LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - What happens when an average, working-class woman inadvertently finds herself becoming the voice for a large group of protesters?
For Rita O’Grady, the main character in “Made In Dagenham,” which debuts in U.S. movie theaters on Friday, and the British actress Sally Hawkins who portrays her, the answer is much the same. When the spotlight comes on, they would rather duck.
Hawkins, shy and private, would prefer immersing herself in a film or stage role, but after her widely-praised portrayal of a perpetually upbeat teacher in 2008’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” she can no longer hide from the Hollywood media.
O’Grady, working in sweatshop conditions at a Ford Motor Co. plant outside London during the 1960s, would prefer to keep her head down, rather than stand-up for workers’ rights. But she becomes a reluctant leader in reforming working conditions and is thrust in front of trade unionists, government officials and members of the press.
“Rita and I both have to be vocal in situations that are not particularly natural for us,” Hawkins, 34, told Reuters, about the role. “We both hope our points come across eloquently and that we make sense.”
Based on a true story, “Dagenham” eventually sees the women strike and the factory shut down, much to the disdain of the local community. The women make headlines across the country drawing both supporters and detractors.
In real-life, the end result was the introduction of an Equal Pay Act, which became British law in 1970.
Hawkins never heard of the story prior to signing on to play O’Grady. Still, she said she is proud to “represent these real women that took part in this seminal point in history.”
O’Grady is an amalgamation of several real-life characters whom Hawkins met in preparation for the role. She also studied a lot of the old news film footage of the real events.
Adding to the realism was that during production, the movie was shot in a Welsh factory that had been recently shuttered. The film’s director, Nigel Cole, hired over 100 women who had worked in that factory and used them as extras.
“These women were so passionate and engaged in the story because it mirrored their own,” said Hawkins. “They felt a real kinship to it.”
As for O’Grady, Hawkins felt the character stepped into her leadership role simply because she didn’t realize how huge a responsibility it would turn out to be.
“If she thought about she was doing, the hugeness of what was in store for her, she would never have taken that first step because it’s epic in both the responsibility and the journey,” she said.
The same could very well be said of Hawkins. She was raised by working class parents who were teachers and artists and who “worked very hard to make sure me and my brother had opportunities they didn’t.”
In fact, her mother and father began writing and illustrating children’s books in order to help their daughter overcome dyslexia and learn to read.
“They saw that I was responding to rhythm in words in a way that my brother hadn’t,” said Hawkins. “They hit upon a way of using words and rhythm to engage kids.”
Her parents instilled in Hawkins “a love and a passion for creativity” and, looking back, she said if it wasn’t for them, “I don’t know whether I’d be able to read scripts today.”
Hawkins went on graduate from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and soon after began working in theater.
Film and TV roles followed, as did a working relationship with director Mike Leigh. He first cast Hawkins in 2002 film “All of Nothing” before building around her the story in “Happy-Go-Lucky,” for which she won a Golden Globe award.
In addition to “Dagenham,” earlier this year Hawkins appeared in the feature film “Never Let Me Go.” She is currently starring on Broadway in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.”
“I am so thankful and grateful for what my parents did,” said Hawkins. “What they developed for me was like an extension of a play. To this day, I’m still playing.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte