As Mary Poppins fans are about to discover, the author who created her was a cantankerous grump - and Emma Thompson had a blast letting her rude side rip for the role. Shereen Low reports.
Emma Thompson may be one of Britain’s grande dames of stage and screen, but there’s no way she’ll get too big for her boots.
“It is revolting for actors to become grand. The star system is not a good system. It’s all hierarchical,” says the 54-year-old actress.
With two Oscars under her belt, she could be forgiven for revelling in her star status. But far from it – and she has no desire to ever move to Hollywood either.
“The town always finds a way to make you feel bad. There’s always some bit that’s penned off that you’re not allowed into at parties,” she says.
“It’s the better than/less than judgment you’re making upon yourself and others that Hollywood’s particularly good at, and that’s the one thing I really hate.”
Sitting down with Thompson feels more like a chat with a friend than an interview with an A-lister. She’s disarmingly witty and down to earth, and has fantastic stories to tell from her screen partnerships with the likes of Hugh Grant, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dustin Hoffman.
Thompson stars as Australian-born British author Pamela Lyndon (P L) Travers in Saving Mr Banks, which tells the story behind the making of Disney’s 1964 iconic musical movie Mary Poppins.
Travers, whose own backstory is explored in flashbacks with Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson, was reluctant to hand the film rights to her beloved character over to Disney.
She was finally persuaded after a fortnight-long meeting with the studio’s head honcho Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his writers and songwriters, Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak).
“This was one of the best scripts I’d been offered in a long time,” says the actress, happy to admit she was a fan of Mary Poppins. “I loved it and still do.
“The first night we were all together in LA, Col [Farrell] had us over to his gaff and showed the film. We all sat there marvelling at it... It’s an extraordinary piece of film-making.”
Playing the sharp-witted and curmudgeonly writer was a lot of fun for mother-of-two Thompson, who’s married to actor-producer Greg Wise.
“She bled into my cantankerous side with no lumps or bumps at all. It was great. I just let it all out because, actually, underneath this affable exterior is a complete witch,” she laughs.
“I just let out my inner prickly pear. It was basically my true self – difficult and cantankerous. I only hide that to effect because you get on [with people] better, and people give you more stuff.
“It’s such a relief to be rude really, without any repercussions whatsoever,” she adds, grinning.
Nannies with special powers aren’t entirely unfamiliar territory for Thompson. She played the enchanted Nanny McPhee in the 2005 film and 2010 follow-up, Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang – both of which she also wrote the screenplays for.
“My husband did point to me that it was interesting that I created a magical nanny, and then I’ve played someone who created a magical nanny. He said, ‘Do you suppose that behind every magical nanny is a cantankerous, opinionated old bat?’ It took me a while to let that sink in.”
To prepare for her performance, Thompson listened to tapes of Travers’s meetings with Disney and the Shermans, as well as reading her autobiography.
“It’s really hard work listening to those tapes, because P L is so awful and so irritating,” she says. “Just listening to them makes you want to throw something heavy at her. But there are lots of little clues about what was really going on, as well.
Thompson says working with fellow two-time Academy Award-winner Hanks was a dream come true.
“We’ve known each other for a long time, so when this was being cast, I rang him up and said, ‘This is just so perfect’,” she says. “There’s something faintly similar to Tom and Disney – their enduring popularity and their sort of everyman quality and a huge kind of charm.”