As a heart-breaking rape victim in Vera Drake and a resiliently optimistic teacher in Happy-Go-Lucky, British actress Sally Hawkins is used to playing women with pluck.
In her new film, Made In Dagenham, she plays Rita O'Grady, a mild-mannered mother and factory worker in Dagenham, England, who takes the fight for equal pay from the factory floor to Parliament.
The film is based on a true story. O'Grady's activism led directly to Britain's Equal Pay Act of 1970 -- and, according to Hawkins, not enough people have heard of her.
"I'm ashamed to say that I didn't know about their plight or their fight," Hawkins tells NPR's Michele Norris. "A lot of people of my generation, and of younger generations, they don't really know. That's why it's so important that these stories are told and retold."
Unimpressed By Politicians
At a Ford plant in Dagenham, England, in 1968, the female machinists went on strike, demanding the same pay as the men in the factory.
"It is such an incredibly important point in history," Hawkins says. "It actually had a ripple effect across the world -- America became involved, the Ford plants in America [became involved]. When you have workers at the ground level having something to say or going on strike, as they were, it affects the whole industry."
To research her role, Hawkins had tea with three of the women who had been active in the strike. They still live in Dagenham, she says, and are still close friends.
"They were very lovely and very generous with their time," says Hawkins. "What I got from them was their friendship. That's the glue that holds them together -- and their strength in numbers."
"And they're not politicians," she adds. "They're not political animals by any means. They don't have that language at their disposal -- they're sort of learning as they're going along."
According to Hawkins, the Dagenham women were refreshingly nonplussed by the fact that a film was being made about their fight. They were equally unimpressed by the overtures of politicians, just as they had been at the time of the strike, she says.
"They were saying that they were going to meet [former British Prime Minister] Gordon Brown, to have lunch with him -- that that's fine, but it was sort of getting in the way," Hawkins says with a laugh.
To them, Hawkins says, the strike was quite simple: This is what they were owed. The balance had to be readdressed.
'Quite Joan of Arc'
Hawkins says Made In Dagenham was a powerful film for her. At one point, her character crashes a union meeting filled with men in dark suits who are preparing to marginalize the women at the plant. As Rita O'Grady, Hawkins strides to the front of the room, takes the stage, and takes a stand at the podium. It is a classic example of speaking truth to power.
"I love that scene," Hawkins says. "It is about speaking your truth. For me it's the scene -- for me, for Rita -- of the film. She realizes actually the power of speaking truth."
"You don't need to shout in those situations, you don't need to stamp your feet -- as I have done in the past," she laughs. "It doesn't really get you anywhere. As long as you're speaking your truth, you can say it with the quietest voice because it will be heard."
Directed by Nigel Cole, who had women cheering on the Nude Society Ladies in Calendar Girls, Made In Dagenham is bound to appeal to female audiences -- particularly to women of a certain age who may be drawn to the film's politics and nostalgia for hoop earrings.
But the film has a message for men as well. In a particularly powerful scene, Rita's husband, played by the actor Daniel Mays, begs her to call off the strike, and then literally tries to drag her back into the house. "I've never slept with other women," he tells her, "I've never once raised my hand." He says it as if it's a point of pride.
Rita O'Grady's response? "For Christ's sake -- that's as it should be."
When asked what she wants men and women to take away from the film, Hawkins has difficulty answering. "So much," she says, "and I don't think I could sum it up in a sound bite. It happens to be about this particular group of women, but it's about issues we all relate to."
Hawkins, who won a Golden Globe in 2008 for her performance in Happy-Go-Lucky, is already making a name for herself in Hollywood. When asked if there's a certain kind of role that she's dying to play, beyond the strong women that she's known for, Hawkins hesitates.
"Oh, that's a lovely question," she says. "Well, it's always good to play evil. But I haven't really thought like that, and perhaps I should. There are certain Shakespearean roles that I'd love to have a crack at. And I love Joan of Arc."
She pauses. "Well, Rita is quite Joan of Arc," she says. "I think I've been quite lucky."