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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Actress Sally Hawkins is relatively unknown in the United States but an acclaimed role in British director Mike Leigh's new film may find her on Hollywood's red carpets this awards season, a prospect she calls "gob-smacking."
The London-born Hawkins, 32, has been gaining Oscar buzz from critics for her role as Poppy -- a jokey, infectiously optimistic schoolteacher in Leigh's touching comedy "Happy-Go-Lucky" that is released in the United States on Friday.
Earlier this year she won the best actress award for the role at the Berlin Film Festival. More recently some film critics have named her as an Oscar contender for best actress while the Hollywood Film Festival just named her their breakthrough actress of the year.
With several Oscar-worthy movies yet to be released in the United States, Hawkins said she was not holding her breath, but would be a "mess" if she ever made it on stage.
"I'd probably by that point be so disturbed I don't think it would come out making any sense. It would probably be the most embarrassing Oscar speech ever," she giggled during a recent interview.
But such modesty combined with a sharp wit and intelligence is what her admirers say is typical, including Leigh, who first cast her in his 2002 film "All Or Nothing."
Leigh said Hawkins deserved an Oscar nomination, saying playing Poppy, whose carefree attitude belies a more astute and worldly perception, was more difficult than it looked.
"Because there are lots of complex things going on, she really has to be on the ball about playing the character," Leigh said. "She always has to be in the moment, it's a completely organic performance."
Leigh, 65, whose other films have won actresses Oscar nominations including Brenda Blethyn for "Secrets & Lies," said he cast Hawkins because "without question it was time to make a film that put her at the center."
As with all of the director's films, Leigh, Hawkins and the other actors improvised and developed the script together in workshops for months before filming started, a process Hawkins said is demanding, requires trust but is ultimately rewarding.
After acting in three of his films, Hawkins laughed when asked if the forthright Leigh should be indebted to her.
"I would love to say that he is indebted to me, but I think I would get a smack around the head!" she said. "But I owe him such an extraordinary amount. He was my first introduction into the world of film, and he opened my eyes in a way I can never really thank him enough for."
She said she borrowed her own philosophy on how to be happy from her parents, who were successful children's book authors and illustrators.
"What I learnt from quite an early age was it doesn't matter whatever you are doing, as long as it makes you happy and as long as you are driven by it," she said. "And not trying to please other people because then you will end up in a dead end."
She is not unknown to other directors, having appeared in Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream" and she recently finished filming on new movie written by British author Nick Hornby.
But if her career does keep rising, is she afraid of losing her obscurity?
"I do love my privacy, but unless you are an Angelina Jolie, well, I don't think I really have much to worry about," she said laughing.
Editing by Jill Serjeant