Oranges and Sunshine is a true-life drama that tells the story of Margaret Humphreys (played by Emily Watson), a social worker from Nottingham, England who uncovered one of the most significant social scandals of recent times. Until the late 1960’s, successive UK governments had supported child migration, causing thousands of children to be deported from the UK to Australia. After learning that children as young as four had been told that their parents were dead before being sent to children’s homes on the other side of the world, where they were subjected to horrendous abuse, Margaret single-handedly set out to reunite thousands of families and bring worldwide attention to such an extraordinary miscarriage of justice, that only recently received formal apologies from both sides.

At the film’s press day, actress Emily Watson talked about her shock at learning that this all happened within living memory, her reasons for choosing not to meet her real-life counterpart before shooting the movie, and what it was like to lose her own mother during filming. She also talked about her experience playing the mother in the upcoming feature War Horse, and starting work on Anna Karenina at the end of November. Check out what she had to say after the jump:

Question: What was it that led you to this project?

EMILY WATSON: Well, I read the script and I thought, “My god!” I was so shocked when I read it because, while I consider myself to be a fairly well-educated British citizen, I had no idea of any of this. I’d never heard of it, and it’s within living memory. This stopped happening in the early ‘70s, which I found very shocking. I thought it was a very compelling story, so I met the director (Jim Loach) and said, “Okay, let’s do it.”

What response are you getting from people who have seen this film?

WATSON: I think there’s a sense of trying to make it be quite a small story because people are afraid of it. To acknowledge that, collectively as a society – and I’m talking about British society, not American society – this happened. We’re not talking about a few kids. We’re talking about 130,000 children, who fundamentally had their human rights utterly shattered. It’s not just sexual abuse, which is one thing. But, they had their identities removed. If you were to do this to a group of adults, like an ethnic minority, and you forcibly removed them from their place of birth without legal status or papers, think of the outcry there would be. This is 130,000 children.

Why did you choose not to meet Margaret Humphreys?

WATSON: I’m not sure. Margaret was very involved in developing the script. She had worked with Jim and (screenwriter) Rona [Munro] for quite some time. She was very, 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 were real people who were still alive. So, I didn’t feel like it was a rejection of her. I thought she was very much in and around the project. But, 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, or for telling the story. She’s not a known person. But, I did watch her on film. There’s a beautiful piece of documentary footage of her telling somebody that she’s found their mother. The way she does it is just so beautiful. You can imagine that that is the most important moment of this person’s life. They have probably spent their life in an abusive children’s home, and then grown up into an adulthood where they don’t know who they are. And then, suddenly, somebody has come to them and reversed all of that, and is changing everything. Social workers are given such a hard time. They’re seen as busy-bodies who interfere. But, it’s actually the most beautiful service for a human being. For that woman to be reunited with her mother, to me, is just so beautiful. And, Margaret does it with such grace, such intelligence and such sensitivity.

Did you have to sift through all of the research about this subject, in order to find out what this woman was like 20 or 25 years ago?

WATSON: The very interesting thing about that is that, when she first started, she didn’t know where it was going to end up. With hindsight, we had her book and we had the story, and we knew that the Australian government was going to apologize. In a way, it was a success story. But, when she started out, it wasn’t really like she chose to do it. It chose her. This woman came to her and said, “Help me,” and it snowballed, and got bigger and bigger. It was like a calling that she had to answer. She could not walk away. There were such desperate people wanting her help, but she didn’t know that she was going to succeed. She was so opposed by the establishment, by charities, by government and by the church, particularly. All the doors closed in her face. Nobody wanted to help. Nobody wanted to hold their hand up and say, “We were responsible, and we’ll help you.” That must have been a very, very isolating and desperate feeling. At the same time, she was sitting and listening to stories of horrific abuse, every day. She must have felt very lonely and very unsupported and lost.

How does a story like this and taking a role like this effect you, from the standpoint of being a mother?

WATSON: The central thing in this movie is about absolutely everybody’s relationship with your mom. The first thing that happens in your life is your relationship with your mom. It is the building block of your humanity. To think of that happening to one’s own children, you can’t even go there. It’s something that pulls at your heartstrings. That sense of children being separated from their mom is a very universal thing. My own mother passed away while we were filming, so I had to go home and be there. That was quite tough.

What was it like to work with Hugo Weaving and shoot such emotional moments?

WATSON: Hugo was so amazing and so beautiful and so emotional. It was lovely to work with him.

Do you feel that the fact this film was being made had some impact on the fact that this was brought to light and prompted an apology?

WATSON: I don’t know if it was the film. I think it was really more the pressure on the government by Margaret. She really was responsible for that. She didn’t stop campaigning and shouting until somebody listened. She told me that a lot of the migrants came over for the apology in the British Parliament. They all broke down in tears because it was so profound for somebody to actually acknowledge them and say, “Yes, you belong.” It was like saying, “Here’s your passport. You can come in.” People say, “Oh, it’s a long time ago. A lot of the people are dead.” It is a significantly massive abuse of human rights that has gone completely unchecked and unpunished. There’s been no inquiry. There’s been nothing. Nobody has said, “How do we learn from this? How do we make sure this never happens again?” I’m sure if these were abuses that were happening to adults, it would be a different story. It’s always the same. Children are totally at the bottom of the political heap. They don’t vote and they don’t have a voice.

Was it difficult to draw on the emotions necessary to portray a parent’s worst nightmare?

WATSON: It was really tough. I’ve had to work at that and be quite strict with myself, and tell myself that it’s not real and it’s not true. You use your own emotional palate to get places, but you have to be very careful not to warp it or bruise it, for reasons that aren’t real. I think I underestimated the power of that when I was younger, but now that I have children, I’m very aware of it. You can’t go home, at the end of the day, and be all hysterical because they need dinner. It just doesn’t wash.

Because you are separated from your own family, as a result of the type of career you have, what do you do to make sure you don’t miss the important events?

WATSON: Well, up until recently, it hasn’t really been much of an issue because my children were not yet in school, so they went everywhere with me. Now that my daughter has started school, the goal posts have shifted somewhat. It’s always logistically difficult. Basically, I try not to work too much, but I have to put food on the table, so I try to balance it out. It’s really hard. I am very much around. I’m there for them, and I’m very hands-on, most of the time. Occasionally, I have to go away, but the longest I’ve ever been away from them is three weeks. That was unbelievably difficult. I’ve only done that once. Mostly, it’s just a week at a time.

Why do you think you’re drawn to roles that call on you to go to emotional extremes?

WATSON: I think it’s really because, once you have a reputation for doing something, people come to you, just like when people go to the bread shop for bread. That’s what I’m known for, and people want me for it. They want me to do it. It’s how I earn my living.

You’re doing Anna Karenina, for director Joe Wright?

WATSON: Yes, but I haven’t started it on it yet. That starts at the end of November.

Who are you playing in War Horse?

WATSON: I’m the mum. It’s about a kid who has a horse, and he grows up on a farm in England. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s a terrible struggle. He has this wonderful horse that he’s trained, but then his father sells the horse, under his nose, to the army. It goes off to the front in the first World War and goes through all sorts of incredible adventures. He signs up and follows it to war, to try to find the horse and bring it home. It’s a beautiful story.

It’s based on a children’s book?

WATSON: Yes, by Michael Morpurgo. He’s very big in England. He’s a very, very successful children’s author. It’s a beautiful book.

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