A roundtable chat with Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson of “Made in Dagenham”

As the press day began for director Nigel Cole and writer William Ivory’s amiable historical comedy, we assembled entertainment writers believed we’d be doing separate roundtable interviews with the film’s best known actresses. When Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson entered the room together to promote “Made in Dagenham,” about a 1968 strike by female workers at a Ford plant located in a grimy London suburb, however, it was easy to be a little overwhelmed. Either one of them is worthy of a Russian novel’s worth of questions and our time would be limited.

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Like so many first-class English actors of her generation, Miranda Richardson is known for her ability to play all ends of the dramatic spectrum. In England, and certain geekier quarters of the U.S., she’s still extremely well known known for her work alongside Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry as “Queenie” (i.e. Queen Elizabeth I) and assorted other characters on Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s historical cult-com, “Black Adder.” Younger geeks, however, might know her better as magical tabloid journalist Rita Skeeter in the Harry Potter films. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, she has also done magnificent work playing a ruthless IRA operative in “The Crying Game,” a maltreated housewife in an Oscar-nominated role in Louis Malle’s “Damage,” a widely praised turn in the Oscar-winning “The Hours,” and a widow investigating her husband’s death on AMC’s recently canceled suspense drama, “Rubicon.” On the other hand, she’s also portrayed the character of Mrs. Santa Claus opposite Paul Giamatti‘s Santa in “Fred Claus.” Despite some resemblance, both physically and in terms of talent, she is not part of the famed Redgrave acting dynasty and no relation to the late Natasha Richardson. She is, in fact, the only actor in her family, which perhaps makes her all the more impressive.

Although Sally Hawkins has appeared in some 34 movie and TV productions since 1999, she broke into the consciousness of most of her fans with her Golden Globe winning performance in Mike Leigh’s 2008 “Happy-Go-Lucky,” in which she dominated the film as a relentlessly happy and, strangely enough, rather bright, elementary school teacher. It was probably an ideal role for a woman who really does come across as cheerful in person, with an approachable demeanor that certainly seems to fit the child of two children’s books authors. Currently starring on Broadway in a new production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” Hawkins has continued to mix starring roles with a number of smaller supporting appearances, including a turn in Cary Fukunaga’s highly-anticipated new version of “Jane Eyre.” Her next leading role is as Irish radical politician and activist Bernadette Devlin in “The Roaring Girl” — assuming the real Devlin is not successful in her efforts to prevent the film from being made.

After some very brief talk about Sally Hawkins recently healed broken collar bone, a film set injury, the first question was about how the two actresses researched their roles. Hawkins plays Rita O’Grady, a Ford seamstress who is selected by her shop steward (Bob Hoskins) to spearhead a job action which eventually leads to Great Britain’s first law requiring equal pay for equal work. While Hawkins’ character is a fictional creation, inspired by a number of real women, Richardson plays real-life English Labour Party legend Barbara Castle. The first woman to sit on the English cabinet became a major player in the long and contentious strike.

“I did meet three of the women, very early on in my preparation period,” Sally Hawkins said. “I went on a couple of trips to Dagenham to, first of all, see the factory. It’s still there, this monolith, this old skeleton. It was quite sad because that’s what Dagenham is built around. In recent history, when it closed down, it had a not good effect on the community there. They are just very normal women who all still live in Dagenham and are still friends. Very funny, bright women who went back to their lives. Rita was one of many and it was important to get that sort of voice right, that they weren’t political animals. They didn’t have any experience in being on a political stage or holding their own amongst the men, the management in the trade union. They were sort of learning on the hop, as it were.”

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“Real-life character, so: duty, responsibility. I was aware that [Barbara Castle] meant so much to many people,” Miranda Richardson said. “You just have to get on with it. I read a biography, looked at photographs, newsreel footage. I worked with the wonderful Penny Dyer, a dialect coach, to try and just ground her speech rhythms. Of course, hair and make-up and costume is all part of that deal. She had a very particular look. You have to honor that and make it work for you. So, that was it, really. In the silence of reading about her, and looking at photographs, staring at them, trying to make them sink in, I just thought she was the most wonderful woman. I would have liked to have met her and gone out on the town with her. I think she would have been enormous fun.”

“Unlike these ladies, she was politicized from a very early age,” Richardson continued. “Debate was encouraged ’round the dinner table. She went with her father to rallies and she understood where people were coming from, and what they wanted and how they expressed themselves. She was a passionate, humane woman who brung herself up, as they say, out of her class, [who] achieved above and beyond what was expected. [Castle] never lost touch with her roots and was a force of nature as far as I’m concerned. She’s fantastic. She was somebody who could drink and smoke and hang out and debate. She just wanted to engage and expected people to engage with her.”

“Thank God she was around,” added Sally Hawkins.

“Thank God she was around,” agreed Miranda Richardson. “She loved women and men equally, it seems to me.”

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“You got that?” Sally Hawkins asked. The question was left hanging as another query was posed about what it was like being on the set with the female-dominated cast assembled by director Nigel Cole, whose best known prior film is the similarly female-centric comedy, 2003’s “Calendar Girls” with Helen Mirren.

“Lovely, lovely atmosphere” said Richardson.

“Yeah, it was,” Hawkins agreed.

“Quite a few women on the crew as well,” Richardson continued. “Which makes my heart leap when you see women doing jobs which have been heretofore mostly the guys, and there’s no reason why they don’t do them. It’s just they’re letting more women do those jobs and more women want to take those jobs in the industry.”

Hawkins expanded. “I did sort of stop and think, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that there are all these incredible female [actors].’ It’s a female-led production, and it’s so rare. There was so much passion behind it and I was so incredibly proud to be a part of that. Like Miranda said, for a long time it has been a male-dominated industry, but I think it is changing and we have got a long way to go. I think that’s probably the case in many industries. We all have experience of that.”

What about working directly with Nigel Cole?

“He truly is a feminist,” said Hawkins.

“He’s very cuddly,” Richardson elaborated. “He’s very cozy. It’s not difficult to be on set with him. He’s not deeply frightening. He really isn’t.”

“He cares,” Hawkins said.

Richardson made a pantomime hugging gesture. “I think of him as doing that. He does that on set.”

“He’s got very long arms, he embraces you.” Hawkins said.

The next question included some news for those of us who might have assumed that equal-pay-for-equal-work is a 40-years settled issue. It might be agreed upon in theory, but in reality there are significant disparities overall that are higher in certain industries. Did Hawkins and Richardson expect the film to help reopen the issue?

Sally Hawkins in

“That would be phenomenal. That would be great,” Hawkins said. “We can always learn from history, whether it’s recent history or far back in history. This is history we can touch, still. Yes, there has been a lot that’s been done and a lot has been put in place. Thank God that these women were around doing what they did because there would have been no equal pay up to 1970. Thank you, Barbara.”

But haven’t things actually regressed somewhat, perhaps?

Hawkins continued. “Yes. It does go like that if we stop talking. We don’t talk about money. Definitely in the U.K. we’re guilty of that, probably more than in the U.S., just because [Americans are] more vocal about things generally. There’s certain things being pushed through congress now and… we’re having to look at the issues and readdress certain loopholes that have kept women in a certain place and kept that pay gap wide. That’s frightening. Do we have to keep looking at these issues and make sure that we’re talking about them all the time to make sure that we get what we’re owed? Well, yes we do.”

“I think it’s quite interesting, the self-esteem aspect of it,” Richardson added. “I haven’t got historical facts at my fingertips and, I’m sorry, I’m just not operating like that,” the actress added, getting some chuckles from the table. “But just what the ramifications are of allowing that to happen, if I can use those terms, where at any given workplace somebody knows that that is going on and they keep quiet about it, rather than saying ‘This isn’t right’ for fear that they will be opposed, for fear that nobody will be on their side. Or it’s just like ‘I’m not quite worth what the guys are worth.'”

“It’s even something that I used to grumble about,” Richardson continued. “When I was working with a predominantly Oxbridge team on ‘Black Adder.’ There’s the famous thing where guys don’t feel that women can be as funny, certainly in stand-up routines. [Also], even though they’ve been colleges for women, Oxford and Cambridge, for a long long time now, there’s a kind of twisted awe. ‘Yes, they’re marvelous. The girls have done absolutely marvelous, but just not quite as good as the boys.'”

“You proved them wrong in that show, I would say,” Hawkins said, correctly.

“Listen,” Richardson responded to the compliment. “They chose me, for whatever reason, and I wasn’t looking particularly good that day.”

“It was one of the reasons why I wanted to act, seeing you on that show,” Hawkins added.

Shrugging off the flattery, Richardson returned to the topic of workplace sexism. “It’s always there; it’s always lurking. If somebody thinks it’s the way things are and is not told differently, then things go on the way they are for a long, long time. It takes a whole load of individuals to keep saying ‘no.’ It’s a difficult thing to do because you’re unpopular. It’s horrible.”

“It’s scary, but like you say, you have a responsibility to speak up in those situations and not accept [injustice]. But their strength is in their numbers and the fact that they were together. As soon as one and then a few of them started to [get involved], then it went like wildfire, across the country, across the U.K. and then ended up having an knock-on effect on the big boys in the U.S.,” Richardson said.

Then I asked about the mostly seamless blend of comedy and pathos in “Made in Dagenham,” asking the two performers about how they approached the funny parts and the not-so-funny parts.

Miranda Richardson in

“I guess it’s in the writing, isn’t’ it? For my part, I just thought Barbara’s speeches were very authentic. I wasn’t thinking ‘funny,’ on the day,” Richardson said, adding that, isolated with just a few less than sensitive subordinates, Minister Castle was akin to a “Queen Bee with no hive apparent to look after. [The humor] just comes out of it. Situation comedy, really is what it is, so you don’t have to act funny.”

“People are funny, whether they’re aware of it or not” Hawkins added. “Like Miranda says, you sort of focus in on the character. When you’re objective about people, their situations, what they get sort of worked up about, and how they deal with life, people together and different characters together, that creates comedy. It’s on a level that is tragic. Life is both funny and tragic at the same time. It’s only when you’re sort of at the back-end of something that sort of stumped you momentarily, or not, is when you realize how funny it was.”

The next question addressed the highly diverse nature of Sally Hawkins’ work after her widely beloved breakthrough in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” which includes smaller roles in more somber films like “Never Let Me Go.” The upshot being that acting is a very feast-or-famine kind of a business and, even though Hawkins is in her feast phase right now, it’s not like all of her movies are being made back-to-back.

“I’m drawn to good writing. But it is the people that surround it, or wanting to work with that director or that actress or that actor. Having people that you admire just inspires you. I love delving into different characters. Keep challenging yourself and keep learning.” And then, showing a bit of her “Happy-Go-Lucky” joyful self-deprecation, she made fun of the fact that what she was saying was a bit of an actor’s cliche, though Miranda Richardson was quick to remind us that often cliches are cliches because they are true.

“No, it is how it is. They don’t come along one a minute, the stonking on every page thing. Sometimes it’s good to do, ‘Alright, well it doesn’t look like much.’ But it is. It’s juicy.”

“You want it to be something you sink your teeth into,” Hawkins added.

The next question asked if Hawkins felt any pressure to win an Oscar for her performance in “Happy-Go-Lucky.” The answer, alas, is that there wasn’t one — not even a nomination, just a bunch of critics group Best Actress awards, not to mention a Golden Globe. The questioner expressed shock, which is actually understandable. Given the caliber and acclaim of the performance, it actually is hard to believe Hawkins was not at least nominated for an Oscar. Still, winning the Golden Globe isn’t nothing and it was framed as an upset over the favorite for the “Comedy or Musical” Golden Globe, Meryl Streep for “Mamma Mia!.”

Sally Hawkins was

“It was like the Oscars for me. I didn’t think it could get much better than that,” Hawkins said. “Comparatively, it’s a small, low budget film in North London, for no money. Suddenly you’re on this huge scale. Of course you have your own expectations of yourself and then you think, ‘Oh, God.’ But then you have to take it all with a pinch of salt. After it, you come back home a little shell-shocked by the whole thing. As long as you just know it will all die down again, it will calm down. I’ve been quite lucky that I’m not chased by paparazzi. Thank God. I’m not that type of actor. I’m not, God forbid, a celebrity in that way. You just have to make sure you focus on the work. It’s not about you, really. If people love what you do and love the films that you’re in, that’s all you want as an actor.”

Then, finally, came the inevitable “Harry Potter” question for Miranda Richardson, despite the fact that her character doesn’t really appear in the novel. Would the deeply dishonest magical yellow journalist Rita Skeeter again be seen, perhaps wielding a wand as well as her poisoned pen, in the final two installments of the film series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows“?

“Very, very briefly. But pithily. I hope I’ll leave my mark,” Richardson concluded.

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