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Saving Mr Banks - Emma Thompson interview

Saving Mr Banks

Interview by Rob Carnevale

EMMA Thompson talks about the joy of playing Mary Poppins creator PL Travers in Disney’s Saving Mr Banks and how taking a little dramatic licence helped to inform aspects of the character.

She also reflects on her inner prickly pear, being able to say whatever she would like and past experiences of movies where scripts haven’t been up to scratch. She was speaking at a press conference held to mark the end of the London Film Festival.

Q. I assume when you were offered this role you thought ‘how could I not take this’?
Emma Thompson: Yes, I know! Yes. All of us at my age are always saying ‘there are no roles for women at all’ and then one of the best roles I’ve ever played comes sailing along, courtesy of my fine and extraordinary friend Kelly Marcel, who is the most brilliant writer… it was one of those where you read the first page and go “I’m in”! You don’t have to pay me! They did! But they paid me in chocolates and stuffed toys [laughs].

Q. How much influence do you like a writer to have when you’re playing a character that has been written based on a book?
Emma Thompson: It’s miserable going onto a film with a script that’s not ready. Barry Sonnenfeld will tell you, we didn’t have a third act for Men In Black III. We started filming without a third act! I don’t understand how to work like that.

Colin Farrell interjects: I’ve finished films without a third act!

Emma Thompson: [Laughs] Thank you! This was so beautifully written. I added one line, which was “poor AA Milne”, just in response to that pocket of [Winnie The] Pooh.

Q. How did you get into the mindset of a woman who at one point is quoted as saying she won’t allow red in the film!?
Emma Thompson: I just let out my inner prickly pear. Basically, it was my true self! I hide that for effect because you get on with people better and people give you stuff. So, I let it all hang out. And I’ve got to tell you, it’s such a relief to be rude without any repercussions whatsoever! Can you imagine it? I don’t want to go to your f**king press conference? Or I don’t want to come to your birthday party? You can’t normally come out with these things, but she did… she said what she meant and she just said it! I do it sometimes and get into terrible trouble, and probably will now, but that was what was so great.

Tom Hanks interjects: She has said what we all think!

Q. You created your own sort of Mary Poppins with Nanny McPhee, so how influenced were you? Did you know the story behind Mary Poppins before and had you already researched that?
Emma Thompson: No, not at all. My husband did point this out to me. He said: “It’s interesting that you created a magical nanny and now you’re playing someone who created a magical nanny. Do you suppose that behind every magical nanny is a cantankerous, opinionated old bat?” Maybe there is an alter-ego, someone you wish you could be because certainly I wish I could be like that. And I think that with Walt and the mouse and with Pam and her nanny there’s certainly… these are characters that were created out of the soul of that person when the soul was very vulnerable and emergent, as it were. So, that’s what gives them their staying power. She said that she didn’t invent Mary Poppins, that Mary Poppins just arrived, and I think that most writers of genius would say the same thing. Mozart said of his music: “I didn’t write it, it just arrived in me.”

Even with the most cantankerous writers, there’s a generosity of spirit about where these things come from and, of course, they’re not going to come unless you sit at the writing table with your pen… that’s the discipline. It’s like Field of Dreams, if you sit there, it will come and sometimes it’s in a form that will survive any number of cultural interpretations and re-interpretations and that’s what’s so interesting about this as a movie about two cultures coming together and clashing over this one iconic creation.

Q. How much creative licence can you take when playing a person who is so well documented as PL Travers?
Emma Thompson: We’re movie-makers. You take creative licence if you’re an artist. We’re not documentarians, so you have to surely? PL Travers had this theory later on in her life that women’s lives divided into three main parts: nymph, mother and crone. It’s great because it’s very interesting and there’s something very true about it. But we wanted to put a part of each part into this incarnation of her, so that rather than me who [mimics PL Travers’ high pitched voice], which would have driven us screaming out into the night, we included parts from when she was a nymph. So, that’s creative licence, I suppose, because you’re taking bits and folding them back into this period of time which is not very long to spend with a very complicated character.

Q. What was your first experience of Mary Poppins?
Emma Thompson: I remember when the smoke turns in a ladder. There are just moments. I remember as a child thinking: “Wow!” I wanted that to be possible. I really wanted it to be possible. And I was so in love with Dick [van Dyke].

Read our review of Saving Mr Banks

Read our interview with Tom Hanks