The first time I interviewed Samantha Morton, we ended up really drunk and she told me – firmly, boozily off-the-record – that she’d been charged with attempted murder as a teenager.
With that on her police record, however, it made gaining entry to America problematic. When Woody Allen cast her in 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, the then-21-year-old had to explain her situation to the director and fight for her visa. It paid off: Morton would be nominated for an Oscar for the role. Four years later she received a second Oscar nomination, for Jim Sheridan’s In America.
Several years after our encounter, the actor told the story on the record, clarifying that the incident occurred during a riot in the Nottingham care home in which she was resident. She was “tripping” on drugs at the time, and was eventually convicted of threats to kill, a lesser charge.
Morton is that kind of woman: blazingly honest, never willing to duck blame and committed to owning every aspect of her past, from her turbulent childhood to the highs and lows of her career.
Meeting her again last week in a café by Parliament Hill in north London the same unvarnished candour is on display. There is no booze this time, but despite recent challenges she seems relaxed and there is a smiling warmth about her.
First, the good stuff. Work-wise, Morton, 41, is on a roll. In May she heads to Atlanta for the six-month shoot of the new series of hugely popular zombie drama The Walking Dead, in which she’s been cast as a key villain. Her 19-year-old daughter Esme, also an actor, won’t be going. But Morton, her partner Harry Holm (son of actor Ian Holm), Edie, 11 and Theo, four, will be relocating from their farmstead in the Peak District. In stark contrast, out this month is Two For Joy, a British indie film in which she stars alongside Billie Piper and Daniel Mays. She plays a mum living with mental health issues and being cared for by her children. “The toughest role I’ve ever done,” she says of a low-budget film by a first-time director. “My mum died on the Saturday and on the Monday I was shooting. But I’d agreed to do it and they’d got the money – if I said I couldn’t do it, they wouldn’t have got to make the film.”
For Morton, principles and commitments had to take precedence over personal grief – even when that loss was a kind of full-stop on a very chaotic family background. Her parents split after her father got the 15-year-old babysitter pregnant, and her mother’s next partner was an alcoholic. It meant that, from the age of eight, Morton was shuttled between foster care and children’s homes.
Starting on TV this week, another project that further amplifies her range, series two of Harlots. Morton plays a madam in a brothel in 18th century London. Morton went deep into the role, putting on weight to evoke “a woman in a Hogarth painting: bigger, buxom, a traditional bawd”. “I was fascinated by how far we’ve come, and in some ways haven’t come, within the sex industry,” she says. “And it’s a subject really close to my heart: the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of why women sell their bodies for sex. How they stumble into it, through debt really. It’s always debt.”
Despite the sex scenes, there was no intimacy director, as there increasingly is on film and television sets. But she applauds the idea, and would have loved one “when I was 16 and doing Band of Gold and the director was telling me to take my top off.”
That mid-Nineties series about prostitution in Bradford was written by dramatist Kay Mellor. It was Morton’s breakout role, a job that came hard on the heels of a childhood and early teenage years scarred by familial breakdown, disrupted schooling, serious anger issues and homelessness and spells in care.
“I was crying in my trailer because I didn’t want to do it,” she remembers, “and it didn’t say in the script that I was topless. It was just a gratuitous sex scene.
“I didn’t have an appropriate adult with me, I didn’t have a mum or dad or friend. I was considered difficult because of not coming out my trailer. Then a very kind costume lady said: ‘Put corn plasters on your nipples.’ Then I went to set and shot the scene.”
Since, Morton has mixed television with independent film and the occasional blockbuster, including Steven Spielberg’s 2002 sci-fi epic Minority Report (opposite Tom Cruise) and the first Fantastic Beasts film (2016). Following those twin Oscar nominations she won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Myra Hindley in Longford (2006).
But throughout, she’s never betrayed herself or her principles. Several years before the first accusations were levelled against Harvey Weinstein, she publicly called out the mogul’s bullying behaviour.
“There was a film called About Adam that was being shot in Ireland,” she says of the 2001 romantic comedy which starred Kate Hudson, “and I had a threat to me that said, if I didn’t do a part in that film, I would never work again. And I didn’t want to do the part.”
A threat on behalf of Weinstein?
“Apparently. [A threat of], ‘this will ruin your career, and nobody says no to him.’ And I did. Then years later they wanted to cast me in The Brothers Grimm… But there was some things said about me [by him] that were then published, to do with me ‘not being f*ckable’. That’s when the line was crossed for me. You can not cast me because I’m not good, or not right for the part. But to say [it’s because] I’m not f*ckable – it’s the most disgusting, horrible [thing].”
When the stories about Weinstein’s alleged behaviour emerged 18 months ago, they were news to her. But she’d heard rumours.
“I was on a job once and an actress was doing this part and then suddenly was removed from the film while another person was flown in overnight. The rumour was she’d given him a blowjob for the part – that’s what you needed to do to get in Harvey‘s gang.”
Has she suffered unwanted sexual attention while working? She nods.
“I had it on a movie whereby I was being touched inappropriately on a daily basis by an actor, and I asked the individual to cease,” she says in the careful language of someone with experience of the legal system. “But this person was a very sensitive person, mortified that he’d gone too far. Then I went to the director and I was fired from the movie the same day.”
True to sanguine, resilient form, Morton moved on. The same attitude applied to the appalling health challenges she suffered 12 years ago. In her then home in East London, a huge chunk of plaster fell on her head during renovations.
“It hit my vertebral artery and cut it, and that caused two blood clots in my brain, so I had a stroke.”
Prompt medical intervention probably saved her mobility and speech. Nonetheless, “you’re never the same again. I’m afraid of loud noises,” she admits – and indeed, she flinches whenever this café’s coffee machine hisses into life. “There’s a thing called disfluency, which affects the way your brain and your speech connect and work. But that hasn’t prevented me from learning lines or performing. And there’s a difference in my metabolism and physicality – it’s slower.”
Not that you can tell from Morton’s work-rate. She’s champing at the bit to start work on directing a follow-up to her BAFTA-winning TV film The Unloved (2009). She thinks the opportunities to secure funding and support will be easier in America. Even after her BAFTA win, “I couldn’t get a meeting, I couldn’t get an agent. I approached one agency to look after me as a director and they said: ‘We already have another female director.’ If I’d been a young man it would have been different.”
The British film industry, she believes, is too small a pond.
“If I had an argument with someone in 1996 on a movie, and they thought I was difficult – now in 2019 as a director I want to get in a room with that person and they’ve climbed the ladder, they might say: ‘No, I’m not seeing her, she called me a f*cking w*nker back in ’96.’ There’s always a history. Men are allowed to be mercurial and complex. But women are just called tricky and difficult.”
Harlots is on STARZPLAY via Amazon Prime Video and Virgin Media, from 14th February.