Emily Watson

Master of Arts


The arts of acting for the screen and the stage are subtly – but distinctively – different, one of the reasons, perhaps, why comparatively few actors establish themselves at the highest level in both media. But Emily Watson has enjoyed critical and popular success in Hollywood movies and in art-house films and on the stage in this country and America.

Born in London, she took a degree in English at Bristol, where she involved herself thoroughly in drama. I recall seeing her play Beatrice in a production of Much Ado About Nothing at Manor Hall of Residence. Her Benedick was Matthew Warchus – himself now an award-winning director – who remembers her as ‘quiet, scrupulous, graceful, rigorous and fun’, qualities that recur in descriptions of her and her work.

After university, her heart set on a career as an actor, she was at first turned down by a number of theatre schools. Never losing her determination, however, she was eventually accepted by the Drama Studio in London and, soon after completing her training, in 1992 joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, appearing in productions that included All’s Well That Ends Well (directed by Peter Hall), The Taming of the Shrew and The Changeling. It was while she was with the RSC that she met Jack Waters, a writer, whom she married in 1995.  We are also delighted to welcome him, and her parents, Katherine and Richard, to Bristol today.

At this point, her career must have seemed to be following a promising, but recognisable, pattern: stage work - in Stratford and with the acclaimed West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds - and, in 1996, a part in a film-for-television. 

But as Laurence Olivier once pointed out, success as an actor depends on three things: talent, stamina and luck. The first you may be born with, the second you can work on, the third you have to hope for. For Emily Watson, that unpredictable, pivotal moment came when Lars von Trier, one of the founders of what’s known as the dogme school of film making, needed to cast urgently for a film. Emily was, at the time, appearing at the National Theatre in Lillian Helman’s American drama, The Children’s Hour. The performance was seen by von Trier’s casting director and Emily flew to Scotland to audition. Von Trier recalls of the event that: ‘The instant she began the screen test, in a particularly difficult scene that would not normally be chosen for the purpose, I knew she was right.’

The film was Breaking the Waves. It tells of a girl, Bess (played by Emily), living in a remote, repressive Scottish community, who falls in love with, and marries, a Scandinavian oil worker. When he is paralyzed in a work accident, for which she unnecessarily blames herself, he urges her to seek other  lovers. Against her will she does so, which leads to her own violent death, while he miraculously recovers. It is an extraordinary journey as Bess embraces and endures the emotional extremes of innocence, love, guilt, self-disgust and, ultimately, self-sacrifice.

So, getting such a challenging part was a lucky break. But you have to have the talent to make the most of your luck. The character of Bess is, in Emily’s own words, ‘a naïve, open-hearted, loving, religious nut who is saner than everyone else’, and demanded from this tyro film actress a strong performance of total vulnerability, in which she showed audiences two key qualities that make her distinctive: an ability to convey in a single expression the inner moment of a character’s experience and feeling, and a vibrant physicality as an actor. The film was a baptism of fire – and a triumph for her. She was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress in a Leading Role, won the London Film Critics Circle Award as Best British Newcomer, the Felix Award for Best Actress and the New York Critics Circle Best Actress Award. And this was, remember, her first film.

Breaking The Waves, she has said, pushed her as an actor in ways she didn’t know were possible, changing the way she acted, the way she worked. It also opened the door to a whole series of challenging roles, and after making Metroland with Christian Bale and The Boxer with Daniel Day-Lewis, she was cast, in 1998, as Jaqueline du Pré in the film, Hilary and Jackie, which traced the brilliant cellist’s short life. Her performance of Jaqueline du Pré’s obsessive behaviour, transcendent talent and physical decline, was a remarkable achievement, with Hilary du Pré herself observing that ‘Jackie has crept into Emily Watson’s soul’. The role brought her a second Oscar nomination for Best Actress and a Golden Globe nomination.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, while critics and audiences continue to admire her ability to portray women on the edge, those who meet Emily ‘in real life’, or in a working environment, are struck by how different she is from such roles (she took the part of Bess in Breaking The Waves precisely because it was so removed from her own life) and by her serious, but down-to-earth, approach to her profession. Rachel Griffiths - her co-star in Hilary and Jackie, and also nominated for an Oscar - puts it rather neatly:

‘It’s like Emily has this lion in a cage, and she lets it out when she needs it, and when she doesn’t she puts it back and it lies there while she makes the tea and renovates her house. 

In fact, she has performed a wide variety of character types in films of virtually all genres. going on to play Angela in the film of Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes (a performance McCourt summed up as ‘sublime’); appeared in the title role of Trixie with Nick Nolte; starred in The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Tim Robbins; in The Luzhin Defence; in Equilibrium (fulfilling a long-held wish to be in a sci-fi film); in Gosford Park (directed by Robert Altman); and in Red Dragon, the most recent ‘Hannibal Lecter’ film (winning her the London Film Critics ‘Best Supporting Actress’ award). She has just finished filming The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, playing Seller’s first wife, opposite Geoffrey Rush.

With such consistent success on screen Emily Watson might easily have maintained films as the sole focus of her career. But last year she appeared on stage, in London and New York, as Viola in Twelfth Night and Sonya in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, both directed by Sam Mendes. She received widespread acclaim: for the experienced theatre critic Charles Spencer this was ‘the most affecting Viola’ he’d seen, a performance that ‘catches the heart’, and she was nominated for an Olivier award as Best Actress for what more than one critic described as her ‘luminous’ performance in Uncle Vanya.

Watching, as I have done over recent weeks, virtually all of her films, I have been impressed by the range of work she has made in a comparatively short time and the scope of the talents that it reveals. Even more striking is that, while many actors depend on a certain number of devices, which they reuse, watching Emily Watson, it is noticeable that she manages in some way to refashion herself each time, making films and giving performances that are not quite like anything else. It’s a point exemplified by her most recent film, on release now, Punch Drunk Love (for which she has won the prestigious Toronto Film Critics award for Best Actress). It is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia). He wanted to make a romantic love-story, she wanted, she told him, to get away from ‘weeping and wailing, crying and dying’. Anderson wrote the film for her and the American actor Adam Sandler. It is an intriguing combination of talents – art-house director, ‘intense European actress’ (her words) and an American comic actor who is best known for his ‘geek makes good’ movies. The result – a quirky, off-beat, exhilarating romantic comedy with a sharp edge – is again something new for – and from – her.  Indeed, she is, for Paul Thomas Anderson, ‘the dame: every director’s dream’.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Emily Watson, as eminently worthy of the degree of Master of Arts, honoris causa.

Edit this page