When Mike Leigh cast her as the lead in his film “Happy Go Lucky,” Sally Hawkins knew it was a good role – but she didn’t realize how good.
Then she was nominated for an Oscar, won a Golden Globe and swept almost every critical and festival award she was eligible for.
“It was such an overwhelmingly huge thing,” Hawkins, 34, gushes by telephone. “It will be a number of years before I realize that all those things really happened. I just know I’m incredibly proud to have been part of the film.”
Still, while she relishes the new opportunities that it offered her, Hawkins can’t see that much has changed since then – except for people’s expectations of her.
“It didn’t change my life in a dramatic way – except that I think people think I’m a multimillionaire now,” she says. “I’m very far from that. And people think you leapfrog to superstardom. Well, yes, more people are aware of me, which is something for an actor. But there are only so many really good scripts around at one time. I’ve been lucky to be presented with interesting and intelligent ones.”
The latest is Nigel Cole’s “Made in Dagenham,” which opens in limited release Nov. 19. Based on a true story, the film chronicles the strike by a group of female autoworkers at a British Ford plant in 1968. Initially upset that their work doing elaborate stitch work on seat covers was classified as unskilled – entitling Ford to pay them less – they went on strike and eventually brought about the equal-pay act in Parliament.
“My mother remembers it very well,” Hawkins says. “These women weren’t interested in being politicians. But God knows where we’d be without women like this. I’m glad to be representing one of them. I’m not representing one particular woman; my character is an amalgam of many who led the fight. But there were many who stepped up at the right time.”
As part of her research, Hawkins met with three of the actual strikers to talk about their experience: “What I got was this intelligence and humor and modesty,” she says. “I loved their humor. But they were very passionate about what they believed. And they didn’t suffer fools gladly.
“I wanted to make sure I got that across. I wanted to be as truthful as I can. I had a duty to do the story justice, to do them justice.”
That particular protest sparked a revolution in British women’s rights, Hawkins believes, because the Dagenham strikers weren’t pursuing a political agenda. Rather, they simply sought equal pay, when the law allowed employers to pay women less than men for the same work.
“They spoke with a very real voice that women could relate to,” she says. “They spoke as we all speak and I love that about them. They knew their truth and they weren’t going to stop until they were heard. They wanted what they were due. And, at the end of the day, when they got it, they went back to work and back to their lives.”
As Hawkins speaks, she’s in New York, where she’s appearing opposite Cherry Jones in a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.” It’s her first turn on Broadway and her first extended New York stay – and she found both so exciting that the words tumble out.
“Every time I turn a corner, I see a scene from a Woody Allen film,” she says. “Being in New York, working in New York, I’m getting to know the city in a way I wouldn’t have if I just came here for a holiday.”
Hawkins was a late addition to the project, joining the cast just two weeks before rehearsals started: “I didn’t have much time to realize I was going to work on Broadway,” she says. “It was only when I was here that I realized where I was. But I feel a complete embrace from New Yorkers.
“I love the energy of walking on the streets in New York. And the culture – it really filters down. And the delis! Why don’t we have delis like that in London? You can take a whole day to explore just a single block – the culture, the architecture. It’s all been quite magical, like nothing else I’ve experienced. I’m feeding off the energy. I’m going to really miss it.”