AS A ‘feral’ child, Samantha Morton would escape a day on the streets by sneaking into a cinema without a ticket. She’s come a long way since then, but is now at peace with her troubled past, she tells Chitra Ramaswamy
YOU never know what Samantha Morton is going to do next. One minute she is Mary, Queen of Scots, the next she is Myra Hindley. She can play old and young; soft or tough as old boots. She can be sweet and vulnerable (Control), broken and grieving (Morvern Callar, In America), or say nothing at all (Sweet and Lowdown) and still break your heart. Then, at the age of 31, she can go off and make a very beautiful and very sad TV drama about her childhood experiences growing up in care. And now in Disney’s multimillion-dollar, mega-blockbuster sci-fi epic, John Carter, Morton has morphed again, this time into a CG Martian with green skin, tusks, and four arms.
“I don’t over-analyse what I do,” she says. “But I do know that I’m not how people assume an actress would be. I’ve met actors who are technically very brilliant but they keep themselves locked away. I’m always changing and bringing everything I am in life to everything I do on film. I don’t feel there is an acting Sam and a real Sam. There’s just me.”
In the case of John Carter, adapted from the cult series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs first published in 1917, this meant learning to walk on stilts in the Utah desert. It also meant, in the time-honoured tradition (think Elvish and Klingon), learning the language of the Thark race.
“We did a lot of rehearsal in London, developing the accent and, basically, learning to speak Thark,” Morton says with a giggle. “There was training with stiltwalking and getting used to wearing a camera on our heads, capturing and mapping everything we were doing. So even on set I had to walk and move my arms and head differently. It was intense.” Morton cocks her head, waggles her arms, and just like that, even in a lace dress, high heels and thick-rimmed spectacles, she becomes a Thark.
How does she go about embodying a character? “I find the spirit of people quite easily. It just comes to me. It’s a no-brainer.” Really? Isn’t that the hardest part? In response Morton asks if I like books, which I do. “Well you know how your imagination can see the characters, hear them almost? That’s what it’s like as an actress. To be an actor of any calibre, to be worth your salt, you have to be able to translate that imagination into something physical. That’s what acting is.
“The fun stuff is figuring out the physicality. Years ago, when I played Jane Eyre, I remember thinking about how she would hold her hands and the posture of the time. When you see actresses doing costume dramas their postures are modern because they do yoga and work out so the softness isn’t there. I like to look at how people are historically.”
We meet in London the morning after the UK premiere of John Carter. People always talk about how unrecognisable Morton is in person and, sure enough, when I walk into the hotel suite, I’m taken aback by how grown-up she looks: all feminine and voluptuous with long flowing hair and cute apple cheeks. (An hour after the interview I discover she is pregnant with her third child. That’s how good she is at disguising herself.) But she is also curiously ageless with that soft voice and mouth full of tiny teeth. The overall impression is one of singularity and a particularly English eccentricity. She is a bit like a harder-edged Helena Bonham Carter.
There is something refreshingly real and wilful about Morton. She knows just how good she is and isn’t afraid to say it. “I had to deliver all aspects of this character. I believed I could, and I did.”
She is very forthright, throwing questions at me before I’ve asked a single one. When did I watch the film? Did I wear 3D glasses? Would I like something to drink? Morton is a brilliant interviewee: self-aware, smart, candid, and charming. This, too, is unexpected. She has a reputation for being difficult and defensive, unsurprising considering the amount of focus, much of it lurid, on her childhood. The fact is that since she directed her own film, The Unloved, she has changed.
“If you’re going to openly say ‘this is my childhood’ you’ve given it away. It’s no longer a myth or something people can misinterpret. I’ve said what I have to say. That’s very cathartic and I can now hold my head up.”
Also, she started acting when she was 11 and effectively grew up in the public. Things that might once have been true are no longer so.
“I think reputation is a harsh word. Only one person has to dislike you. And I think I was defensive before The Unloved. So have I been difficult? Yes, I probably have. When I was younger I was very feisty. If I felt I was being abused or having to take my clothes off for no particular reason, I would go, ‘No, I’m not doing it.’ That can be seen as tricky. And there are journalists out there giving journalism a bad name and I suffered that, to the detriment of my health and my family’s health. But it’s all out there now. People can say what they want.”
Morton’s childhood was spent in and out of care. She grew up in Nottingham, the third child with an elder brother and sister. Her parents split up when her father had an affair with the 15-year-old babysitter, who became pregnant; they subsequently got married. Her mother married an alcoholic, whose death emerged a year ago after Morton wrote an open letter to him in a high-end men’s magazine, Port, where she is the film editor. “My stepdad was from Glasgow so I spent a lot of my childhood there,” she says. “He was an amazing man… And my foster parents live in Edinburgh so I went to Scotland all the time from the age of two.”
What are her memories of Glasgow? “Oh god, mostly sitting outside Ibrox, waiting,” she laughs. Later, when the interview is over, Morton keeps me talking about Rangers and Celtic until the publicist has to shoo me away.
By the age of seven Morton was made a ward of court. The following years were spent between children’s homes, foster families, homeless hostels, and the street. There was a period when Morton was heavily taking drugs. Many of the girls she knew turned to prostitution (two were murdered). At one point Morton threatened a girl with a knife and was convicted of threats to kill, serving an 18-week sentence at an attendance centre.
It’s extraordinary that in the midst of all this chaos, without anyone to care for her, she found acting. “I didn’t seek it out. And at the time when I started acting my life wasn’t chaotic at all. I was with a very lovely foster family and everything was very calm.” She pauses for a moment and then changes her mind. “In hindsight, looking back, it must have been chaotic because you’re here, then here, then here… but I didn’t feel like that. Children don’t.” It was a schoolteacher who told Morton she had acting talent.
“Not a precocity or a brashness. I mean I wasn’t doing ballet and jazz and tap, no disrespect to Bonnie Langford.” She laughs her head off. “I was just confident, I suppose. Not about lots of other things, but definitely about that.”
What was the first film she saw at the cinema? “It was by accident, and we snuck in. Me, my brother and sister used to be quite feral. We would be sent out in the morning with salad cream sandwiches folded in half and told not to come back until dark.” Later, she tells me in passing that she was somewhere between the ages of three and six at the time. “We would sneak into the ABC cinema and the first film I saw was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was really little so I just have this memory of the poster outside. The cinema was a safe place for me because it was warm. If you’re on the streets as a kid it’s good to be able to go in the back door of the cinema and hide in one of those red velvet seats. Cinema started off for me as a place of refuge.” And, in the end, acting was what saved her: another place of refuge. She smiles, showing a glimpse of tiny teeth. “Yes…”
Morton has been called the best actress of her generation. Directors often cite her as the person with whom they would most like to work. Tom Cruise, who starred opposite her in Minority Report, referred to her talent as “lightning in a bottle”. She has been twice nominated for an Oscar, and The Unloved won a Bafta for best film. It’s a truly remarkable story of survival. Yet it’s her family that she sees as her greatest success. She, her partner Harry Holm (son of actor Ian Holm), and children live in the Peak District where she never gets recognised, life goes on, and that’s just how she likes it.
“You can’t let the past bog you down. You know that it’s there, but you just have to get on with it. ” She stops, does a comedy impression of some mournful violins, and laughs.
• John Carter is in cinemas from tomorrow