Emily Watson on the Insanity of Synecdoche, New York

One of Britain’s most distinguished actresses, Emily Watson returns to our cinemas this month in Charlie Kaufman’s baffling directorial debut Synecdoche, New York. Gail Tolley spoke to her for an exclusive interview with The Skinny.

Feature by Gail Tolley | 28 Apr 2009
  • Emily Watson in Synecdoche, New York

Emily Watson is delightful – she comes across as both gracious (she even thanks me for taking the time to interview her, something of a rarity in most interviews) and spirited (her speech is littered with exclamations). She also swears quite a lot, which makes her all the more likeable, “it’s all a bit fucked” she says of the world her latest film is set in.

The swearing is probably justified - this isn’t just any film, it is of course the much anticipated Synecdoche, New York – the singular Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut.

The film follows a theatre director, Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who, following the breakdown of his marriage, embarks on a project that will gradually consume him. As the theatrical performance he is directing and his real life become increasingly intertwined the audience are drawn into a 'Kaufman-esque' world of the surreal and surprising. It is a work that is incredibly baffling and wholly fascinating, or as Watson puts it, “completely insane”.

What did she think when she first saw the script? “I found it difficult to finish, I have to be honest! I was thinking ‘wow!’ and who’s playing that part? And who’s doing that?” As with Kaufman’s previous films the cast is more than a little impressive, alongside Watson stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton and Michelle Williams. “Make-up was like being in one of those dreams where everyone in your dream is famous. You turnaround and ‘oh my god it’s so-and-so!’”.

Hoffman, as expected, gives an impressive performance, “he is such a life force as an actor” explains Watson. His presence gave what she describes as “an incredibly intensity” at the centre of filming.

Most intriguing of all, perhaps, is Kaufman himself. As one of the most high-profile screenwriters in recent years, he wrote several TV shows in the 90s before the success of Being John Malkovich in 1999. Who would have thought that this bizarre, low budget film, based around the idea of a doorway that leads into the head of a Hollywood actor, would mark the emergence of such a distinctive talent. Adaptation in 2002 was a similarly surreal tale of a struggling scriptwriter, and like Being John Malkovich earned Kaufman an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. But it was his close collaboration with Michel Gondry for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that really got audiences and critics excited. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet gave remarkable performances in this beautifully realised, melancholy exploration of what relationships might be like if we could erase our memories. And it was for Eternal Sunshine that Kaufman won an Academy Award for best screenplay – third time lucky, as they say.

Unsurprisingly, I’m keen to ask Watson what it was like working with such a distinct talent? “Charlie is quite fantastically neurotic, in a really sweet, smiley sort of way” she says. “He was very connected to the actors and the acting and what it was all about, within the context of this totally nuts situation. He creates his own universe and his own world and you buy into it and get on the spaceship and off you go.” Was she a fan of his work before working on the film? “Absolutely. Thank God for him! There are people actually going to see movies like that and there’s a place amongst all the shit for somebody who makes us laugh, think and see things differently.”

Watson’s character, Tammy, is a character playing a character – an actor hired to play out the life of the ‘real’ character of Hazel (played by Samantha Morton). Surely it must have been tricky to approach such a character? “I just kind of picked something out of the air; I wanted to make her a really shallow person, a fake tan and bangles, actress type. Someone who would be quite happy being famous for doing nothing. It was quite a lot of fun to do.”

It’s remarkable looking at Watson’s career, what a varied and impressive number of roles and films she has been in. Where many British actresses have found themselves caught between costume dramas and gritty realism (which frustratingly often seems to be the standard stock of the British film industry) Watson has been fortunate enough to work on such projects as Hilary and Jackie (1998), Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and Red Dragon (2002). She’s also worked with such acclaimed directors as Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, 1996) and Robert Altman (Gosford Park, 2001). It was, in fact, her powerful performance as Bess in Breaking the Waves that made many people sit up and take note. She was subsequently nominated for an Oscar - a rare feat for what was her debut film performance.

Outside of acting Watson has two small children with her husband Jack Waters, also an actor, whom she met whilst working at the Royal Shakespeare Company. She also writes, something which she focuses on between jobs. It’s intriguing to think how her experience working with the eccentric Charlie Kaufman might have inspired her. So will we be seeing anything she has written coming to our screens soon? Watson is keeping her cards close to her chest, “there are always several things in the works… some more advanced than others” she says somewhat secretly. Perhaps along with gracious and spirited we can call Emily Watson enigmatic too.

Synecdoche, New York is out on 15 May.