Emily Watson on War Horse, War Goose and Other Recommended Viewing

Never one to let inhibitions stand in the way of a great creative opportunity, Emily Watson put aside her equinophobia for a while to join up with Steven Spielberg's new War Horse. Along the way, she also got to know the film's irrepressible goose, its neophyte leading man and its legendary filmmaker's one-of-a-kind facility with epic storytelling. Watson explained more recently in a chat with Movieline.

I don't know about you, but I am War Horse-d out,
Can we talk about something else?

What else is going on?
What else is going on?

I was interested in a comment you made in the press conference about how everyone on a set should have a T-shirt that says, "It's not about you." Can you elaborate on that?
I just mean that as a storyteller, when you get out of the way, that's when the magic starts. If you're paranoid about your performance or your status or how you look, or if there's something stopping you from giving yourself over to a story? Actors, directors, cameramen -- if everybody's just there to tell the story, then you can get some great work.

And so it's not about Spielberg on the set?
No, it's not. He is one of those rare creatures who is compelled to tell stories. He'd be like a fish with no water -- he'd be deprived of air if he wasn't telling stories. Robert Altman was the same. Paul Thomas Anderson was the same. It's like a muscle that has to be exercised. Everything he's saying and everything he's about is, "How can we best deliver this moment in time?" Now, everybody has a different way of doing that, but it's all from the utter urgency of being a storyteller.

What about a guy like Lars von Trier, who's perceived as almost inseparable from his films?
[Long pause] Yeah, I'd say. I think the stories that he's compelled to tell are quite… You know, in a way, all storytellers are philosophers. They’re searching for meaning in everything. He's quite close to the edge and extreme, but in the same way, he's really searching for meaning somehow.

Are you really afraid of horses?
Mm-hmm. [Laughs] But I didn't let on. Yes, I am. I'm not good around animals, generally.

Oh -- at all?
I don't mind dogs and cats and all that, but…

What is it about horses?
They might kick me! They're big, powerful creatures? I think it's my own ignorance. I don't know what to do, and I don't know how to read the signs of a horse. But if I'd been on it… I love the sound of the boys' training camp. To be able to learn to do something like that? It sounds amazing. And I love the whole cavalry charge. It's stupendous! I love it.

Have you ever had to learn a skill for a role?
I had to learn the cello for Hilary and Jackie, which was a big deal. It was a difficult thing to learn.

How long did it take?
Well, I say I learned the cello. I was miming to playback in the film. But I did learn pretty accurate fingering and the right bowing and the sense of expression. If you actually heard what I was playing, it would be excruciating. How long did it take? Two months? Two or three months? I think I had about 20 different pieces of music that I had to play, and I sat down and meticulously learned the tune for each one. And then I learned the fingering for each piece, and then I learned the bowing. Then I put them together. It was very scientific!

Back to the animals: Was the goose in this movie as bad-ass as it looked?
[Laughs] Yeah, it was.

You were totally afraid of the goose, right?
No, not really. I did sort of a photo op with the geese at one point, and they were really sweet. I just kind of held them. They had brilliant handlers as well, the geese. They could run and hit marks. It was mindblowing what these animals could do. But the goose is from the play. Have you seen the play?

I haven't.
There's a fabulous goose puppet. It's great.

I mean, War Horse is great and everything, but I'm really holding out for War Goose.
"A miraculous goose."

Right! Anyway, this is Jeremy Irvine's first screen role. What kind of relationship did you have behind the scenes?
I felt very protective towards him. Just being a proper grown-up; he's say, "I'm fine, I'm fine," but you could see how terrified he was -- how much he was having to absorb and learn every second. But he had a great attitude. He had a great sense of humility and a great sense of wanting to learn and be as good as he could be, which is lovely to watch.

Do you remember the first Spielberg film you saw?
I think it was E.T. I loved it. I wept.

What your relationship with Spielberg films as a viewer? Are they must-see theater viewing?
Not always, but yeah -- it's an event, isn't it?

What else is out that you like?
I liked Warrior very much. Have you seen that? I thought the fight sequences were absolutely brilliant -- so committed, so real. You always tend to go, "Yeah, yeah -- they’re faking it." And that didn't look like faking it. I love Tom Hardy. I think he's wonderful. I loved Beginners. I loved it. I found it very affecting and real. When you know somebody like I know Ewan [McGregor], whom I've known for a while, it's quite difficult to forget and be transported by them. And I really was. I thought he was wonderful. What else have I seen? I liked Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It's classy. It's classy.

Oldman's amazing in that. Have you worked with him before?

It's interesting you say that about McGregor versus someone like Oldman. Does that always tend take you out of the experience?
Absolutely. You know their ways of doing things; you know them as a person. Like Phil[ip Seymour] Hoffman: I've worked with him several times, and he's in so many things and I just… [Pauses] Now, having said that, he's brilliant. He's absolutely brilliant. But it does make it harder to suspend your disbelief when you know somebody.

What are you up to next?
I just wrapped on a film called Little Boy, which is directed by Alejandro Monteverde; it's about a little boy in California during the second World War who thinks he can bring his dad home from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp using his magic powers. And I play his mom. It's kind of a grown-up fairy tale. And I'm doing a few days on Joe Wright's Anna Karenina. I'm playing Countess Lydia -- a nasty piece of work.

Ohhhh. Are you looking forward to it?
I am. I've already done one day. Oh, yeah.

You sound like a fan of the book.
I am. I've read it a few times in my life. It's a very interesting book, because you see it very differently when you're young. As your age changes, you read it very differently. I was shocked when I read it the last time.

What was different?
Well, when I was young, I think I really identified with Anna and wanting to be that in love and the terrible tragedy of it all. I don't know if I wanted to kill myself at the end of it. Then you read it now, and you realize the decisions she makes about her children-- to leave her children -- for the sake of this affair is… [Winces] I have children of my own, so… Anyway, it changes.

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  • Charles says:

    I can't believe that when she brought up Paul Thomas Anderson, you didn't follow up by asking what it was like to work with the great Adam Sandler!

    I love Watson, btw, and I've long forgiven her for "Breaking the Waves," a film I detested in spite of her extraordinary performance.