Without a sound, Sally Hawkins swims toward Oscar
Performance in The Shape of Water will likely have her go up against Meryl Streep and Frances McDormand
BEVERLY HILLS — Without making a sound, Sally Hawkins has swum away with critics’ hearts.
The actress stars in “The Shape of Water,” the noir fairy tale from director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”). The amphibious 1960s-set love story charts the tale of a voiceless custodian who discovers a scaly “fishman” trapped inside the dank, secret government laboratory in which she works.
Elisa, whose isolation is bolstered by companionship from her kind, closeted neighbour (Richard Jenkins) and protective work wife (Octavia Spencer), doesn’t merely befriend the chained and tortured creature, or try to communicate with it. She falls head over heels in love with it.
“Elisa is otherworldly,” says Hawkins, 41. “She doesn’t judge. She just recognizes something in there and feels the connection. And that’s all that she’s worried about.”
Del Toro wrote the role for Hawkins, who earned an Oscar nomination playing Cate Blanchett’s stable sister in 2013’s “Blue Jasmine.”
Unlike his last big-budget gothic romance, 2015’s “Crimson Peak,” del Toro kept this rollout in line with his vision this time by cutting costs and making the visually rich Shape of Water for just $19 million.
His fish-man was brought to life by actor Doug Jones, wearing a scaly costume. Only small effects, like the creature’s eyes, were added in postproduction.
This fairy tale goes full tilt. A human/merman love scene was “the most natural thing in the world!” Hawkins swears, laughing.
The director says he wanted to flip the story of Beauty and the Beast “to make the beauty of the tale not a perfect princess but a more real woman in every sense,” he says. “She doesn’t get kidnapped or conditioned to love the character that is keeping her prisoner. She is the engine of liberation.”
In person, Hawkins emits a quick-to-smile fragility, and speaks in a hushed tone. “She is very shy in real life, extremely shy. She keeps herself to herself. And then when she is in front of the camera, she is incredibly brave,” says del Toro.
The British star lives in London, but says she’s contemplating a move outside the city. “I’m desperate to get a garden, which unless you’re a multi, multimillionaire, you can’t afford,” she says.
The actress knows that as sexual harassment allegations arise in Hollywood, questions about Woody Allen will come up, having worked with him on “Blue Jasmine” and 2007’s “Cassandra’s Dream.”
“You take people as they are,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “I just saw someone who is in love with his writing, nothing but gentle. A gentle soul, so smart, funny, witty.”
Experts predict Hawkins will go up against Meryl Streep (“The Post”) and Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) for best lead actress.
Hawkins, an indie-film superstar, “is way overdue for major awards recognition,” says Tom O’Neil, founder of Oscar prognostication site GoldDerby.com. And in “The Shape of Water” — a solid best picture contender — “her performance is brazenly sexual and dives boldly into fantasy.”
Regardless of Oscar gold, the actress says this is the fantasy we need right now.
“There’s so much cynicism in the world,” says Hawkins.
“Fairy tales are so important for us as humans. They teach us so much.”
Sally Hawkins, left, and Doug Jones in a scene from the film "The Shape of Water."