Interview: Samantha Morton, actress with a simple message

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Working-class girl Samantha Morton is proof you don't need a celebrity lifestyle to be a star. Our reporter meets an actor whose successful career has been on her own terms

• Samantha Morton in The Messenger

A FEW years ago, when Samantha Morton was playing a junkie runaway prostitute on the Granada TV series Band of Gold, a journalist visiting the Yorkshire set asked her if she had a plan for her career. She said no.

"I didn't have a plan and I still don't," says Morton today. "And every time I think it's not going to happen again because a good script hasn't come through or a there isn't a part that I really want to do, something amazing happens and restores my faith."

Given that Morton, who has only just turned 34, has had the kind of artistically credible and commercially high-profile career any driven young actor would and should covet, it's hardly surprising that people are keen to ascribe her success to lots of goal-oriented forward planning. A two-time Oscar nominee, she has, to date, worked with an impressive roster of top-class film-makers, including Woody Allen (Sweet and Lowdown), Steven Spielberg (Minority Report), Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar), Jim Sheridan (In America), Anton Corbijn (Control) and Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York).

Her list of co-stars is no less formidable, having gone head-to-head with the likes of Sean Penn, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Johnny Depp. She's also a Bafta-winning filmmaker in her own right (for her directorial debut, The Unloved) and will soon start filming David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, having already completed her work on John Carter, Pixar's first foray into live-action film-making.

"I think I've been very lucky, given I'm very working-class, and I've managed to do very well in America and here," smiles Morton. "I still get work and I've done it on my own terms. I'm not a big celebrity. I don't feel I have to be a certain way to get work. There are people out there that I admire that like to work with me, so it's all going alright."

One of those people is Oren Moverman(see interview, right), the writer/director of her latest film, The Messenger. Having known the film-maker since starring in Jesus' Son (Moverman wrote the screenplay), Morton had been attached to several subsequent projects, all of which fell apart, so when he called with The Messenger, she didn't want to turn him down. Even though the timing was lousy.

"He said, 'Would you do it?' I said, 'I'm about to have a baby. I really am about to have a baby, any day, so I don't know if I can.' And then I read it and I thought I can't not do it. So they were really amenable to me and I was able to go over with my young child and shoot it."

Revolving around an emotionally scarred soldier (played by Ben Foster) who has been assigned to "bereavement notification" duty for the remainder of his service, The Messenger casts Morton as the recipient of one such piece of devastating news. That her character, a young mother called Olivia, doesn't react the way one might expect when informed her husband has just been killed in a war makes The Messenger a far more compelling film than other attempts to deal with the after-effects of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"This did feel like a very sensitive film in respects to the woman that was left behind," says Morton. "With Olivia, it was more about the fact that she had lost her husband to the war, psychologically, a long time before, so it was really just about trying to be a single mother. And I've been a single mother, so I thought, 'I can really identify with her.' In a way, it was one of the first characters I've played in a long time where I've felt so much in common."

Part of the reason for this was also her own connection to the military and her interest in the way war-damaged men have to re-enter society often without proper support or counselling. "My step-father was in Northern Ireland when I was a kid, so I grew up with a lot of stuff that was coming up for him due to his time there." Her brother was also in the Marines. "He served in both wars and Sierra Leone and he's now a private security guard in Iraq, so it's familiar territory. I didn't have to do much research."

Has either seen The Messenger? "I don't know. My family don't really watch a lot of my stuff. They like soap operas. Films are a bit too arty-farty for my family."

Morton says this with an affection that belies her own harrowing, well-documented childhood. She was bounced around care homes and spent a couple of her formative years living in squats and homeless shelters, so it's something that has a tendency to dominate any interview with her, but it also seems to have given her a no-nonsense approach to her profession.

Regardless of the film or size of the part, she says she just turns up to do her job and tries not to get involved in why the director wanted to make the film. And while she'll admit to perhaps being a little bit Method while on set, she doesn't take her work home with her. For the sake of her kids, she won't allow herself. "It's incredibly difficult performing with a small child in the trailer because it's emotional stuff and we protect our children in all the ways that we do."

During The Messenger's shoot, she says she "had to make sure that the walk back to the trailer was like, 'Phew, get it off,' so I can be happy."

Her youngest daughter, Edie, was just four months old at the time (the film was made three years ago), so it's a measure of how much she wanted to do The Messenger that she found the time, especially since it also overlapped with prepping her directorial debut, The Unloved, a deeply personal drama about a 13-year-old girl in the care system.

"We had the money from Channel 4, and they had a deal where they could shoot a movie and it would come out at the cinema and on telly at the same time," she says, picking up the story of why she suddenly found herself working so hard having just given birth.

"Then all of a sudden we were given a release date. So we wrote it and shot it and edited it and delivered it without a break. It kind of drove me a bit loopy. Edie was only eight weeks old when we sat down to write it, so it was a really hard. But if you don't do it when they say they have the money, then you're not going to do it."

Morton had been desperate to tell that particular story since she was 16, so it's understandable that she made the schedule work for her, even though, again, the timing was lousy. Would she direct again?

"At the time I said no, but because I hadn't seen Edie properly. I saw her as much as I could, but I just thought, 'This is insane trying to be a parent and direct.'

"I think acting and being a parent is a lot easier than directing. But I'm ready now, I really loved it, so if they'll have me, I'll come back."

• The Messenger is in cinemas from Friday.