As Poppy Cross, the irrepressibly upbeat schoolteacher at the center of Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Sally Hawkins does several things a more serious (or self-serious) actress might consider a tad undignified.
She stuffs her bra with raw chicken breasts in preparation for a girls’ night out and spends hours bouncing on a trampoline, as if to drive home the point that this buoyant, carefree woman is untethered to the problems of life in a way the rest of us haven’t managed to figure out.
“Trampolining, in a weird way, grounded her,” Hawkins says. “It came about through her love of physicality, of keeping active.”
The 32-year-old British actress goes on to sketch an even more detailed history for her sunny alter ego, chalking up their similarities and differences along the way. The two grew up in different boroughs of London, Poppy with sisters, Hawkins with brothers. Both have a deep interest in culture, books in particular, and a keen awareness of the importance of passing that interest on to children.
And while Hawkins wouldn’t necessarily wear everything in Poppy’s delightfully multihued wardrobe, they both share a love and appreciation for color.
The idea of Poppy as not just an intricate dramatic construct, but as an actual person Hawkins came to know, is very much of a piece with Leigh’s trademark collaborative approach to filmmaking, which hinges on months of improvisation, rehearsal and exhaustive research.
It’s a method Hawkins is by now quite familiar with: After “All or Nothing” and “Vera Drake,” this marks her third outing with a director she says “has an ability to see truth like no one else.
“It’s so exciting working with Mike, because you start from nothing,” she says. “You don’t have a script, you don’t have a story, you don’t know the character you’re going to be playing or what journey you’re going to go on.”
That lack of foreknowledge proved especially true in the making of “Happy-Go-Lucky,” a light-footed episodic comedy with no apparent narrative itinerary beyond a willingness to follow its cheery protagonist through a series of dates, appointments and telling exchanges around London.
If the early awards buzz for Hawkins (whose perf won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival) pays off, it will be a rare instance of an actress earning kudos for portraying a happy, well-adjusted character onscreen. Yet, as critics have noted, there’s more to Poppy than just her ebullient surface.
“What I loved about her was her incredible ability to cope with people and life. Her focus is all about the other person, and especially the kids (she teaches),” she says. “Although she has a remarkable view of life, she’s very grounded, and whether that’s apparent initially, I think it becomes more so once you get to know her more.”
Favorite film this year
“Tom McCarthy’s ‘The Visitor.’ Beautifully acted, written and directed. ‘Hunger’ is also quite brilliant in its simplicity. It deserves all the accolades it is beginning to receive.”
” ‘Live to love, love to live’ … ‘Stay true to you, whatever you do’ … oh, and ‘Breathe!’ And a favorite from Thoreau: ‘Go confidently in the directions of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.'”
“The people I love — family, friends — I am always continuously inspired and surprised by them. Art in all its forms … filmmakers such as Federico Fellini, Orson Welles, Jean Cocteau, Frank Capra and, of course, I have to mention Mike Leigh, a huge source of inspiration to me even before I was lucky enough to know and work with him.”