Born in Dulwich, a southeastern suburb of London, she was the daughter of Colin and Jacqui Hawkins, who were highly regarded in publishing circles as authors and illustrators of children's books. A movie fan from an early age, especially of World War II-era dramas, she took to acting while attending the James Allen Girls School. Her passion for live performance and comedy carried over after graduation in 1994, whereupon she continued her studies at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Hawkins began landing roles in professional theater almost immediately after her graduation from the Academy in 1998. Leading roles in productions of classical works like "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Cherry Orchard" preceded her on-screen debut in Mike Leigh's "All or Nothing" (2002). Subsequent film roles were sporadic for Hawkins during this period, though television provided her with steady work in dramas like "Tipping the Velvet" (BBC, 2002) and "Byron" (2003), for which she played Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Thanks to roles such as these and others, Hawkins began to gain a reputation as the go-to actress for female characters in distress, though she showed a particular knack for comedy as a guest star on the popular series "Little Britain" (BBC One, 2003-06) and as both a writer and performer for the BBC Radio Four series "Concrete Cow."Hawkins' career in features got a boost in 2004 with supporting roles in two distinctly different films; in "Vera Drake," she was an unwed mother who seeks the help of the title character (Imelda Staunton), a maid who moonlights as an abortionist, while in "Layer Cake," she was Slasher, a gun-toting henchman to a dimwitted gangster. Both films helped to increase her profile with UK audiences, as did a starring role in the BBC drama "Fingersmith," about a pair of Victorian female pickpockets who fall in love with each other. Hawkins also found time in her increasingly busy schedule to return to the theater on several occasions; most notably in productions of "The House of Bernard Alba" in 2005 and "The Winterling" in 2006. By the following year, international audiences were getting their first look at Hawkins through several British-lensed features. She co-starred with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in "The Painted Veil" (2006) before taking a smaller role as a serial killer's victim in "The Killing Gene" (2007), a dark thriller with Stellan Skarsgaard and Selma Blair. Television was granting her lead roles as well - most notably an ITV presentation of Jane Austen's "Persuasion" with Hawkins as the lovelorn Anne Elliot. That same year, she was part of the large ensemble cast of British talent for Woody Allen's thriller "Cassandra's Dream," which included Ewan MacGregor, Colin Farrell, Tom Wilkinson and Hayley Atwell. Hawkins played Farrell's girlfriend, who feared for his life as it spiraled into drugs and murder.In 2008, Hawkins reunited with Leigh for what would prove to be her star-making role in "Happy-Go-Lucky." Her Poppy was an effortlessly upbeat young school teacher who faces all adversity - from an anger-prone driving instructor to an affair with a co-worker - with a dazzling smile and a winning attitude. Critics and audiences alike were thoroughly won over by the sweet comedy of Hawkins' performance, which earned her the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and a Golden Globe win from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, as well as accolades from numerous state and national critics' associations.