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In Oranges And Sunshine, Emily Watson plays Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys who unearths the shocking true story of the children sent forcibly to Australia where they were abused by their supposed carers, but she didnít want to meet the real Margaret, and she explains why in this Q&A.

How would you describe what Oranges and Sunshine is about?
Itís about bearing witness to the terrible abuse of innocent children that could have gone without notice. And itís about one personís fight to have that story known, and to give those people some sense of identity.

Had you heard about the events the film depicts before?
I hadnít heard of them at all, no and I think itís been a very, very little known fact. Itís better known in Australia obviously because the migrants are there, but in England, no Iíd no idea Ö outrageous really. Now itís obviously coming much more into the public eye because of the apologies in both countries.

Why did you want to be in this film?
Itís an amazing story: itís just very, very powerful, compelling stuff. It was nearly two years ago when I met with Jim [Loach, Director] on a very snowy day in London. My son Dylan was six weeks old and we sat and talked about it for hours. It was one of those things that just felt right from the off.

Tell us about your character?†
I play Margaret Humphreys who works for Nottinghamshire County Council social services - sheís someone who bears witness to peopleís suffering. At the very beginning of the film sheís approached by a woman who says, ĎI was sent to Australia from England as a small child without parents or guardians and thatís all I know. Can you help me?í Margaretís first reaction is disbelief. So she starts following the trail and uncovers this incredible story Ė the woman is just the tip of the iceberg. When she first starts looking in to it back in the 80s her boss says to her, ĎDo you want to take a year or two to do this?í - and in reality itís been her entire life ever since then. It takes an incredible toll on her physically and mentally and emotionally. She tells herself that sheís keeping her distance, that she has boundaries, but in fact she is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, just because of the emotional impact of where sheíd been and what sheíd been hearing.

Did you meet Margaret in real life?
No. I thought long and hard about it and every day when we were filming I would say to myself, ĎMaybe I should have met her,í for this reason or that. But Iíve played real people before and in a way you almost get too close - itís very difficult to be objective about them. And also the way they are physically, the way they sound, becomes a very, very strong imprint and sometimes thatís not helpful when youíre trying to tell a story. You end up just trying to mimic them. But because itís a film - itís a story - you have to occupy it in a different way.

Was Margaretís look helpful in mapping out her character?
I think Jim had a very strong image before we started of how he wanted her to look Ė professional, sharp, self-assured. So Iíve spent a lot of time wandering around in the blazing heat in Australia, very unsuitably dressed in a suit and stockings and heels and dying of heat! But thatís her look: sheís quite buttoned up. Whenever sheís dealing with migrants or going to these places she used to research sheís always dressed for work and I think thatís part of her. She has a uniform. It means that when she takes it off at the end of the day she can let it go a bit.

What other research did you do for the role?
Well thereís obviously Margaretís book [Empty Cradles] and there are various documentaries, but for me the most important territory is the emotional stuff and that comes from having your own family and children. Itís just putting yourself in to that imaginative area of what it would be like to be dealing with all this stuff. There is something utterly, utterly compelling about the thought of your own child being abandoned and deported and sent to an abusive childrenís home for ten years.

Whatís been the most enjoyable part of this role?

I think the most enjoyable thing for me on this film has been the crew and the company. I donít think Iíve ever worked on a film where just everybody is universally nice. I know that sounds really urgh, but itís so often the case that thereís a sort of macho, hysterical aspect to film-making. Thereís been no tension like that at all and that really comes from Jim - he is incredibly laidback and polite with everybody. The producers took their lead from him and so everyone was just treated properly like human beings. When the work youíre doing is very emotional thatís just great - thereís none of that kind of posturing and bullshit going on.†

Describe Margaretís relationship with Len (David Wenham).
I donít think itís a relationship Iíve seen on film before. Theyíre quite the odd couple. Len is wanting to trace his mother, but being very, very difficult with Margaret and quite difficult to handle. We go through this process where I take him to the point where he goes to meet his mother and get him to peel back a few layers and stop being such a tosser. But then after that heís the only character in the film who really challenges Margaret and says, ĎYou have to go to the Boys Town at Bindoon where a lot of the really, really bad abuse took place. Unless youíve been there and seen it you havenít really fully embraced who these people are.í So he forces her to do something she doesnít want to do. Itís a really lovely journey in the story between the two of them, but itís unusual - itís not sexual, itís not romantic, but itís very intense.

What is Jim Loach like as a director?
Many of the scenes we shot involve stories of abuse or the death of a parent. Jim would give the actor full reign to be as emotional as they felt was right but then heíd always say, ĎOkay, letís bring it back. Letís do it smaller.í Thatís very much his taste, to bring everything right down and keep it contained. There are so many of these tales to tell in the film and I think you just canít keep it up at that level of intensity. Youíve got to measure it out.

Whatís it been like shooting a film across two countries and continents?
We filmed in Nottingham in November and it was pretty cold. All the Australian crew were shivering and complaining! It starts getting dark almost after lunch and the light is so completely different from Australia. But I think that really reflects the nature of the film, the nature of the story and that sense of dislocation that a person must feel whoís constantly travelling between the two - it was tough.

Published June 9, 2011

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Emily Watson



...in Oranges and Sunshine.

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