Photo by Kathleen Clark

At the age of about 17 she began to wonder, 'Who am I when I'm not playing the cello?'

–Carol Easton,

Jacqueline Du Pré: A Life

The word, near as I can figure it, is jeuge: pronounced going in like the jeune in jeune fille; ending like the ge in rouge. Its adjectival meaning has something to do with glamour; as a noun, it describes glittery publicity galas and schmoozy champagne toasts. “It's a kind of term for a bit of fancy stuff,” Emily Watson explains, basking — appropriately enough for a rising star of her order — on the lush garden patio of the Chateau Marmont. “I think I'll wear a bit of jeuge tonight, get jeuged up.” In the glow of her performance as the kinetically charged cellist Jacqueline Du Pré in Anand Tucker's film Hilary and Jackie, Watson's life overflows with jeuge, but a glance at Watson's short, unpolished fingernails reveals that jeuge does not figure heavily in her non-Hollywood life. “I look very Amurrican today, don't I?” she jokes, imitating a twangy Midwesterner. “Don't I look American? A bit of a hairdo, a bit of makeup.”

“Did they blow-dry your hair?” I ask, “I mean, with the round brush and all?”

“They did,” Watson nods, peering up with a mischievous smile eerily reminiscent of the phenomenally childlike Bess, whom Watson played to resounding acclaim in Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves. “They came up at 5:30 this morning, so we could get to a breakfast show, on KTL . . . what is it? A? Later on I'm going on The Tonight Show. This is additional publicity time!” she declares. “Whip it up into a FEVER!” But Watson looks forward less to Jay Leno's attention than she does to the cushy furniture on the Burbank set. “See this nice sofa?” she imagines herself asking Leno. “Do you mind if I curl up and get some sleep?

Watson, who will turn 32 the day this article comes out, is trying to be professional; she really is. In the two and a half years since Von Trier left her alone at Cannes to explain her complicated role in his difficult film (Von Trier is afraid to fly and could not be persuaded to travel that year), she has done significant time on the press circuit — last year for Jim Sheridan's The Boxer, this winter on the set of Angela's Ashes, Alan Parker's upcoming film version of Frank McCourt's best-seller. To meet the publicity needs of Hilary and Jackie, she expounds with authority on Du Pré's musicianship and the debilitating multiple sclerosis that took first her career and then her life. She emphasizes her (very real, I suspect) admiration for her co-stars, in particular Rachel Griffiths, whom Watson insists deserves an Oscar nomination for her role as Hilary more than she does. But after that — after, that is, saying the things she believes — Watson gives up the game.

“It's weird,” she insists. “It's weeeeeeeeird! You do a piece of work, which involves working incredibly hard and doing something very creative and fulfilling, and then six months later you have to talk about it.” I tell her it's weird for me, too, because as much as I deplore the idea that I should participate in the monotonous cacophony of reporters' questions, I cannot help but ask the same ones. Oh, I can avoid the one about how she prepared for this demanding role, because it's already been reported copiously that she learned rudimentary cello and interviewed people with MS. What I cannot help but wonder is how deeply Watson might understand Du Pré's crisis of identity, the one at which James Frain, as Du Pré's husband, pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, hints when he quotes Yeats: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance/How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

At the time Von Trier discovered her at the age of 28, Watson had just barely advanced from spear-carrier to supporting actress in the Royal Shakespeare Company. Suddenly, the young woman who had withstood two rejections before getting into drama school became an Oscar-nominated actress and a sought-after avatar of dramatic female emotional complexity. Watson and her husband, RSC actor Jack Waters, have a running joke around their London home: “Was that BBW, or ABW? — Before Breaking the Waves or After Breaking the Waves? It really did transform things,” she says. “For 28 years of my life, I had a great, top-tastic time, and suddenly it's like I didn't exist before. Sometimes, together, we feel that this person who does all these amazing films and goes off and does all the jeuge, she's a bit of a foreigner. Who is she? Where did she come from?”

Watson seems willing to answer that question if someone would only ask it right; she isn't guarded or wary; she doesn't eliminate from the expert commentary her own girlish persona, the one who clenches her fists at her sides and hisses through her teeth, “I've . . . . been . . . too . . . BUSY!” She has little interest in being anything but genuine and precise, in acting energetic when she feels tired, in feigning enthusiasm for what she so easily sees through. It's that very stubborn rejection of artifice that allows her to play women calibrated at a higher emotional pitch than other humans without turning them into screeching harridans, but it also limits her ability to play more quotidian roles. As Christian Bale's prim suburban wife in Metroland (due out in March), Watson comes off dismayingly empty as a woman who holds wildness in contempt. But as Jackie, Watson can abandon herself to her character's giddy passions, torturous confusion and finally to her devastation; she draws audiences up to her own dizzying precipice of professional success and takes them with her on the drop. Watching Watson as Jackie, and as Bess, is close to unbearable, if only because we're not accustomed to seeing anything so raw on a movie screen. It's hardly surprising, then, that what her interrogators want to know most is what goes on inside her enigmatic head.

In the last three years, newspaper and magazine reporters have endeavored to find out, describing Watson alternately as a tea-spilling flibbertigibbet and a “reserved and maternal” schoolmarm; an unusual girl who studied meditation in grade school and a normal, middle-class Londoner with happily married parents. She has confessed to disgust for Hollywood and a love for Oscar parties; she has had to defend herself as “a solid English girl” and “not a fruitcake.” She knows that all that's been said is true somehow, and yet somehow not — just as so many details in Hilary and Jackie both adhere to reality and extend it.

“I'd love to meet someone who could explain all of this to me,” she sighs, “to make it all make sense, you know? Just the weirdness of it all. It's such an artificial process that happens, but at the same time the questions you're answering are searching questions; you're grappling with them. It's like it's New Year's Eve everyday, and you have to make some kind of resolution about what your life means.”

I want to tell her that she doesn't, really, that she can make up a few things to satisfy the throng and hoard her real self away for safe-keeping, and in a way, for her own sake, I wish she would. But Watson has already weighed that option, and pronounced it an even worse fate.

“I suppose I should just sit here and sort of talk nonsense and not say anything meaningful,” she considers. “Or I could do a really good PR job on myself, come across all sorted and healthy, as if I've got it all figured out. But when someone's asking you a question, you want to answer it truthfully. That's what a conversation is. And at the same time, you're aware there's a kind of mutual understanding: I'm selling a movie here.”

“And also yourself,” I remind her. “Most of all, people just want to know who you really are.”

“Well, I don't know, do I?” she laughs. “That's the problem. But who does?”

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