NEW YORK - “I suppose I’m quite smiley,” says Sally Hawkins, emitting a little laugh, as if to prove the point.
Although not quite as smiley, she concedes, as the character she plays in Happy-Go-Lucky. In Mike Leigh’s new and surprising film, Hawkins - a thin, wide-eyed, dark-haired Londoner - stars as Poppy, a thin, wide-eyed, dark-haired Londoner. Hawkins’ Poppy, a primary-school art teacher, meanders through her days and nights with an almost preternatural sense of idealism and good cheer.
“She has this incredible momentum through life,” Hawkins says. “It was quite a joy to play her, actually, and quite freeing, because she’s so cheeky - and I love that.”
Hawkins, 32, has worked with British director Leigh twice before: on the period abortion drama “Vera Drake,” and on 2002’s washed-up- marriage/working-class gloomfest “All or Nothing.” Both times, her characters were on the periphery. In “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Hawkins, in many ways, is the movie. Only Leigh’s powerfully bleak 1993 “Naked,” with David Thewlis, focused so obsessively on a single protagonist.
“I was sort of in denial about being the ‘leading woman,’” says Hawkins, in a Park Avenue hotel the day following “Happy-Go-Lucky’s” New York Film Festival premiere.
“I never allowed myself to believe that. Even though, I suppose, it was quite obvious during rehearsals and filming that I was being used a lot.”
But Hawkins was certainly familiar with how Leigh has worked: months of rehearsals and workshops, without a script, during which he and the actors develop the characters and plot out various scenarios. It isn’t until this long, arduous preliminary process is over that the director goes off and puts his screenplay together, culled from weeks and months of improvisation.
“What’s great about working with Mike is that everyone in the cast is equally important as whomever he ends up focusing on in the end. In some films, it’s more spread out, and you get lots of different plots happening, and then tied together. ...
“So, there’s rarely someone known as the main actor. It’s only now that you go, ‘OK, I see, I guess I am.’
“But he hates not being able to give everyone a fair slice of the cake, and I think it kills him when actors have been called in for weeks of rehearsal and investigation and research, and in the end they wind up with perhaps one line, or one scene - I think it really kills him, because he knows how much people invest in it.”
(It probably doesn’t go over too well with the actors, either.)
Although Hawkins’ character is not your typical - or Leigh’s typical - kitchen-sink sadsack, Poppy isn’t all surface sunshine and smiles, either. There’s considerable complexity there. In fact, filmmaker Leigh, in a separate interview, links Hawkins’ Poppy with Thewlis’ character, Johnny, from “Naked.”
“Johnny and Poppy are each idealists, and they would have lots of similar beliefs,” Leigh explains. “They would both eschew materialism and cynicism. The difference is that Johnny is frustrated, embittered, inward-looking. ... Poppy is plainly the opposite.”
For her part, Hawkins acknowledges that there are “overlaps” between her worldview and her character’s.
“Poppy has an extraordinary ability to cope with life, which I really envy. That ability to let things go, and go with the flow. I think that lends itself to great optimism and energy, and I think that’s something I’m still learning.
“We do overlap, but I think I really worry a lot more than she does. I really envy her bounce. ... I think we are similar in some ways, we’re like parallel lines, and then we converge and then split, and then in some ways we’re incredibly different.
“I suppose every part you play, you sort of exaggerate some aspect of yourself, and stretch them, and suppress others.”
Hawkins is the daughter of well-known British children’s-books creators Jacqui and Colin Hawkins. (“‘What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf?,’ ‘Mick the Pig,’ ‘Jen the Hat,’ ‘Cosmic Cat,’ ‘Fairy Tale News,’” she rattles off the titles, proudly). After graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, she did stage work and episodic television. “All or Nothing” marked her feature debut.
Right before “Happy-Go-Lucky,” the actress worked in Woody Allen’s U.K.-set “Cassandra’s Dream.” Right after “Happy-Go-Lucky,” it was “An Education” (with Emma Thompson and Peter Sarsgaard), and a drama based on Somalian supermodel Waris Dirie’s autobiography, “Desert Flower.” (Hawkins is not the lead in that one.)
And then it was off to Ireland for another project, “Happy Ever Afters.”
“I know,” she says with mock apologetic tones. “I’m really not trying to corner the market on ‘happy’ films. Really.”
And, in fact, she has every excuse not to be happy about it: Midway through production in Dublin last month, Hawkins suffered an accident on the set.
“It wasn’t an action movie, and yet I still managed to break my collar bone,” she says, her left arm and shoulder braced in a black sling. “It’s actually a romantic comedy. And it suddenly went very dark, and painful. ...
“I have yet to finish the film. I’ve got this pinned now. I have it for months. It comes off in December. They filmed as much as they could without me, but I play one of the leads, so there’s about a week left to do. God knows when I’ll get to doing that.”
So how exactly did this mishap occur?
“Because it’s about two weddings, the groom of the other wedding was posing in the backshot of my wedding’s photos, and he was - he had a bad back. My character went over there to sort him out, and was trying to click his back into place, and that’s when I ended up breaking my collar bone. ... So, never ask me to do that again.
“Still, I’m getting lots of attention and lots of love now,” she adds, yes, happily. “Everything will turn out all right.”