Emily Watson Talks About The Politician's Husband In The Times

Emily Watson, who stars alongside David Tennant in The Politician's Husband, talks about the power of politics and the power of the bedroom in the role in the Times today.

Be aware that the interview contains some minor spoilers and a description of a graphic scene.

The Politician's Husband will premiere on Thursday 25th April at 9pm on BBC Two, say the Times

Read more about the drama here


There is tension in the chamber. On a front bench on the green-seated House of Commons set first used for Jeffrey Archer’s First Among Equals in 1986, and most recently dominated by Meryl Streep’s Maggie Thatcher, sits Emily Watson. Regarded since her film debut in Lars von Trier’s controversial movie Breaking The Waves as one of the most gifted British actors of her generation, she is about to make her character’s big parliamentary speech in Paula Milne’s new BBC Two mini-series The Politician’s Husband.

Such is her concentration that when we are introduced she barely acknowledges me. Yet when her moment comes, Freya Gardner, the politician of the title, delivers a flat and clichéd bromide. Only much later when I meet Watson do I realise that this is the point. The speech, Watson explains in her forthright way, may be a parliamentary triumph, but it is “complete shitey gobbledegook”.

Just as it is sometimes said that politics has moved from Westminster to (take your pick and decade) the picket line, television, lobbyists, the City or the net, Milne, author of the key 1990s political drama The Politician’s Wife, has devised a drama that shifts it somewhere else again. “The power play manifests itself in bed,” the 65-year-old author of The Virgin Queen and White Heat tells me in a white-walled corridor of power behind the set. “Libido is part of power. A political drama cannot just be about the cynicism we feel towards politics. To engage a British audience that holds a cynical view of politics, you need an emotional prism.”

What I do not know when we talk in June are the extremes to which Milne has gone to shake us from our apathy. In an echo of a violent bed scene in The Politician’s Wife — a scene some actors objected to during casting, but which in the end was manfully taken on by Trevor Eve — David Tennant’s Aiden Hoynes MP anally rapes his MP wife after she “betrays” him on television. It is a shocking scene and, nine months later, when Emily Watson and I speak at a hotel in London she disputes neither my paraphrase nor my reaction.

“Freya is a very sexual person, but she’s a faithful wife and she’s a good mum,” she says. “She’s very kind of slightly kinky, an edgy sexual relationship, but in a stable marriage.” So that scene must have been shocking to read and to perform? “In order to serve their own political ambitions, they have to present a united front. Then the power struggle between them becomes so intense that it spills into violence. God, a nightmare! I mean, sex scenes are always a bit of a nightmare, because it’s embarrassing. You’re simulating a sex act. But this was particularly violent, and it’s a bit, sort of, ‘Mummy, what did you do at work today?’ ‘Uh, well, you know that Doctor Who ... ?’”

Are sex scenes really a nightmare for her? She’s done quite a few, from Breaking the Waves on. “Throughout my career — particularly in America — whenever I've had to do anything like this, people are so unbelievably coy. I just think, ‘ I've worked in Scandinavia, come on.’ In Synecdoche, New York, the [2008] Charlie Kaufman film, I was stark bollock naked for about five minutes, just wandering about, talking. I had to send myself slightly mad to be able to do it, but I just remember thinking: ‘Hell, I've worked in Scandinavia. I’ll rehearse naked.’ So I just did it. I just took all my clothes off and wandered around. And after a few minutes, it was like, so what?”

She told Philip Seymour Hoffman, with whom she shared the scene, a friend from Punch-Drunk Love six years before, that this would, however, be the last time she would be “getting her pups” out for the cameras. She has honoured her threat.

“With Politician’s Husband, I sat down with [the director] Simon Cellan Jones at the beginning, and said: ‘Look, I will do this, but I am not taking my clothes off. Not because I'm modest, but because I'm vain. I do not want my naked body in your movie.’ ”

Tennant, she assures me, was a “complete gentleman”, and they had a laugh afterwards. Aiden, in contrast, is a humourless career politician from the cockpit of Oxbridge politics, a man without subtlety, who literally grabs his rivals by the balls. “He can’t be honest. He’s replaced real intimacy with sexual intimacy, emotional intimacy with sexual intimacy,” Watson says of their marriage. But Freya, Watson thinks, is from a grammar school and a cultured middle-class background. “She has an emotional inheritance which tempers her ambition in a way, or makes her more able to cover for it.”

It is the dynamic between Freya and Aiden that makes the drama. They are both rising stars in a non-specified government party, but when Aiden’s attempt to topple the Prime Minister fails, Freya is brought into the Cabinet on the basis of Lyndon Johnson’s belief that it’s better to have an enemy inside your tent pee(r)ing out than the reverse. (Watson spoke to James Purnell, whose resignation attack on Gordon Brown in 2009 also failed to spark a coup, who confirmed the brutal cynicism of these things.) A future switch in political ranking between Mr and Mrs Ed Balls is brought to mind, although not, both Milne and Watson insist, necessarily to theirs.

But, for Watson, the series’ premise has the potential to be painfully personal. She met her husband, Jack Waters, when they were both actors at the RSC, and they married in 1995. Subsequently, however, Waters switched from acting to writing, a career in which he has struggled to achieve recognition. Watson, at 46, is at the peak of her success; last year, she won awards for the Fred West drama Appropriate Adult. She and Waters have two children under 8 years old, and live in Greenwich. While filming on location, which she now limits to two-week stints, she keeps in touch by Skype: “I have much more of an evident career and an evident success than he does,” she says, “but the longer you’re in a relationship the less that stuff kind of matters. Also the evident stuff is not what your relationship is about. My job is incredibly intense and quite highly strung and high-powered, and blah, blah, blah, but it’s really part-time.”

Has he written anything recently? “Not recently, no. He’s been taking a bit of time out from it. It’s been a bit tough on him. But he’s written some beautiful things — not anything that’s actually made it to the screen, but he came very close with something recently.”

Unlike the Hoynes-Gardner union, I presume it is happy marriage. “Yes. People assume a narrative and assume a path and assume a story for marriages, and actually it is what you make it. The roles that you play within that are your choosing. You get to a post-Chekhovian moment when you decide: ‘Actually, let’s love the life we’re in.’ There’s been aspects that have been really tough and quite challenging, but we’re sticking with it.”

Again and again in her film career, Watson has proved willing to expose not so much her skin as her nerve endings: the mother in Angela’s Ashes, the cellist dying of MS in Hilary and Jackie, the social worker uniting mothers with children in Oranges and Sunshine, and Janet Leach, mentally manipulated by Fred West in Appropriate Adult. I wonder if hers might not have been a very different film career had it not begun in 1996 with Breaking the Waves, in which she portrays a very simple young woman, overwhelmed by grief when her husband is injured on an oil rig, and then instructed by him to have promiscuous sex and report back. The part won her her first slew of acting prizes, but must have been psychologically exhausting.

She says: “But then as actor, you think: ‘This is great, this is weird and extreme and I'm on the very edge of things.’ Also, I kind of wasn't quite old enough to process it.”

So is her portrayal of suffering a matter of technique, or is she accessing something within her? “God! Can of worms! I read some sort of health thing somewhere where someone said: ‘I really worry about actors, because their body doesn't know it’s not real.’ And it’s true about what you put yourself through. To the very best of your ability, you try to make it feel as real as possible, so that you get to very upset, distressed, emotionally overwrought extremes. In life, you do it once. On a film set, you do it take after take after take. It has an effect on your body. You’re walking down neural pathways that are real, to all intents and purposes. So you’re practising an emotional response that isn't related to your real life, and then when you get home and the internet shopping delivery is an hour late, and it’s not a crisis, you have to learn to keep it down. And that’s something I used to be fine with, because I didn't really compute it, but now as I get older I realise that actually it’s impacted on me quite a lot.

“That sense of calm and clarity is something I really yearn for, and don’t often have. There’s always a fear of tumultuous change and of trying to make everything work. I think that’s been informed by the nature of the parts I've played.”

In The Politician’s Husband, Watson is required to do something different: to convey the emotions whipped up by a destructive marriage while wearing a politician’s mask of professional serenity. One wonders what terrors would be unleashed if Freya tore it off. And perhaps she does; I have yet to see the final episode.

Meanwhile, the parliamentary news is that Wimbledon Studios has sniffed change in the air and has sold its House of Commons set on eBay.

Interview by Andrew Billen

Source: The Times