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Emily Watson "I'ts such a gypsy life"

Although rarely out of work, this much-admired actress has forsaken Hollywood fame for family life in London. By Simon Evans

There was a time when just about the only roles in film and television available to women of a certain age were nuns, grannies, stern maiden aunts or eccentric nannies.

Emily Watson is one of a generation of actresses who have proved that sexuality needn’t end with the menopause and although she’s rather more reluctant to disrobe than in her younger days, at the age of 50 she still relishes playing sexually voracious women, as she did, to great effect, in the recent TV drama Apple Tree Yard.

“This idea that female sexuality is the preserve of 22-year-olds is just absurd,” she told the Telegraph. “If anything, your sexuality blossoms during your late 40s and 50s. You know what you want. You’ve done marriage and children, you’re settled, you’ve got the menopause coming up and I honestly think there’s this moment where a woman thinks to herself, ‘It’s my life now – and it’s far from over’.”

Emily, who lives in south-east London, has been happily married to fellow actor (turned potter) Jack Waters since 1995 (the couple have two children, aged 11 and seven), and has always managed to balance the demands of family and career.

“My career is totally controlled by my family,” shetold The Guardian. “And that is a huge part of my decision-making process. Where is it? How long? And how much? Because if it’s independent, low budget, no money, eight weeks, fantastic script – sorry. It has to be worth my while leaving for that long.” Perhaps that’s why, unlike Kate Winslet, with whom she was often compared with early in her career, Emily has kept away from Hollywood.

“There was a point where I was thinking about moving to LA,” she says, “I physically enjoy the place. But it’s the mental life you have to negotiate living there. I just don’t think I have the equipment to deal with it.”

Many of the roles Emily has taken on during her career have been extraordinary, often characterised by a raw, sometimes painful, emotional depth. She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Breaking The Waves, her film debut, and four years later was nominated again for the equally uncompromising Hilary and Jackie, for which, playing cello virtuoso Jacquline du Pre, she had to learn to play the instrument in just three months.

In 2011 she won the Best Actress Bafta for the Fred West TV drama Appropriate Adult, having been nominated as Best Actress for her part in the film Angela’s Ashes back in 1999. None of those roles were easy, but that was part of the appeal for Emily.

“There is a part of me that’s drawn to those challenging roles,” she told the Telegraph. “Maybe because then I can really roll my sleeves up and go for it.”

Although Apple Tree Yard received a mixed response, with some critics uncomfortable with the portrayal of a successful woman who has the temerity to stray outside her marriage, there was nothing but praise for Watson’s role as the middle-aged scientist who falls for a younger man, played by Ben Chaplin, and finds herself on trial for her life. And although, since the birth of her two children, Emily refuses to strip off on camera (“I thought to myself: ‘I’m not getting all that out again’”), there were some passionate sex scenes, that also caused much comment.

“Ben and I decided that we were absolutely going to make those sex scenes look believable: really plot the sexual progress of our characters out beforehand, instead of just fumbling about the way you do when you’re younger,” Emily told the Mail.

When she was first offered the role Emily did, however, confess to having some doubts.

“I did think: ‘Wow. This is a lot. Do I really want to do this?’ But to be playing a woman of that age who is having an affair and is so vibrant and positive, at least at the start, felt great. Just the fact that the protagonist is a sexualised woman in her 50s is a good, feminist statement.”

There is no escaping the fact, however, that, like so many of her best roles, there was a darkness to her character in Apple Tree Yard.

“I have my darker moments,” Emily says. “Although I’m less dark than I used to be. And a whole lot of that is to do with the fact that I have a great relationship, kids and a great career – so lots of those question marks are taken care of.

“But it’s also about getting to an age where I can think to myself: ‘It’s OK to be who I am’. And I didn’t always feel like that.” Emily was born in Islington into a comfortable middle-class family – her father was an architect and her mother a teacher. She struggled with her weight as a teenager, and envied her sister her looks, “she always seemed thinner, taller and blonder.”

Emily discovered a love for acting at Bristol University, where she studied English, and after graduating in 1988 she paid her dues for two years “wenching and spear-carrying” at the Royal Shakespeare Company (where she met her husband) before moving onto the National Theatre.

It was while working at the National that she was spotted by the film director Lars von Trier, who chose her to star in Breaking the Waves after Helena Bonham Carter got cold feet and rejected the role. The film, to use Emily’s words, is “extreme, powerful and… raw.”

Encouraged by von Trier, Emily opened herself up completely to the role of a God-fearing Scottish girl who is encouraged to experiment sexually after her husband suffers an horrendous industrial accident. “It was a shatteringly life-changing experience, making that film,” Emily told The Guardian. “It was huge for me.”

Her films over the subsequent years have ranged from the thriller Red Dragon and period drama Gosford Park, to the Beatrix Potter biopic Miss Potter, the movie version of War Horse and the multi-Academy Award-winning The Theory of Everything. In 2015 Emily was deservedly awarded an OBE for her services to drama and she is currently working on two projects, an Oscar Wilde biopic, The Happy Prince, and a National Geographic series Genius.

“You never really know what the next job is going to be,” Emily says, “It’s such a gypsy life.”

Her favourite role of all, however, is that of the multi-tasking Mum, although it can have its surreal moments, when she was filming the 2013 movie The Book Thief for instance.

One minute she was playing a woman waving her husband off to the front in Nazi Germany. “And then I’m driving back from the Polish border to get the late flight from Berlin, and then going straight to my daughter’s school play in the morning. It can be a bit odd.”

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