Please don’t typecast me.
EMILY Watson is not the sort of actor a director turns to for light relief.
The mild-mannered 44-year-old has specialised in characters who find themselves in extreme situations ever since her Oscar-nominated film debut in Lars von Trier’s rugged romantic drama, Breaking The Waves.
In her latest project, Oranges and Sunshine, Watson ( pictured, and above with co-star David Wenham) assumes the burden of playing Margaret Humphreys, the Nottingham social worker who stumbled upon a scandal involving the forced migration of British children to Australia, where they were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Also, she has just finished shooting Appropriate Adult, a telemovie about the Yorkshire ripper co-starring Dominic West.
‘‘ I’m not going after those roles at all,’’ sighs Watson with what sounds remarkably like resignation.
‘‘ I keep asking my agent, ‘ Can we have a comedy?’ It’s just the way it works out, I guess. People think of me doing that kind of role and they ask for me. It’s never a bit of light entertainment for Emily Watson.’’
Even when she did manage to score a role in an Adam Sandler movie ( Punch-Drunk Love ), it was the one in which the multiplex-friendly comedian played completely against type.
‘‘ Once you have done it once – and my first film was Breaking the Waves and that’s about as extreme as it gets – people put you in that category. When they are looking for somebody to go to extremes, I am on that list.’’
But while Watson bared her soul in von Trier’s boundary-testing love story between a naive young woman from a remote Calvinist community in Scotland and a Scandinavian oil rig worker who is paralysed in an accident, she finds herself less and less willing to go to those lengths as she gets older.
Motherhood, in particular, has radically altered her priorities.
‘‘ How many weeks? How much? Where is it shooting? Those are my first questions. And then, I think, ‘ OK, I’ll read it’,’’ she says.
Since Oranges and Sunshine involved Watson travelling to Adelaide with her family, she viewed the project as an exceptional one – especially given her earlier visit to Australia to shoot the Nick Cave-written western The Proposition in Queensland.
‘‘ That was a wonderful triumph of survival as far as I was concerned. It was really, really brutal – especially for a pale English girl like me,’’ she says.
Watson describes Oranges And Sunshine as ‘‘ an incredibly compelling, has-to-be-told story about these people who were ditched by their country of birth at a tender age and sent to the most appalling life’’.
She believes there’s something special about her character, too.
‘‘ She had a particular combination of characteristics which meant she couldn’t say no. She found herself faced with hundreds and hundreds of desperate people begging for her help and there was nobody else. What could she do?’’
According to Watson, social workers generally get a bad rap on screen – if they feature at all.
‘‘ If you do see social workers, they are usually taking kids away from their families. Or you don’t really see their stories often at all.’’
Watson’s faith in director Jim Loach, son of veteran English filmmaker Ken, was another reason she signed up for the role.
‘‘ Because you are dealing with children being separated from their mothers and sexual abuse, it could easily have become mawkish or prurient. Jim has trodden a very careful and understated path through that,’’ she says.
In keeping with that understated sensibility, Oranges and Sunshine chooses to present Humphreys as an ordinary woman who triumphs through extraordinary doggedness and stoicism.
‘‘ She’s not Erin Brockovich. She doesn’t get her day in court. There’s not a great, tub-thumping victory and that’s part of the point of it, really,’’ Watson says. ‘‘ However great it was to be able to unravel this story, those people will never get their lives back.’’ ORANGES AND SUNSHINE Now showing State and Village cinemas