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Choose Happiness: Happy-Go-Lucky

With Sally Hawkins in a breakthrough role, Mike Leigh shows his sunny side in Happy-Go-Lucky.
Backstory: The Roundtable

As a recent hire at, this was my first “roundtable” event in promotion of a film. Here's a peek behind the curtain at press junkets you don’t see on Access Hollywood.


Last Friday was a designated “press day” for Happy-Go-Lucky, Mike Leigh’s examination of positivity in the complex world of modern-day, middle-class London. The publicity agent invited me to both a Friday morning press screening and a roundtable that afternoon, where I could interview Mike Leigh and his star, Sally Hawkins.


Upon arriving at a chichi midtown hotel, I went to the “hospitality suite” on the 19th floor, as indicated in my confirmation e-mail. I was offered sandwiches, Pellegrino, Terra Chips and sweet little tarts. Nice!


I was then redirected to a conference room on the 2nd floor (I brought my snacks with me), where I met four colleagues, ranging in age from 30s to 60s. They were also from online film publications, and we started to compare notes about that week’s NYFF press screenings.


When our final compadre—about 25 years old—joined us, she said, “Oh, usually I am at these things with people from online publications.” I guess she thought since we weren’t all 20-somethings, we couldn’t possibly be from the brave new world of the Interweb.


We set her straight and dove back into our Wendy and Lucy debate. Put six film writers in a room, give them a title, and this is what will happen: 
“I thought it was lovely.”
“Oh, it was so much more than lovely."
"I lived that life, you know. I was Wendy.”
“I didn’t get it. What am I missing?”
“Cute dog.”
“It’s so not just a movie about a girl losing her dog.”
“What movie are you talking about?”
“Michelle Williams is sublime. Oscar nomination, for sure.”
“The way [director] Kelly Reichardt leaves the camera on Michelle’s face during that night scene in the park? Perfect.” 
“Oh, I didn’t see it yet.”
 “I loved Old Joy [Reichardt’s previous film], too, but, as with that one, I can’t imagine Wendy and Lucy will find an audience.”
“Again, I didn’t get it.”


Our thumbs-up-or-down was cut short by the arrival of a very amiable Mike Leigh, who sat with us for about 30 minutes. During the interview, the A/C kicked into a very loud high gear, and Mr. Leigh tried to remedy the situation. Instead, however, he turned all the lights off and caused a screen to unfurl in front of the window. It was, as he said, “our Marx Brothers moment.”


Mr. Leigh then ceded the table to the film’s star, Sally Hawkins. Because her arm was in a sling, she was immediately greeted with a chorus of “What does the other guy look like?” She beamed, “I broke my collarbone doing my own stunt in a romantic comedy called Happily Ever Afters. Ironically, I was in a wedding dress and heels when I toppled. It was hilarious, and I went on with the take—I knew it had to be good because I heard something crunch and figured I wouldn’t get another chance.” She filled the room with as much exuberance as her character Poppy on her best day.


Despite this being near the end of what must have been an exhausting press week for them, both director and star generously gave us surprisingly intimate insights into the film, their process, and their immense respect for each other.




Stay tuned for more peeks behind the curtain with's Backstory.


Veteran director Mike Leigh is famous for his intense rehearsal process, which can last for six months. During this period, actors create their characters from the ground up—including backstory, family life, clothes, taste in all forms of entertainment, habits, surroundings, etc.—based on Leigh’s initial sketch. The cast is also integral to the development of the story, as not even Leigh knows how the relationships will unfold until the process begins.


In Leigh’s new film, Happy-Go-Lucky, Sally Hawkins plays the irrepressible Poppy, a sunny 30-year-old who—at first glance—appears to be a naïf in rose-colored glasses. As the film progresses, however, we learn that Poppy is instead a pragmatist who is very aware of the plight of both the world and her fellow-citizens. Despite the evidence around her, Poppy chooses happiness, and tries to instill it in others.


Mike Leigh and Sally Hawkins were equally happy to talk with us about their co-creation, which earned Hawkins a Best Actress Award (and Leigh a Best Picture nod) at the Berlin Film Festival.


Tell us about your unusual process.

Mike Leigh: The work I do is only what artists have always done. Starting with a conception or feeling, I assemble artists who are intelligent, generous, creative, committed to making films—never narcissistic—and we see where it goes. All artists embark on a journey and work out their ideas along the way. Painters don’t know what their paintings will look like, writers don’t always know how their novels will end up. This idea that everything has to be on the page before even casting is ridiculous!Leigh and Hawkins

Sally, this is your third film with Mike Leigh [after Vera Drake and All or Nothing]. What is it like to work with him?


Sally Hawkins: It’s a very incredibly intense experience. Every actor ends up doing an incredible amount of work, even if they are only on screen for a fleeting moment. He tells us, “Block yourself out for a whole year,” so whether he’s using you or not, you need to be available. During that time, you do your homework. You research. You create your character. We know incredible details. For example, Poppy reads a lot, but she doesn’t journal. There are just too many important things happening around her, and she’s very busy. I know what is in her purse, I went shopping with the costume designer for her wardrobe, I was very involved in creating the flat she lives in. I know what makes her tick. And Poppy doesn’t eat sugar—it would send her mad from when she was little. [Laughs.] Poppy doesn’t need any more energy!


How did you create Poppy’s very distinct laugh?


SH: It’s hard to say when in the process it appeared. I try not to pay too much attention to what I’m doing, because then I am “being an actor.” One time, Mike told me, “[The laugh’s] not really there yet, is it?” Then weeks later, he pointed out, “It’s there, isn’t it?” And suddenly it was. Shifts are subtle, and you aren’t quite sure when it’s arrived or another thing has disappeared. That’s why we need months—it’s just the time it takes. If I was too aware, I would be afraid it would all unravel.

There is a theory that people have a “set point” for happiness, and that when something happens—a rough patch, death of a loved one, etc.—people have a down period, but eventually return to their set point, or base of happiness. Do you believe that?


ML: I don’t know. Life affects people. Some are more equipped to handle it than others. I don’t think one should assume that, because of the title, Poppy is irresponsibly happy. Instead, she is fulfilled positivity. She wants to get the most out of life, and she does that by dealing with problems in the best way possible. She cares deeply for people, and she helps when she can, but she realizes when she has to walk away.


I also don’t subscribe to the Hollywood notion that a character automatically has to have something wrong with her, or go through some sort of metamorphosis, in a film. In Poppy’s case, she is not the one with the problem. The world has the problem.


Happy-Go-Lucky, which was shown at the New York Film Festival in September, is in limited release.


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