‘I was owned by the state’: Samantha Morton on foster care, political carnage and the time Robbie Coltrane paid for her curry

The actor and activist is currently starring in She Said and soon to be seen in Oscar-tipped The Whale. Ahead of her special achievement award at the Bifas, Morton answers your questions on fame, privacy and standing as an MP

Are there any roles you’d specifically like to play or genre of film you’ve not yet done? Buffalo666

I’ve always wanted to be a Bond villain or an action hero baddie. Then I got to play Alpha in the Walking Dead, so that box was ticked. I’ve always wished I spoke other languages, like Russian or Polish or French, so that I could be in foreign language cinema. I’m on Duolingo at the moment. Working in a country and a culture that’s unfamiliar would be really educating and amazing.

Morton and Tracy Emin, one of her dream dinner guests at the film premiere of Control in 2007.
Morton and Tracy Emin, one of her dream dinner guests at the film premiere of Control in 2007. Photograph: Richard Young/Shutterstock

Does being famous make people happy? Edricom

I don’t feel famous at all, unless I’m in New York or Los Angeles. Then people come up and say nice things and ask me for autographs in a very, very respectful way, and it feels so nice to be remembered. Maybe that’s ego and pride, but I like that. I remember when I was about 16 and I did Band of Gold. It was watched by more than 21 million people every Sunday and I couldn’t walk down the street. People would stop me and say stuff and I was so frightened and I hated it. I’d just been offered the part of Tina Dingle on Emmerdale Farm and I said I couldn’t do it, because of how it felt on Band of Gold. My stepdad, Frank, was furious because he loved Emmerdale.

It’s a mixed bag. You want to be recognised for your work and feel good about that, but then you want to have a normal life. I think having children changes how you feel because you want to protect them.

I saw you making soup once, during a visit from Kathy Burke on her Channel 4 series. The soup looked delicious – who would your dream dinner guests be (aside from lovely Kathy)? mountain_thyme

Marina Abramović and Tracey Emin. I really like Anna Jones’s cookery writing so I would probably cook something veggie and super clean but very, very tasty. I like doing a lot of pickles. Some kind of Italian salad with lovely fresh tomatoes and mint and fresh olive oil. I’m naughty with salt, I’ve got to cut back, but salt and lemon juice and probably like a baked feta with coriander seeds. I hit my 40s and started to love puddings so I’d probably make a very decadent brioche bread-and-butter-pudding, with real butter. And really nice wine.

What advice would you give to a foster mum? Curiosa, hopeloverage

First of all, love. Whether you are fostering for a week as a short-term foster carer or you’re a long-term foster parent, try to show love. What hurt me when I was younger was being separated as the foster child. So I wasn’t included in family photographs or family dos, or they went on family holidays and left me behind. Try to get support to make the child feel part of the family as much as possible, which isn’t always easy financially if you’ve got your own kids and only getting a little bit from the council for your foster child.

Also don’t tell everyone all the time: “Oh, this is my foster child.” I really liked it when we’d have a little fib that I was, say, a cousin’s cousin or something like that. So I felt that I belonged.

Molly Windsor as Lucy in The Unloved (2009) about a girl growing up in a children’s home. The TV film was Morton’s directorial debut.
Molly Windsor as Lucy in The Unloved (2009) about a girl growing up in a children’s home. The TV film was Morton’s directorial debut. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

What do you think the treatment of children – especially in care or those who are vulnerable – tells us about our society? gavernism

Somebody posted an image on Twitter the other day of how many politicians were in parliament for a debate on the Care Act. There was nobody there. I think that it comes from the top. So if our politicians are not taking it seriously – the welfare of our children, the care system, how broken the care system is – then how is society expected to take it seriously? We need our politicians to take notes, to listen to doctors and social workers and teachers, and look at how broken this country is. The most vulnerable people in society are children and young people, and because they don’t get a vote, they are just disregarded. Politicians have to show compassion and care, and a commitment to real change, before other people kind of go: yeah, we believe that too.

Morton in Kay Mellor’s groundbreaking TV drama Band of Gold (1995) with Ahsen Bhatti.
Morton in Kay Mellor’s groundbreaking TV drama Band of Gold (1995) with Ahsen Bhatti. Photograph: RONALD GRANT

Have you met a politician (in the current government or otherwise) who said they understood the value of art but then voted to shaft the vulnerable? AndrewReeve

No. The last time I had anything to do with government was after I made my film The Unloved (2009), about a character who goes into care, and Ed Balls invited me to talk to him and then asked me to be a children’s tsar. I took that role very, very seriously and had lots of discussions about how best I could help with my knowledge and experience. He really took it seriously. And I was incredibly proud of what the Labour government did then in regards to a huge initiative to recruit more social workers and provide better funding. I think since the coalition got in, they have done nothing but decimate children’s services. Anything that makes life better for children, they have actively sought to destroy.

The government has failed us miserably in regards to young people and culture and healthcare and national security. We need a general election now. We need to fight. It makes me very weepy. I cannot get my head around the lack of integrity. It’s just so bad at the moment and it’s going to get a lot worse. It will get better when a different government gets in but they’re going to inherit an absolute mess. Carnage.

‘He was the best’ … Robbie Coltrane in 2006, playing Fitz in Cracker.
‘He was the best’ … Robbie Coltrane in 2006, playing Fitz in Cracker. Photograph: GRANADA/Allstar

Do you have any memories of acting with Robbie Coltrane in Cracker? Spaggy_McGee

He was amazing and kind and funny. We all went for dinner at a balti restaurant in Manchester after we’d finished filming. I had the money I’d been paid that day in an envelope – about £10. I looked at the menu and I only ordered what cost £10. I was only a kid, so I didn’t drink any wine or anything.

But at the end they split the bill and I was mortified. It was like £20 each. And Robbie looked at me and he just knew. And he said: “I got you.” He paid for my dinner in the most amazing way. He was the best to work with. It was such a tough role and I couldn’t have been in safer hands, really. He made all these jokes as well. I was like: “Oh, this is great. You can do something really heavy and you can have a laugh at the same time.”

How do we prevent acting becoming another occupation exclusively reserved for the scions of wealthy and connected families? DrowningNotWaving

First, they need to have drama at schools. That’s not an option at a lot of schools. The arts are not considered important even though they bring billions of pounds worth of business into the country. It doesn’t make sense, regardless of the emotional thing of how massively important drama is for human development. We need to have more people in government that can identify with people from a varied background. When you’ve only got millionaires and hedge fund managers in government, there’s no balance. Of course they’re not going to find those things important.

What does acting mean to you? Gavernism

Life and breath and knowledge and learning and appetite and freedom and joy and privilege and luck. Everything.

Are you planning to direct again? Cathy247

I am about to direct a music video for the new album I’ve made with Richard Russell, which I’m incredibly proud of. I have a feature film I’ve been trying to raise the money for for a very, very long time.

It’s the rest of the trilogy about being in care. The first one was The Unloved. Starlings is about a young person that basically gets kicked out of care, which happened to me and is what’s happening to children in the UK at the moment, where you are just placed in unregulated homes with all sorts of characters. The third film is called Pamela and it’s the mother’s perspective of having her children taken into care and fighting social services and fighting the system. Three different versions of one story.

Is it strange to have so many people know your story? How do you protect your privacy while also allowing yourself to be, at times, very vulnerable? bookholm2

I made a choice to share my story because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to make a change. I believe certain things happened to me so that I could make a difference. I was somehow given the toolkit to survive, to not become a victim, to be a survivor. I do have privacy, though. I don’t really talk about my family and children and husband. I feel incredibly private. But I feel my childhood is certainly up for public scrutiny and conversation because I was a child of the state. I was a ward of court. I was owned by the state and the state treated me a certain way, and I’m a product of that.

I always enjoy watching your performances and I’m looking forward to seeing She Said. How do you think Harvey Weinstein got away with being a sexual predator for such a long time? WomanofWolfville

I don’t think it’s just Weinstein. I think powerful human beings have power at their fingertips and money, wealth and influence. The legal system is built to protect people with a lot of money.

Morton in She Said, her latest film which is about sexual assault in Hollywood.
Morton in She Said, her latest film which is about sexual assault in Hollywood. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Your subtle performance in The Serpent Queen was terrific and a pleasure to watch. What is it like being the star of the show? Deepbluepete66

I’m going to find out next season because in the first season I shared the screen with the amazing Liv Hill who is one of my favourite young actresses working today. We both played Catherine and I loved it. So I’ll see how it feels just to be playing Catherine alone.

Whenever you are the lead in something it’s tough because you are in everyday, from the beginning to the end of the day, and you have to take care of yourself. And it’s a lot. With a movie they can take a long time and you might have a day off here and there, but with television they shoot so much, and so quickly, and they often do these semi-continuous or continuous working days. So you are on your feet all day, every day. But whenever I feel a bit tired I think about nurses who can’t afford to get to work or to do their job, or to live and eat. I think about teachers, I think about ambulance drivers, I think about factory workers. I think about my sister-in-law who is on a zero-hours contract in a care home. And I just go: honestly, you’re all right. I’m incredibly blessed.

If you were to imagine or are perhaps planning a vocation other than acting – what would or will it be, and why? bunnyla

When I was younger I always thought I’d end up doing some kind of poetry or writing stuff to do with young people. I never wanted to be a social worker or care worker , but something to do with therapy, combining what I’d been through and trying to help heal people from trauma. Now if someone said to me I couldn’t act any more, I’d be really happy doing the music with Richard. That has been life-changing. I keep thinking I want to go into politics, but I hate a lot of what politics stands for. So I’m really confused. I have lots of things that I want to change. So more time for political activism. Would I stand as an MP? I really don’t know, but it’s a conversation I’ve had with my husband many, many times.

Forest or County? Bobbymac1956, robinbarwick

Oh, Forest.

Do you ever get tired of serious questions and want to be asked about your hair, shoes and scandalous lifestyle? bookholm2

Nah, I love being asked serious questions.

She Said is out now and The Whale is released in the UK on 3 February 2023. Morton will receive the Richard Harris Award for outstanding contribution to British film at the British Independent Film Awards on 4 December


As told to Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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