How This Shy Actress With Dyslexia Scored an Oscar Nod

Sally Hawkins is a Golden Globe–winning actress. She also has dyslexia.

The 41-year-old actress’ performance in Oscar favorite The Shape of Water has left critics raving. And we’ll soon find out if she earns an Academy Award for Best Actress for the role.

Growing up in London, Hawkins was always surrounded by the arts. Her parents are a writer-and-illustrator team. Together they created a number of children’s books, and Hawkins’ father often acted out characters in the stories. These books—and her dad’s performances—helped spark her love for drama.

As a child, Hawkins was socially awkward and avoided eye contact. Studying acting helped her come out of her shell. “English was always an academic subject, there was a barrier I found so hard to break,” she recalls. “But as soon as I spoke the words, I understood what they meant.”

Chasing her passion, she enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She graduated in 1998 and landed her first role in 2002.

Hawkins is known for avoiding the limelight and often hesitates to talk about her struggles with dyslexia. She fears her dyslexia sounds like too much of a cliché for an actress.

“There are so many actors who are dyslexic. Drama schools are absolutely stuffed with them,” she told The Guardian. “[It] can be quite bad sometimes. I flip lines and sight-reading is terrifying.”

The Shape of Water was particularly challenging.

In the film, directed by Guillermo del Toro, Hawkins plays a mute woman who finds an unlikely soul mate: a fantastic aquatic creature. The creature is held captive at the lab where Hawkins’ character works.

Her character’s best friend is played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer. Spencer has dyslexia, too, and is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film.

Spencer says her dyslexia impacted how she approached the role. “I’m a dyslexic and so for me, I learn by listening to other people’s lines,” Spencer said in an interview with SYFY. “And in my scenes with Hawkins, I didn't have any cues [because she doesn’t speak], so it was really difficult.”

This is Hawkins’ first Oscar nomination for Best Actress. But it’s not her first nod for a riveting performance. In 2014, she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Blue Jasmine. And in 2009, she won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for her role in Happy-Go-Lucky.

Hawkins and Spencer aren’t the only actors with learning and thinking differences to be up for an Academy Award this year. Woody Harrelson, who has , is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Gary Oldman, who has dyslexia, is nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

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About the author

About the author

Tara Drinks is an editor at Understood.