Oscar loves a good speech. In Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins’ Elisa gets one of the best and most moving in recent memory. And yet, she does it without saying a word. Elisa is mute, and Hawkins had to learn period ASL for the ’60s-set tale of a cleaner (Hawkins) at a government facility who falls madly in love with an unusual creature from the deep that is being held in her workplace’s darkest recesses. “The way he looks at me,” she signs, “he doesn’t know what I lack.”
How does it feel to learn Guillermo del Toro has written his new script with a lead role meant for you?
It’s an incredible thing. A lot of directors do that; they write for the voice in their head. And Guillermo wrote those roles for Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon, too. And Doug, of course. That’s the kind of man he is. It’s like a gift that has landed from the skies.
It was all a bit odd, how I came to be involved, like one of those synchronistic, little pieces of coincidence and magic; suddenly all the pieces fell into place and you’re on this incredible journey. I got the call about 18 months before, when there wasn’t even a script. It was all a little vague, and it may or may not have happened, but what was most remarkable about it was my agent said, “It’s about a woman who falls in love with a merman.” At the time of receiving that call, I was literally writing some notes on a story that was about a woman who didn’t know she was a mermaid. It gave me chills, and I felt something else must have been going on here. You want to believe in the magic.
But Guillermo could have asked me to do anything and I’d have been there. It’s Guillermo del Toro.
What kind of a director is he?
He is the most remarkable person, and you feel honored to be in his presence. He inspires everyone he comes into contact with, and everyone who he works with just wants to do the best for him and will go above and beyond to make sure his vision is fulfilled. Guillermo is an important filmmaker and a force for good in the film industry. He has so much knowledge, and creativity in abundance. He’s good-humored, he has an incredible heart and he crackles with intelligence. He makes you feel like you could be the best version of yourself. You learn so much from him.
Mike Leigh has a similar way of inspiring people to do their very best. He, too, demands a creativity from every single component so that people feel incredibly engaged, creatively. It’s the only way to be. Because if you’re not loving it, and loving the people you’re working with, and being completely passionate, then there’s no point.
What went through your mind when you read the script?
Reading the script was very emotional for me, and it said so much to me about life and mortality, how small and vulnerable we are. It spoke about oppression and suppression, and the big, dark forces in our world. And yet, on the other side of that was this incredible, powerful, gentle force. It’s love, which, like water, can cut through rock. Guillermo speaks so beautifully, and profoundly, and unequivocally on that in this piece.
I saw it all coming together, and getting richer and richer, like this incredible tapestry. It was exciting to be a part of that and to be this tiny little creature in this great web. It’s an incredible ensemble, that Guillermo has choreographed so beautifully. It’s like a dance. The score, the cinematography, and the incredible work of these other actors, just giving magic.
I was lucky to be a part of that. I felt, every day, like I’d have a tap on the shoulder to be asked to leave. As clichéd as it sounds, I really felt that was going to happen at any moment. Or I’d wake up from the dream. Richard Jenkins is a hero of mine, and so are Michael Shannon and Octavia Spencer. It really felt like I was going to be found out at any moment.
Did you immediately know who your character, Elisa, was?
As soon as I knew about her, I felt I knew her. She is an extraordinary woman, and so complex. I love the contradictions and tensions within her. She’s not one thing or the other, she’s both. It’s a very strange thing, because her inner life is so strong and rich, and yet no one would really know about it. All the dreams, and the things she would talk to herself about. We all have that, really. And Elisa does express herself. She speaks just as clearly as the rest of us, just without using language.
Finding the purity of Elisa, and getting her soul right—her energy, her essence—was such a delicate, fine thing. That purity of her soul was important. She has a real gentleness of heart, and yet there’s a real strength within her. I feel that so strongly because I think it’s something we are often really, really missing in this world. I find that very scary, that we have become more and more cynical. True innocence, and true purity of being, has been lost.
Do you see Guillermo in Elisa?
Oh, completely. He is Elisa. He has her resolve and her complete vulnerability. And that’s what his power is, I think, because he’s only 100% true to himself. When he’s not, it breaks his heart. And for Elisa it’s impossible not to follow her heart, because she knows that would be death for both of them. That’s the ultimate romantic in Guillermo. It’s why he’s able to tell such stories, which are profoundly important. He is such a fan of mythology and legends, and he understands the importance of the stories we tell again and again. They’re essential to the human psyche.
Elisa’s relationship with the creature Doug Jones plays is so natural—the fact that he’s a creature from the deep seems almost incidental. How did you work with Doug on that relationship?
Elisa doesn’t see him in any other way than just the being that he is—she sees his soul. It makes her recognize something in herself. It was wonderful to work with Doug because, like Guillermo, he’s another genius. He has an incredible ability to move and transform his body, but it’s his heart that shines through. This relationship wouldn’t work without Doug, and the incredible heart that sings out under this rubber suit, soaked through with water, weighing a ton.
I never saw Doug, I saw this incredible being that loved Elisa. They recognize each other, and that’s all that matters. How can you look at him and think that he’s a monster? And he’s incredibly sexy. That was very important to Guillermo. He has this incredible body, and getting his bottom right was so important to Guillermo. It’s a beautiful bum [laughs].
Elisa is mute and she communicates with sign language. What was involved in learning that?
It was a lot of work. I’d done a brief bit of sign language before, in a scene in a play. But it really is learning a new language. Having only a few weeks to do it in, you’re never going to be fluent, but I didn’t want to give myself away. I wanted it to feel as seamless as possible. So I could never do enough preparation. It was a period piece, as well, so it was period ASL [American Sign Language], and yet also with it being an amalgamation of things she cobbled together, because of where she’d probably have learnt it. We discussed briefly that she’s probably learnt it from a book, and spliced it together from things she’d picked up. So she had her own language within that, which gave a bit of leeway. I still wanted to be as accurate as possible, for it to have that layer of richness, so that it could be understood on another level.
There were certain technical things I needed to acquire, and quickly. I had the luxury of a little bit of time beforehand to do some dance practice for that sequence, and I wanted to start learning ASL in London, as quickly as I could. I happened to be in LA preparing the dance, and then I learnt some more ASL there. But it was all the foundations. Once I got to Toronto, where the film was shot, it was stepped up to another level. It’s like doing an intense course, and you can never do enough work.
There was also the singing, which we weren’t even sure was going to get used. That was an added stress, because you’re never quite sure what’s going to be needed when you’re in rehearsals and doing prep. So you want to cover all bases, to allow Guillermo to be free to do what he needed and wanted. And it was also for me, to be free and not think about it, or trip myself up. To be worrying about that on the day, then you’re not doing your job, because you’re not in the scene. I couldn’t wing it, ever.
The premiere in Venice was an emotional experience for everyone. What went through your mind?
It was overwhelming, and incredibly emotional, that night. I hadn’t actually seen the film in its entirety until then, and I never really like to see anything with a huge audience. The pressure of that night, when you’re being watched, that was hard. But, for whatever reason, I wasn’t able to see it before, so that was my first experience. You’re trying to process all you’re seeing, and then the emotion of the night at the same time. It’s the first launch of this film that means so much to you and has been a huge part of your heart. It’s more than I can really put into words, and the response was just beautiful. And it was beautiful, especially, because of how it affected Guillermo. To see him be honored in that way, with that standing ovation to him, that response meant everything. To see Guillermo so moved… I couldn’t stop crying, which is what I’m doing now as I remember it.
He picked you up and held you aloft at the end.
I mean, that’s Guillermo [laughs]. He follows his heart and goes with him emotions, and I love that. That was how he was feeling, and it was the last thing I expected. I thought he was going to throw me down the stairs [laughs]. But it was just magic. That, for me, was the highlight. What a gift. It doesn’t get any better than that. I’ve done it all now; I’ve been held aloft at the Venice Biennale.