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Thompson exposes her 'inner prickly pear'
6:00am Saturday 7th December 2013 in Celebrity Interview
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.
She's been in giggles recalling an incident surrounding Hoffman when they filmed 2008's Last Chance Harvey.
"He was so worried about being late and keeping people waiting that he got out of his car, took his shoes off and ran in his socks to get to set on time," she explains. "That's who you want to work with, someone with that enthusiasm."
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. "Can you imagine saying things like, 'I don't want to come to the press conference because I'm bored with them', or, 'I don't want to come out to your birthday party because I got bored of you years ago'. She said what she meant.
"I know I do that sometimes and get into terrible trouble - and probably will now!"
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."
Thompson also won an Oscar for her Sense And Sensibility screenplay and says that, as a writer, she empathises with Travers.
"I'm a screenwriter so my characters are designed to move from the page to the screen, and I always find that rather thrilling. But I'm quite vicious if they're not coming round in the way that I want. She had a different journey to make," she says of the Poppins creator's decision to sell the story to Disney.
"She felt she was giving up a part of herself to be misinterpreted... She described her [Mary Poppins] as family, in the same way that Walt Disney described Mickey Mouse as family and Sylvester Stallone would describe Rocky as family. She was dealing with her own issues, which were deep and complex.
"There are some things you just can't let go of, and she did in the end because she needed money," she adds.
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.
"There was a huge number of sources and almost perplexing and difficult number of choices to portray a perplexing and difficult woman. I've never played anyone more full of contradictions. She was a prolific writer, so there's all her books, her essays, her journalism and her poetry. There's her autobiography and also, a documentary on her life."
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."
The actress - whose career includes multiple stage and small screen credits too, and who was a member of Cambridge University's famous Footlights comedy and drama troupe at the same time as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie - will next star opposite Pierce Brosnan in Love Punch, before sharing screen time with her husband on Effie Gray, which she wrote.
"We're like that, me and Pierce," she says, crossing her fingers. "He's lovely, Pierce. Get him on his own, ply him with drinks and he'll tell you the truth."
There's something else on her radar: focusing on women's empowerment issues. "You just want to leave the world slightly better than when you found it, so you just do as much as you can," says Thompson. "The women situation's not good, so I might make a documentary about that."
Extra time - who's who in Saving Mr Banks
:: Tom Hanks - The two-time Oscar-winner takes on one of the most iconic roles of all time, Walt Disney, though he admits: "I don't look or sound anything like him. You can't do an imitation of Walt Disney."
:: Colin Farrell - Irish actor Farrell plays P L Travers's troubled father, Robert Goff Travers, and says: "I felt this was very different from anything I've ever approached or been asked to do."
:: Ruth Wilson - The British actress portrays Travers's mother Margaret, whose story's told in a series of flashbacks which "show the harsh life that the Goffs lived".
:: Paul Giamatti - Sideways star Giamatti plays a limo driver, the only American Travers likes in the film!
:: Saving Mr Banks opens in cinemas on Friday, November 29
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