If small parts in Little Britain are best forgotten David Walliams's WI character sprayed her repeatedly with fake projectile vomit , then it is her work with Mike Leigh on film and Adrian Shergold on television that has most impressed. Shergold, who directed her on ITV's adaptation of Persuasion last year, talks of Hawkins as having a 'luminous' quality. Usually drawn towards gritty urban tales, he agreed to do the period drama only because Hawkins was playing Anne Elliot.
It is very much her film: There is no question that we have a personal and creative rapport and the film is a product of that. Sally is extremely witty and sharp. But she also has these great reserves of depth of emotion, which are very much there in the film. Hawkins has been a Leigh fan for as long as she can remember; indeed, she wrote to his casting director Nina Gold while still at Rada.
She came along and was very lovely. It was refreshing because he wanted to know about me and not about the work I'd done. I talked to him a lot about art. I was convinced I sounded like an idiot; I couldn't stop my mouth. I was so excited but also scared. I didn't know what to expect. He talked for a while, discussed what he wanted me to do and left me alone for about 20 minutes while I became another person.
He then returned to observe me in character. What would Alison [Steadman, long-time Leigh collaborator] do? What would Timothy Spall do? After he observed me for a while, we had a chat. I couldn't quite stop thinking, "This is Mike Leigh!
He has to be very secure that you not only know the character's history but also what they had for breakfast that morning, what books they're reading, what they're watching on the television. You're chomping at the bit to go and when he releases you, it's like a spring. It's like stepping into a different life that is already set up. It felt at times like I just had to keep running, to keep going from scene to scene with lines learnt only days - and, sometimes, minutes - before the camera started rolling.
Mike never stops pushing and searching, looking in every corner at every detail. As an actor you are constantly being tested and going to places you never thought you could go to. I think Poppy's spirit and energy helped me through. It was a joy to jump into her skin; she is light and funny, with a very twinkly, naughty sense of humour. The character dresses in a riot of colours with quirky accessories, while today, the only hint of the actor's normally slightly eccentric sartorial style are the bright-red high-heeled shoes and matching hooped earrings she wears with an otherwise black outfit.
Poppy comes across as being quite ditsy and clumsy, which I suppose I am too. When we were almost touching in rehearsal, it was sometimes quite difficult to know what was me and what was her. She is reluctant to say where she lives or reveal anything about her personal life; yet she does talk about her childhood, growing up in Greenwich and Blackheath with parents Colin and Jacqui, who taught before becoming the hugely successful authors of children's books such as Here's a Happy Kitten and Mr Wolf's Nursery Time.
I randomly ask about Hawkins's first memory, which turns out to have been incredibly early. All I got was a rubber duck. I'd have been four or five. I didn't speak till I was nearly three. My parents started to write children's books as a way of encouraging me to read. I was good at art and drama and making people laugh but, despite doing OK at A-level, I didn't rate myself highly academically.
I still waver between wanting to show off and wanting to run away. It is a truly awful film but Hawkins won't be drawn on the specifics; she simply says that Allen was 'very quiet, very shy' and intimidating only in the sense of having once been a great director. Then the actors are called almost as the camera is turning over. Bloody hell, I had to be in character straight away! You have to work so fast to make it work. We come to the end of the footpath. The light is fading and Hawkins has to go home and read scripts.
I wonder out loud how, as averse to fame as she is, this year is going to turn out. The Silver Bear has already brought a new kind of attention, apart from hip directors introducing themselves in Berlin, at the press conference she was asked about her simple black shirt and skirt outfit: An awkward pause was followed by generous applause , and Happy-Go-Lucky isn't even out yet. She lets her fringe drop over her face. She shakes her head.