“WILL SOMEONE PLEASE LET ME GROW MY hair!” growls Samantha Morton with mock (or is it?) indignation as she removes a Burberry fedora and tugs at a dense blond mop that's much too short for the British actress's comfort. It all started with her role in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, for which Morton shaved her trademark curls to play a psychic enslaved in a sensory-deprivation tank by a future government. Still more or less bald, she went straight to work on her role as an Irish immigrant in director Jim Sheridan's forthcoming heart-warmer In America, after which the 25-year-old actress took the better part of a year off to spend time with her 2-year-old daughter, Esme. Then, just as her hair was getting back to an acceptable length, reshoots for In America obliged her take it all off again.
Morton's supporting roles in those films offer little evidence of the intensity that has earned her a slavish movie-buff following, an intensity that's on full display — along with her hair, in all its uncut glory — in Morvern Callar, a new film from director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) that's poised to make a stealth assault on Top 10 lists and critics' awards after receiving substantial plaudits at this year's Cannes and Toronto festivals. Morton's belief in the film is strong enough to make her participate in one of her least favorite activities on this gray October afternoon in a cavernous bar at New York's Soho Grand hotel: running the PR gauntlet. “I'm not very good at answering questions,” she says before proving herself wrong by tearing into a nuanced explanation of her character's motivations in Morvern Callar.
Though she built a substantial reputation for herself on British television in the mid-'90s, Morton was a complete unknown in this country when her role in Carine Adler's drama Under the Skin knocked critics and art-house audiences for a loop in 1997. Although subsequent performances in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown (which made her the rare actor to get an Oscar nomination for a part with no dialogue) and Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son cemented her rep as an uncommonly talented and fearless performer, she followed them with a series of films that received little or no distribution in the United States (including The Last Yellow, the comedy on which she met now ex-boyfriend Charlie Creed-Miles, Esme's father). It wasn't the result of bad luck so much as a risk inherent in her decision to make herself international as opposed to merely trans-atlantic. “I don't want to label myself at all. I like having the choice to do a film in Israel [Amos Gitai's ill-fated Eden] and then move on to a Hollywood movie like Minority Report,” she says.
The only label she's at risk of earning for Morvern Callar is that of a brave actress willing to submerge herself in a role. Based on a novel by Alan Warner, the film deals with a young Scotswoman who acts out in response to her boyfriend's Christmas Eve suicide. Flouting instructions in the note he left behind, Morvern spends the money in his bank account on a vacation in Spain instead of a funeral and, when she sends his novel to publishers, claims that her late beloved's manuscript is her own work. Ramsay's emphasis on visuals over dialogue places a substantial burden on Morton to communicate, non-verbally, what's going on inside Morvern's head, and she rises to the occasion with a haunting performance that makes her character's self-indulgent, opportunistic behavior seem entirely valid. “A lot of writers write about their loved ones, so ultimately you have to ask the question 'Was the book about her?'” says Morton when asked about Morvern's duplicity. “When people take their own lives, it's a very selfish act. As for Morvern, you might think 'What a bitch!' when you write out the facts of what she does, but at the end of the day he's killed himself on Christmas Eve, and he's written a book that I think is about her.” By taking credit for the book, Morton explains, Morvern reclaims her life. “It's a practical way of dealing with these events. It isn't premeditated and it isn't psychotic. It just seems that this is what she has to do, and she gets very drunk in order to do it.”
Morton was also drawn in by Ramsay's complete vision of the project — the director acted out all the parts for her when they first met to discuss the film — and the unorthodox style that made Ramsay's first feature, 1999's Ratcatcher, so striking. “Lynne hasn't had anyone say to her, 'This is how you're meant to be, this is the A to Z of directing an actor,'” says Morton. “She said what she needed, and I said I could do it for her. It was really very collaborative instead of me going solo, as I often do.”
ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING THINGS ABOUT the role, says Morton, was playing a character she didn't identify with in the slightest: Morvern may only be starting to take control of her life, but Morton's been in the driver's seat for years. After a childhood marked by stints in foster care, she began acting through an after-school program at the age of 12 and quit school at 13 to devote herself to the craft. An early role in a blockbuster TV miniseries about teen prostitution, Band of Gold, made her famous enough in the U.K. to get roasted by the tabloid press for wearing flip-flops to a meeting with Queen Elizabeth. Though Morton continues to live in London, she loves working in the United States for the comparative anonymity it affords, to say nothing of the fact that the pay is better. “It doesn't mean that you've made it if you're acting in the U.K.,” she explains. “Because of the tax laws, you're constantly running to stand still to catch up. I mean, you can't work for $250 a week when you have a mortgage in London and a child!”
Morton has never minced words when airing her thoughts on the British film industry (“There's something wrong with this country,” she told The Independent last month when a production company withdrew money from her next film, Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, days before the scheduled start of production) and the roles that are available to women. Rather than just complain, she's taken steps to begin a parallel career as a writer and director. And while Morton is cagey when asked for details about the films she'd like to make herself, it's probably safe to say that whatever doing her own thing entails, she'll be doing it with a full head of hair.
MORTON AGAIN, THIS TIME WITH A FINE HEAD OF HAIR