Rita (Sally Hawkins) © 2010 Sony Pictures

Sally Hawkins shot to stardom with her role as Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky for which she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical.

Her new movie Made in Dagenham tells the true story of the 187 women who worked at the Ford Motor Company in 1968, who decided to go on strike for equal pay. Hawkins portrays Rita O’Grady, a young married mother, who is coaxed into being the spokesperson for the strike, representing the women of the factory, which led to a meeting with Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson), Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity.

Have there been any strong women in your life that have inspired your character?

Connie (Geraldine James) and Rita (Sally Hawkins) © 2010 Sony Pictures

There are so many strong women in my life. My grandma, she was very much a source of strength and inspiration for me in making this film. She was a seamstress herself. She’s no longer around, I’m sad to say, but she worked at many things and worked incredibly hard. She had a tough life, a working-class woman who really did it all for her family.

My mum was inspired by her and I’m inspired by her and my mother as well. The women I most admire in my personal life are iconic women that I look up to. You can’t get anywhere in this world if you’re a woman without having a certain kind of strength

Did you speak with the real women at Dagenham?

I did. For me I wanted to meet some of the women if they were up for it and I was lucky enough that three of the women wanted to meet for a cup of tea. They’re still living in Dagenham and they’re all still friends and they all still talk about little details of the time and stories and they laugh together.

Connie (Geraldine James), Rita (Sally Hawkins) and Brenda (Andrea Riseborough) © 2010 Sony Pictures

That’s what struck me actually, that they still live in Dagenham, they went back to their lives at the end of the day. They weren’t interested in becoming something other than what they were, they just wanted to go back to their families, go back to work, that was essential for them. They just had to say what they had to say.

What I got from these women was their humor, they’re incredibly down-to-earth. They weren’t particularly impressed by the fact that we were making a film, I loved that. And similarly, they weren’t particularly impressed by the politicians they were meeting, or the men in suits, that’s how they held their own. They’re very bright, very savvy, in their own particular way. And they weren’t overwhelmed by the men that they had to speak to. Their strength was that they didn’t speak in that political language, they spoke with their truth, and they spoke their own language.

That’s what (stood) out for me about this film and about them. That’s what makes you listen, when you hear people on a political stage just speak truth and not try to frilly it up, and speak with their own voice.

Did you base Rita on any of the three women you met?

Rita (Sally Hawkins) © 2010 Sony Pictures

Rita’s an amalgamation of them. Rita was one of many and it was important to get that voice right. They didn’t have any experience in being on this political stage, holding their own amongst the men, the management and the trade union.

Was it a rare gift to be on the set with this many women?

There were a few moments during the filming of the film where I did stop and think, ‘My gosh, isn’t this wonderful to be with all these incredible female actors.’ There was so much passion behind this film. I am so incredibly proud to be a part of it. The fact that the story still has this life beyond it is great, and long may it continue.

Do you think this film might reinvigorate the equal pay debate?

That would be phenomenal. We always can learn from history, whether it’s recent history or as far back in history as this. At least this is history we can touch still. There has been a lot that has been done and a lot has been put in place and thank God these women were around doing what they did, because there would have meant no equal pay up to 1970, thank you Barbara Castle.

But it seems to have stopped.

Rita (Sally Hawkins) © 2010 Sony Pictures

We’ve stopped talking. We don’t talk about money. In the U.K. we’re guilty of that probably more than in the U.S., because the U.S. is more vocal about things generally. I think in the U.S. there are certain things being pushed through Congress now and your equal pay activists are having to look at the issues and readdress those certain loopholes that have kept women in a certain place, and have kept that pay gap. That’s frightening.

We have to keep looking at these issues and make sure we keep talking about them all the time to make sure we get what we’re owed. You have a responsibility to speak up in those situations.

Your performance is wonderful and there is a lot of Oscar buzz around it, are you ready?

Am I ready? Oh God, I don’t know (she laughs). It’s always wonderful when people say that but you just have to take it with a pinch of salt. I’m just happy that people are interested. So far everyone I’ve spoken to has been really lovely and nice about the film, and that’s all you want.

At the end of the day you just want to make those women proud, and with a film that has such a message it would be wonderful if it had an effect on a big scale like that, because then it just means more people see it and more people hear the story and that’s a wonderful thing.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane