Interview: Emily Watson (2011) Oranges and Sunshine

Oranges and Sunshine dramatizes one of the greatest injustices in recent history. Thousands upon thousands of children were deported from the United Kingdom and sent to Australia where the children were subjected to sexual and physical abuse as well as hard labor. Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, the social worker that unearthed this travesty. Watson spoke at length with Working Author to discuss her involvement with the project, her playing a real-life figure and her personal connection with one of the major themes in the film.

“I read the script and thought ‘My God!’” Emily Watson exclaims when asked about how she came to the Oranges and Sunshine. “I was so shocked when I read it, because I consider myself to be a well-educated British citizen and I had no idea of any of this — I’d never heard of it. And it’s within living memory. It sort of stopped happening in the early 70’s…. I thought it was a very compelling story.”

Part of what makes it compelling is how controversial it is. It’s easy to accept the barbarism that occurs in third-world nations or the atrocities that occurred in the distant past of countries considered to be more civilized. Yet, the events depicted in Oranges and Sunshine occurred only a few decades ago in a first-world country. As such, Watson explains the reactions from some groups of viewers. “I think there’s a sense of trying to make it a small story, because I think people are afraid of it,” she says. “Because to acknowledge that we collectively as a society…this happened. We’re not talking about a few kids. We’re talking about 130,000 children. 130,000 children who have fundamentally had their human rights utterly shattered. Not just sexual abuse, which is one thing, but had their identities removed. If you were to do this to a group of adults…think of the outcry there would be.”

Surprisingly, Watson has never met the woman she plays. When she thinks about why she hasn’t, Watson laughs it off with a playful, “I’m not sure.” She continues a moment later, “Margaret had been very involved in developing the script…. She was very, very wary of making this into a film, because of the sensitive nature of the subject. And she wanted it to be done correctly because there are real people still alive. So I didn’t feel like it was a rejection of her and I thought she was very in and around the project, but I’ve never met her – only spoken to her. She’s very particularly English in a very particular way and I didn’t want to do a physical impersonation of her. I didn’t think that was important for the project. I didn’t think that was important to tell the story. She’s not a known person.”

None of this is to say that Watson isn’t an admirer of Humphreys. Watson spoke at length about a documentary of Humphreys where she told one of the displaced children – now an adult – that Humphreys had found the displaced child’s mother. “And the way she does it is just so beautiful.”

Watson was also inspired by Humphreys’ strength of character. “When she started out, it wasn’t really like she chose to do it,” Watson explains, “It chose her. This woman came to her and said ‘help me’ and it snowballed and it snowballed and it just got bigger and bigger and it was like a calling she had to answer. She could not walk away. There were such desperate people wanting her help.”

Considering the storyline of Oranges and Sunshine, it should be expected that one of the prevailing themes in the film is the separation of children from their mothers. In most cases, the children were told that their parents were dead before being shipped to Australia. Regretfully, Watson could sympathize in an all too personal way. “My own mother passed away while we were filming so I had to come home and be there. That was quite tough.”

Coincidentally, however, one of the best scenes in Oranges and Sunshine was filmed after Watson’s personal loss. It features her character informing Hugo Weaving’s character, Jack, that his mother was found. His reaction is one of the best performances in the film and had a profound effect on Watson. “It was actually the first I did when I came back to the country for my mother’s funeral, so it was an extremely emotionally charged day of work, but will stay with me forever. And Hugo was amazing. He was so amazing and so beautiful and so emotional. He kind of honored my mum in a really beautiful way. It was lovely.”

Oranges and Sunshine opens on October 21, 2011.