10/21/2011 01:00 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2011

'Oranges And Sunshine': Emily Watson Takes On Tough New Role

The new film "Oranges and Sunshines" sounds like it would tell a bright and shiny story. In actuality, it shines light on a dark period in Great Britain's modern history.

Actress Emily Watson steps into a tough and powerful role in the film, which tells the story of Margaret Humpheys, an English social worker in the 1980s who set about uncovering Britain's child migration scheme of the 1940s and 1950s. Over 100,000 poor children were deported from the country, and Humphreys' goal was to reunite the children -- now adults who mostly live in Australia -- with their families in England.

It's another complex role for the 44-year-old actress, who received an Oscar nomination for her very first film in 1996's "Breaking the Waves."

Had you heard about the child migration scheme before you did the movie?

No, I was so shocked when I read the script. I consider myself to be a pretty well-educated British citizen and I had no idea that any of this had happened. It's staggering to me that it's not a known thing when you think of the numbers.

Tell me a little about the movie.

Margaret Humphreys is a social worker who stumbles across this terrible scandal of children between the ages of 3 and 15 in England, living in orphanages, who were deported to Australia and told that their parents were dead when in a lot of cases they weren't. When they got there, they were told they’d be adopted and live in the sunshine and have oranges for breakfast. Instead, they were sent to abusive children's homes where the abuse was so bad, you don't even want to read about it. She followed their stories and devoted her life to reuniting those people with their families and their identities and where they came from.

Did you meet Humphreys?

I did, but only until after we'd finished the film. She is an incredible lady. I observed her very closely on film, but I decided not to meet her before, just because I didn't want to get hung up on doing a physical impersonation of her.

What's awful to me is that the Catholic Church was involved, and that many of the Australian children's homes were run by the Catholic Church.

I know, she started working on this way long before it was sort of a known subject -- that there was abuse within the Church -- now it's in the media and everybody knows about it. The Catholic Church is full of pedophiles, it's a known thing, but back then it wasn't and she met with such resistance -- violent resistance -- the idea that the Christian brothers could do such a thing. If you took a group of ethnic minority adults and deported them without legal status from one country to another and deprived them of their basic human rights, you'd end up in The Hague, let alone the sexual and physical abuse that went on afterward.

Did it make you embarrassed to be British?

Totally. It's just so shocking and the fact that it's not even ruffling the surface of anybody... "Oh, it was a different government, a different administration. It has nothing to do with us." Nobody wants to take responsibility.

Although this is a great role, do you get sent a lot of bad scripts?

Yeah. Less so than I used to. I'm not high on the list of "Let's send the crap" as I used to be. I've been pretty lucky with the roles that have come my way.

"Breaking the Waves" was your first picture and you got an Oscar nomination. It must have been overwhelming.

It was overwhelming. I was a bit catatonic, really, for six months after that. And you have to police yourself. You have to kind of keep your distance from the press because it can bite you badly and it’s not dignified. You've got to just do what you do and keep your dignity. I live in London and I think it's a whole lot easier there. If you’re in Hollywood, it's the only thing -- it’s all-consuming. I used to get terrible anxiety coming to L.A., being observed and not scrubbing up really.