Samantha Morton is known for her brilliant roles in Minority Report (her co-star Tom Cruise called her acting “lightning in a bottle”), Synecdoche, New York and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
With two Oscar nominations to her name, as well as a BAFTA and a Golden Globe, the British actress has scaled the heights of her profession. Still, she looks to her younger self to select the parts she plays. She tells Dan Crowe how she chooses what’s next and why the #MeToo moment has to be the start of something even bigger.
Samantha Morton’s relationship with film started early. Aged just “four or five,” she’d sneak into her local cinema with her brother and sister, dodging the usherettes through the fire escape. One rainy day, they barged in on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Samantha was transfixed.
“We watched it over and over, all day long. We must have watched it three or four times. And it did something to my brain, the sound of it, the way it looked, the sheer quality. I think it affected how my mind actually developed; I really feel it put me on a different track, to be watching that, on such a huge screen.”
Although she came from a family that loved film, she’d never seen anything like Kubrick’s masterpiece. “This was more an hallucinatory experience,” she remembers.
“I think in the same way that childhood trauma can rewire the brain, in a real, neurological way, the same can be said for inspiring experiences. Some of these good and bad things have absolutely informed and influenced who I am as a person, as an actress.”
Samantha had a difficult upbringing and was taken into foster care before she was ten. She suffered sexual abuse in the system and fell into drugs, but she found some solace on stage when she started acting in her early teens. It’s no surprise then, that “younger Sam,” as she calls it, still shapes many of her professional choices.
“I have to feel a very strong connection to the younger Sam,” she says. “There used to be a very transparent truth to my choices of work. It was all based on an instinct with the script, the role. At the time I was lucky enough – and I think it is luck – to not be bothered about fame or ambition. I was carefree to be honest.
“When you come from nothing, like I did, you’re not afraid of anything. So when I’m looking at a role, I need to be able to visualize her, feel her and know it’s right. Still now, even if it’s to the detriment of what’s practically the right thing to do, I always go on heart and emotion.”
There used to be a very transparent truth to my choices of work. It was all based on an instinct with the script, the role.
Few creatives talk of letting their past define their present as lucidly as Samantha. “To an extent all thoughts are a conversation with your past self,” she says. “I think you have to check yourself constantly, in all aspects of your life, not just creative stuff.
“You do need to keep an eye on your own decisions, especially if you have family. It’s incredible making art, but not if it’s hurting people. So you do have to ask practical questions when it comes to work. But my initial response to a new role is, and always has been, emotional. Instinctual. And that aspect, which has always interested me, connects me to my past.”
On screen, Samantha has an understated naturalistic style which holds however surreal the material she’s working with. Take Synecdoche, New York, a postmodern story by Charlie Kaufman on which she worked with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman
“We had a real connection,” she remembers. “So many actors, when you’re watching them or working with them, you can see it all happening. They’re not actually listening to the other characters in the scene; they’re just performing their lines. And that’s not acting. But he was insanely generous with his craft, Phil. It’s being generous and caring. And that’s why it looks real: it is real.”
It’s well-documented of course that as female actors get older and their craft gets more honed, the number of roles on offer actually drops
“Getting into a role, finding out who they are, finding the beat comes easily now. I don’t have to struggle; that came with age and it’s a beautiful feeling. As I get older, I’m really comfortable in my own skin. The 20-something Sam felt she was ok in her own skin, but, looking back, I had all the neurosis of finding a partner, wanting family, wanting to settle, all of that stuff. Now I have found those things, it’s easier.
“That clarity and calm means I can get into a role more easily – find them in myself and hear their voice.”
Looking back now she’s amazed how hard the younger Sam was on herself. But having a family – and five pets – has changed her perspective on her life, her work and the relationship between the two.
“I suppose I have developed routines and rhythm, a shorthand for taking care of myself,” she explains. “Knowing that I have to do that, because if I don’t, I’ll fall apart. I need to be strong for everyone else. It’s that thing of taking the oxygen mask first, because you have to be healthy. It sounds brutal, but you need to be strong to look after those around you.”
That clarity and calm means I can get into a role more easily, find them in myself and hear their voice.
Moving behind the camera as a director has also shifted her creative mindset. Her 2009 directorial debut, The Unloved, about an 11-year-old girl in the care system, won a BAFTA, British television’s highest accolade.
She finds directing calls on a very different skill set. “The board of people you have to deal with, saying this can’t happen or, do it like this. Creatively it’s very different. It’s political. Managing teams of people, that was an eye-opener for sure.”
But clearly it’s a change she’s embraced. “There’s something euphoric about doing a different thing,” she says. “As I’ve been acting for so long, to do more directing would be interesting and I would be very excited about that. But it’s absolutely brutal being a woman in the film industry. Brutal. It’s terrible. It’s a boy’s show still, I’m afraid.
“The #MeToo movement is important and if people want to organize that, brilliant. But there needs to be bigger changes – to do with how we school our kids; how we teach them what’s right and wrong; how the industries are set up; the pay gap. The list goes on. We need changes at root level.”
And now this huge cultural shift means that the film industry no longer has everything its own way. Television, she firmly believes, is where the creativity is at.
“I’m lucky that I have a great career in television at the moment,” she says. “Certainly in the UK there was a type of snobbery, but not any more. Being able to tell a story in long form, through a series, you can really see the arc of characters being developed, and this is where some groundbreaking work is taking place.”
And would the younger Sam approve of this move to the small screen? “Very much so,” she says defiantly. “Very much.”
Header image by Linda Brownlee / Getty Images