Emily Watson is an easy talker. After three decades in Hollywood (and plenty of adulation and awards to match), the British star could put on plenty of airs. Instead, she comes across as approachable, candid, and kind — even when she’s placed mere feet away from this interviewer’s snotty COVID test (negative!).
So when she admits that being first choice for a role can be “quite scary”— as she was for the leading part of Aileen in Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis’ Irish gothic “God’s Creatures” — you believe her, even though she became an Oscar-nominated actress with her very first on-screen performance in Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves.”
“‘Why me? What is it about me? What is it in my bag of tricks that you are interested in?,” When directors pursue her, those are the questions she asks herself. For “God’s Creatures,” she went even further: “When you meet me and you see that part, we are not very similar.”
Paul Mescal, her latest co-star, may have some answers. In the film, the second from Holmer and the first from Davis (the pair previously worked on the similarly obsession-driven “The Fits”), he and Watson portray a closely bonded mother and son who are torn apart by an allegation that throws their lives — and their tight-knit Irish fishing village — into existential disarray.
“Emily’s instincts are always right, not only in the finished product of the film, but in the small details of rehearsal,” Mescal said during a recent post-screening Q&A of the film, moderated by IndieWire. “[She] knew not just what [she] needed or I needed, but also what Anna and Saela needed, what we collectively needed.”
When Watson met with Holmer and Davis, it seems she answered her own question, too, carefully unpacking the themes and ideas of the script from newcomer Shane Crowley (with an idea inspired by producer Fodlha Cronin O’Reilly).
“We just talked, I talked about how wonderful the script was really and how it seemed to me that it felt like a Greek tragedy,” Watson told IndieWire. “I think it is a film about sexual assault and that puts it very much in a now-modern conversation, but it also has that timeless sense of a tragedy to me. I really was quite tough with them, questioning, how does she do this? Why, how can that happen? I had to really wrap my head around the nature of the relationship with her son, because it’s unhealthy and bordering on the not-quite-right.”
Shot on location in Ireland in summer 2021, the film premiered at Cannes in 2022, where critics hailed its chilly drama and the powerful chemistry between Watson and the Irish Mescal.
Authenticity reigned supreme: Holmer and Davis filmed on location in an Irish fishing village, where the cast was surrounded by actual fishermen and factory workers. Locations included an abandoned warehouse that had once housed a fish factory, like the one where Watson’s character works. The actress worked with a dialect coach to nail Aileen’s Irish accent, learned how to cut a salmon and fillet a mackerel, and how to haul in the oysters just like the O’Hara family.
“I think it feels like if you really go into it and really embody it and really live with it, you can’t go wrong, or you’re less likely to go wrong,” she said. “I once asked Daniel Day-Lewis why he did all his stuff, and he said, ‘I don’t think I’m a good enough actor not to.’ It’s like really, really covering your ass, in a way.” (Watson said she only broke her accent while speaking to her family on Zoom; that Day-Lewis advice really does travel.)
Of course, none of this works without a believable bond between Watson and Mescal. The pair hadn’t met in person by the time they arrived in Donegal to shoot “God’s Creatures.” Like everyone else, Watson saw Mescal in “Normal People” and was quite taken. “I’d watched ‘Normal People’ and gone, ‘Oh my God, he’s so gorgeous. He’s so talented and I would love to work with him,’ but you never know what somebody’s going to be like,” Watson said.
When they “met” on Zoom, she found out. “We talked and talked and talked, talked on Zoom when we were all in isolation,” she said. “Eventually we got to the point where we were rehearsing in person, in an abandoned hotel by the sea, and it was like being let off a piece of elastic. We all just went, boing. We were like kids.”
The pair found themselves running around the hotel, running around the fields — Mescal said his first memory of Watson was wandering the countryside with her, “watching little lambs be born” — and that sense of play helped unlock the lighter aspects of heavy material.
“One thing that really surprised me about Emily is how she relished the fun of it,” Mescal said. “That was equally as important to [her], the kind of joy of their relationship, as much as the traumatic second half of the film.”
Watson said she leans toward pragmatism in choosing her roles — part is script, a lot is the director, and plenty is the general need to “keep everybody in knickers” at home. Still, it’s clear when she finds material that tells her she needs to do it. Such was the case with “God’s Creatures,” a film she not only spent a summer filming, but is now supporting through the grind of publicity more than a year later.
Watson’s career includes directors like Steven Spielberg (“War Horse”), Paul Thomas Anderson (“Punch-Drunk Love”), and Robert Altman (“Gosford Park”), but she had no concern about working with Holmer and Davis on what is still an early work for the duo. (Asked which directors she’d like to work with again, Watson reeled off a list: Paul Thomas Anderson, John Hillcoat, Jessica Hobbs, and Holmer and Davis.)
“Younger, rising directors, there’s so much you can give to them,” Watson said. “Obviously, you have to give yourself over to what they want and how they want to do things. But you can also, at some point go, ‘You know what? I think we’ve got this and we need to move on, because you’re not going to make your day.’ I completely trusted them. It was very difficult to find the dividing point between the two of them. After every take, they would give notes and one of them would go to camera, one to the actors, but it was never the same one. They didn’t ever disagree or have to confer, because their intentions were both very clear and shared.”
Watson said it came down to mutual trust with her directors. “We really, really carefully talked about our emotional world. That emotional playing field was between us, and they really trusted me to let it play out, to do the heavy lifting.” She smiled. “They just filmed me trying it.”
Mescal clocked Watson’s leadership, too. “Emily is a phenomenal leader, not just of like the cast and actors, but of the film,” Mescal said at the Q&A. “I think we looked to her for guidance and leadership and all those things.” He turned to his co-star, likely not realizing he was so succinctly describing her talent. “You wear it, and you wear it so slightly, and you carried us through.”
An A24 release, “God’s Creatures” hits theaters on Friday, September 30.