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Emily Watson - IVTR

Interview, Jan, 1999 by Emily Watson

Emily Watson Actress Emily Watson's ability to hit the highest heights and delve into the lowest lows gets another big test in a new movie about the great, tragic cellist Jacqueline du Pre. For this interview, we decided to put her face to face with the person who knew du Pre better than anyone else - her sister, Hilary

She barely resembles the late Jacqueline du Pre. But to see Emily Watson portray du Pre in the new film Hilary and Jackie, directed by Anand Tucker, is to see the great English cellist reborn: as a prodigy; as a willful, needy sister, daughter, and wife; as a victim of multiple sclerosis. Since her shattering debut at age twenty-nine in Breaking the Waves in 1996, Watson has been quietly impressive in The Boxer and the TV Mill on the Floss (both 1997). She is as extraordinary being sulky as she is being elated or inconsolable, and there's no one else like her right now for making emotional weather palpable - rain, shine, and everything in between. Her acting in Hilary and Jackie, though, is mostly a thunderstorm waiting to happen (until it finally does), and there are innumerable moments in the film when she makes one want to run and hide from the spectacle of a human being unpeeling. Is it too early to say she's a great actress? I think not. But she's matched here by Rachel Griffiths as Hilary, the sister on whose marriage Jackie preys as she disintegrates. Their onscreen duet (which echoes that between Watson and Katrin Cartlidge in Breaking the Waves) is head-spinning stuff.

Hilary du Pre was born in Woking, Surrey, in 1942 and her sister Jacqueline in Oxford three years later. Both were natural musicians, but Jackie was the more gifted. She performed her first recital at Wigmore Hall, London, in 1961 and made her American debut at Carnegie Hall in 1965. She married the Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim in 1967. Her legendary performances, in which she and her cello seemed as possessed as new lovers, uneasily ushered classical music into the swinging '60s. But she was a fragile woman who had had intimations of her future paralysis in childhood; unhappily removed from her family by constant touring, the prodigal returned to it with a vengeance in 1971 while suffering a breakdown. It was at this time she began sleeping with Hilary's husband, Kiffer, with Hilary's consent. In October 1973, Jackie was diagnosed with MS. She never played the cello publicly again and died in 1987.

Hilary du Pre's impassioned book (coauthored by brother Piers) about her torturous but loving relationship with her sister was first published as A Genius in the Family in 1997; it has just been reissued as Hilary and Jackie (Ballantine) to coincide with the release of the movie, which is based on it. At last year's Venice film festival, Interview brought Emily Watson and Hilary du Pre together for the first time.


EMILY WATSON: Hilary, how did you feel when you first saw Hilary and Jackie? Was it strange to relive your life through the cinema?

HILARY DU PRE: It was the most extraordinary feeling - I couldn't move for a half hour. Tears were streaming down my face, my neck, my chest, and landing in a puddle on my tummy!

EW: Aw!

HDP: From the very first shot of the little girls playing Jackie and me tearing across the sand dunes to that shot of you as Jackie standing by the sea, I just kept gasping. It was exactly how Jackie stood when she was in that kind of mood. I couldn't believe it. I suddenly began to realize it wasn't Jackie at all - it was you. But then it wasn't. It was Jackie. [laughs]

EW: I think we did that shot on the very last day of filming and I'd probably begun to inhabit the role by then. It's so weird talking to you because I feel as if I know her, but, of course, I never met her. And you're her sister. . . .

HDP: I would say you do know her because you got her whole essence. It's interesting to me that hundreds of cellists try to imitate the movements Jackie made when she was playing and it never works. Yet you were able to get it exactly right.

EW: You wouldn't say that if you heard the noise I was making. [laughs]

HDP: I said "move" - I didn't say "sound"! Tell me, Emily, why did you want to play Jackie?

EW: It was the first script I'd read since I did Breaking the Waves that made me feel terrified. It was like someone threw down a gauntlet. I felt I didn't have the moral right to tell so intimate a story unless I attempted to get the essence of Jackie - which was the music. I also knew I wouldn't be able to get to the center of her if we hired a hand double for the film, so I needed to play the cello myself. I began by learning a tune so I could sing it and then learned the fingering for playing it on the cello, which was a very long and laborious process. My fingers were so blistered after the first week I was wearing plasters on them, and by the end they were callused. Once I'd got the hang of a tune, I'd play it over and over again until I'd mastered a piece and then my husband Jack would videotape me so I could study it. After that, I started working with a movement teacher to try and get that sense of playing the cello with the whole body, as Jackie did.


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