isolated bubble if you did, which is not really the point. But if other actors want to work in that way, it’s always really useful to leap-frog you into a scene or to make it seamless as much as it can be so that the script merges with character and it doesn’t become “script.”
I love working in that way because, for me, it gives it a richness and you forget where the script is. It’s always quite frightening when you see the script on the page and you want to lift it to life; improv always helps, and Nigel was very open to that.
Q: Can you think of a scene in the movie where improv was used?
Sally Hawkins: Definitely in the factory with the girls. It was a lot of fun and in order to get that fun we had to play around. And especially with Danny [Daniel Mays], because we worked together with Mike [Leigh], so you have that relationship where you have that ease where you can improvise. And Danny loves working that way. Early on in the film there’s a scene when we’re drunk and we’re dancing, and we were playing around in that scene and we fell over and that just happened in the play of it. And when you’ve got someone you completely trust, it’s lovely. When I watch a film or theater I love to see that spontaneity, because that’s when it really sings to you and that’s really when it’s seamless and real.
Q: Any parting advice for young girls?
Sally Hawkins: Well, there’s too much to sum up in a soundbite, but go see the film! And listen to your mums. That’s pretty key, and I think that’s a big one actually. And also just make sure you keep talking and keep thinking and discussing. These things don’t go away and there are always fights to be fought. Even if it’s in a relatively small way in your world, you can make a difference, a huge difference. That’s what I got from these women.