‘Too Close’ Proves Emily Watson Is One of the Finest Actors Alive
The British actress talks her new AMC+ miniseries, the 25th anniversary of “Breaking the Waves,” and how her kids still haven’t forgiven her for turning down “Harry Potter.”
It’s been 25 years since Emily Watson burst onto the international scene with Breaking the Waves and, as confirmed by her latest, the three-part AMC+ dramatic thriller Too Close, time has done nothing to diminish the acclaimed British actress’ magnetism.
As Dr. Emma Robertson, a forensic psychiatrist tasked with assessing a wife and mother named Connie (Denise Gough) who’s standing trial for driving herself and her children off a bridge in an attempted murder-suicide, Watson adds another sterling credit to her résumé, embodying the character with an empathetic discontent and instability that grounds this tale of female trauma. Struggling to understand a distraught woman who, it turns out, understands her better than she does herself, Robertson is a figure of multifaceted suffering and dissatisfaction, and Watson’s performance is the anchor for what turns out to be a suspenseful investigation into issues of class, sex, marriage, parenthood, and middle-aged ennui.
That Watson is great in Too Close is par for the course. Since her star-making turn in Breaking the Waves, she’s carved out a career marked by both the blockbuster-y and the intimate, lending her considerable talents to projects as varied (and exceptional) as Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition. In those and countless other films and TV series, like the recent Chernobyl, she’s proven herself a leading lady with formidable character-actor chops, eminently capable of commanding the spotlight no matter the particular role at hand. For a quarter of a century, Watson has, quite simply, been one of the world’s finest actors.
Ahead of her miniseries’ stateside premiere (on May 20), we spoke with the 54-year-old actress about working during the pandemic, digging into Too Close’s thicket of female-centric themes, the enduring popularity of Breaking the Waves, the choice parts that got away, and whether she wishes she’d participated in the Harry Potter franchise—if only to avoid being mistaken for its similarly-named star, Emma Watson.
At a late point in Too Close, your character states that the streets are full of wrecked people, which feels especially pointed given our current pandemic predicament. How did COVID affect the series, which I believe was shot during 2020?
We actually filmed a lot of the series in Holloway Prison, which is a disused women’s prison, and there was a very strong, hanging sense in the air of people whose lives had crossed that line and gone in the wrong direction. I think that was true for many people in the pandemic. I think if you were already in a very stressed situation, it’s been devastating for many people’s mental health. This story is really about picking apart what happens when somebody reaches a point of desperation and they flip into a place of psychosis. It starts off with a view of psychosis that is scary and very othering—the clichés of it—and I hope it brings the audience to a point of understanding, where they can go, “Actually, I can see that happening to me.” Particularly with the drugs that are so readily available these days, and the state-altering path they can put people on.
Did you run into any logistical complications while shooting during the pandemic?
We were originally supposed to shoot in May of last year, so obviously as everything locked down in March, it was evident that… well, who knew what was going to happen? There was a point where I was thinking, am I ever going to work again? Then, every few weeks I’d get an email saying, “We’re thinking about August,” and it would push and push and push. September came and we’re doing it, and I was like, we’re not, we’re not, we’re not [laughs]. But we were doing it. And we were actually one of the first out of the gate in London.
We were lucky because it was really a small, contained [production]. The film and TV industry has been incredibly adaptive; a great big chunk of change has gone toward the COVID budget, to test everybody every few days, and to create the circumstances so you can get close and it can be safe and all of those things. Everything has slowed down, everything takes much longer, but it was exciting to go to work. There was a real sense of gratitude in the crew, and everybody around, that we were here, doing our jobs, telling stories.
Did the pandemic affect your own process, in terms of preparation or your performance?
What we didn’t have was any of the social aspect of prep, which you usually have. We did have rehearsals, and Denise and I did spend time in a room with the directors and the writer, and really pull it apart and tease it around. But there’s always the bit where you go out and have lunch, or go out and have a meal, or you go have a drink and you get to know somebody in that way, and we didn’t have that. Once we were in our work bubble, we spent a lot of time, not just on set but off the set, talking and getting to know each other as women, and where we were in our lives as performers and storytellers—which was fantastic, because Denise is such an intense talent. It was just a lot of fun to be around her, and to have an exchange where it’s like, “This is what it’s like for me, this is what it’s like for you.”
Emma’s difficulties are as messy—and as front-and-center—as Connie’s problems. Was that emotional turmoil what drew you to the character?
I think a lot of the appeal was in the dance of it. A lot of it is really a two-hander, and I love that. They unpick each other in different ways, and they’re very, very different. Connie is a much more physical, guttural presence, and Emma has very rigid boundaries and is focused in her head, whereas Connie’s lost all sense of her head being straight. They gradually change each other, and that sense of control and rigidity and cool that Emma has blows up for her. They do that to each other.
Was another appealing aspect of the series that it’s very much about women’s experiences dealing with a multitude of middle-aged issues, regarding being wives, mothers, and friends?
Yes. The whole thing is written and conceived by my friend Clara Salaman, whom I’ve known for fifty years—we were at school together when we were five. So that was very, very thrilling for me, to have this all come together. And here I am doing some American press for it! It’s really quite something, as far as I’m concerned. Knowing her so well and knowing her sense of humor and her way of looking at things, it just felt like a really lovely way.
When the piece starts, you think you’re dealing with one kind of genre—you think you’re dealing with a particular way of looking at psychosis—and actually, what you’re doing is finding the very, very real cracks and pitfalls and traps that are waiting for so many of us, particularly at that stage of life. Women who’ve got potential car crashes on so many fronts in their life: aging parents, young children, relationships fracturing, so many responsibilities and stresses. It doesn’t take very many steps to see, you know, how far away am I from being that desperate? Or from relying on those particular drugs that are not safe? All of those things. I think it takes a very empathetic view of women in that level of crisis.
Was there ever concern that there might be a backlash to Too Close’s empathy for a woman who’s committed such a horrific act?
I think whatever your reaction is to somebody who’s done something like that, it is in everybody’s interest to understand how they got there—whether or not you have a very moralistic, judgmental view of it. And of course, you should—the law is the law, and she does something terrible. But it’s in everybody’s interest to understand how that happens. And, for instance, the issue of how available those kinds of drugs are, and how unregulated it all is—that’s the most astonishing scandal, really. I think that’s one very strong aspect of it.
Did you research forensic psychiatry for the part, or do you primarily stick to the script?
I talked to a forensic psychiatrist. COVID was frustrating in so many ways, because I couldn’t be in a room with her and I couldn’t spend a lot of time with her. We had Zoom calls, but I would never have been able to go into a psychiatric unit. She was very generous with me in talking about her experiences, and what it was like to share a space with people who are in that state. And also, a sense of how many years’ experience it takes to get to the place where you walk into a room with someone like that and really know what’s going on. It’s an incredibly skilled job that takes many, many years to get to a place where you can really work things out with somebody like that.
The streaming world often prizes long-form storytelling, but Too Close is a three-episode affair. Do you like that relatively brief format, or would you have preferred additional room to expand the series?
No, I’m not a fan of many episodes, I have to say—partly because I don’t like to be away for too long [laughs]. And we might not have made it, had it been longer, because we did it in six weeks, and we were in London when London’s infections were at their lowest at the end of last summer. We were really lucky that we were unscathed. But I always think, some things just feel like they’re trying to look for an ending. You know, just get on with it!
Too Close is built as a stand-alone tale, but it also has the potential to be a recurring series/role. Do you imagine a procedural future for Emma?
We all sat down and looked each other in the eye and said there’s no absolutely no point in agreeing now to continue this. When we’re done with it, and if we all like it, and it feels like there’s more life to it, then maybe let’s all sit down again. But we haven’t had that conversation. It’s there, though, if all parties were to go, yeah.
You work in both TV and film. Is there a difference for you, in terms of preference or approach?
No. I think in terms of the characters, my approach is probably quite similar. It’s a different feeling in a film, in that… I was talking to the other actors on the film I’ve just done, and they’re all quite young, and they were talking about the way it was going to be perceived. I said, well, it’s a totally different thing, being in a movie, because people choose to go to see you in the film. They make an effort to go out to the cinema, and that’s a totally different audience from the one who’s just at home watching something on their TV, doing the chatting that goes along with TV, and the easy opinions that come spewing out afterwards. It’s been fascinating to observe some of that, actually. But yeah, it’s a very different thing, being in a film.
I have to ask about Breaking the Waves, given that it’s the film’s 25th anniversary…
My God! Really?
Amazingly, yes. Is that the film you’re most asked about, and does it loom large over your career?
Yes, there’s a certain handful of things that you’ve done that people just really talk about. There’s that, Punch-Drunk Love, and actually, Equilibrium [laughs]—which I’m sure you’ve never seen.
With Christian Bale—of course I’ve seen it!
[laughs] A lot of taxi drivers go, “Oh God, you were in Equilibrium!”
I would have assumed it was War Horse.
I know, it’s strange. I’ve done such a range of things that different people know you for different stuff. The great thing about Breaking the Waves is that it’s still getting me work. Like, really, seriously. I get on a Zoom call with a director and they go, “Oh my God, Breaking the Waves!” [laughs]
Was there a reason, then, that you never got back together with Lars von Trier?
When you’ve done something with someone that’s that definitive, it’s very difficult to see yourself in another relationship with them in some way, I think. Although he does work again and again with Stellan [Skarsgård], for instance. For about five minutes, I was going to do a tiny thing in Nymphomaniac, but it didn’t work out.
There’s also often a lot of talk about the famous roles you didn’t take, including Amélie (which Jean-Pierre Jeunet wrote for you), and Elizabeth. Do you think about those types of bypassed opportunities, or is that just the nature of the beast when it comes to acting?
The whole industry is one big revolving door, really. And you can usually tell. If you get a script that the shooting date is a long way off, and then a letter from the director saying, “You’re amazing and wonderful for this part,” you think, OK, I believe it. But if you get that letter only a few weeks before shooting, you think, oh yeah, fuck off, how many people have turned this down? [laughs] But a lot of the time, people don’t get their first choice of actor for the project that they’re doing.
You’re one of the few illustrious British actors who didn’t get into the Harry Potter films, but you’re often mistaken for that series’ star Emma Watson. Do you wish you’d joined the fantasy franchise, just so you could avoid that confusion?
[laughs] They did ask me to do something, actually, and I just didn’t want to do it, so I didn’t. And my kids have never forgiven me. But yeah, no, I don’t regret that.