Emma embraces her inner grump

The author who created Mary Poppins was a cantankerous grouch. Shereen Low meets the woman playing her, Emma Thompson.

Emma Thompson
Emma Thompson

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.

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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.”

Thompson stars as Australian-born British author Pamela Lyndon (PL) 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 curmudgeonly writer was a lot of fun for Thompson.

“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’!”

Thompson 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.

“It’s really hard work listening to those tapes, because PL 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. I’ve never played anyone more full of contradictions.”

Mr Banks’s starry cast list

Tom Hanks – The two-time Oscar-winner takes on the role of Walt Disney, though he admits: “I don’t look or sound anything 
like him.”

Colin Farrell – the Irish actor plays PL Travers’s troubled father, Robert Goff Travers.

Ruth Wilson – The British actress portrays Travers’s mother Margaret, whose story is 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 (PG) is on nationwide release from today.