The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Saving Mr. Banks.
How much fun was it to play someone that rude?
It was bliss, of course, because I think we were all far too well brought up. From very early on we’re encouraged to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to everyone for no good reason, and of course for things we don’t actually want. Like, for Christmas you get a jumper you don’t actually like and you basically have to lie about it. We teach our children to lie from a very young age about what they actually feel. That’s what we all do, I’ve done it myself. And to play somebody so authentically irritable was wonderful, because at least you knew where you were with her. She’d say, “I don’t want to do your interview, I find you boring, or stupid.” “I don’t want to be here in this room with any of you, I want to be somewhere else more useful to me.” “I don’t want to be in America, I don’t like America.” She’d just come out with it, whatever she was feeling, and when you play that you realize how incredibly rare that is. And maybe thank goodness for that. We talk about manners as the oil of society and of course you’ve got to be decent to one another, but we are awfully dishonest a lot of the time.
“To play somebody so authentically irritable was wonderful”
Could you talk about meeting the actress who played your character as a girl?
We just played some games, really. We worked out how we might sit when we were laying eggs—Travers really did that when she was little, she sat for hours on end pretending she was a chicken and laying eggs. We didn’t spend much time together because I wasn’t filming at the same time as she was. But I think an interesting thing happened, which I don’t think I could have predicted before we started making the movie. I thought there were going to be flashback scenes in the film, but my feeling is that they don’t actually come across as flashbacks. Instead, it works as two timelines in parallel happening at the same time. I think that’s what life is: different timelines all happening at once. Parts of us are still in the ‘child’ timeline, and those reactions that we have that are the most irrational come from that bit of our brain that is still very much alive and very much there. We tend to only focus on the moment, so therefore these two timelines work in parallel and you’re following them, but they form a sort of temporal perspective and come towards each other. And right at the end of the movie they meet. And that’s when you get that whoosh of emotion, and you’re not sure why; but I think that’s why, because we’re all connected to that child part of ourselves. You could just rename this movie “Daddy Issues,” we’ve all got them, and we carry them with us.
In working on this film, did you find any moments of magic, wonder, and whimsy that you’d like to share with us?
Addressing your description of Disney, sometimes I find Disney too whimsical for me, too sugary. I think the early Disney movies are very different from the ones that come out now. It’s changed a lot. The ones that I grew up with were almost avant-garde, they were very dark and sad in places. They really put you through the ringer in Dumbo. You had to be made of stern stuff to survive that movie. Walt Disney was working with artists from all over the world, many of whom had come from Europe during a very dark time. Salvador Dali was a great fan, and you can see why when you see the smoke rising from the chimney and becoming steps in Mary Poppins– you say, “Ok, I get it.” I’m with Travers when she says that Mary Poppins is the enemy of sentiment and whimsy, that she doesn’t sugar-coat the world. She recognizes the darkness and doesn’t protect children from it, because they know it’s there. Children know; they feel things on the deepest, deepest level, much deeper than us, because we teach ourselves to avoid those feelings because they’re so damned uncomfortable. So when the material really recognizes that, then I think it’s magical. When it doesn’t, then I think it’s ordinary and not really worth the time.
What is it like acting in something you’ve written, as opposed to something you haven’t written?
Well, it’s less work when I haven’t written it. It’s a very different process, because having written it you’re in such a state of shock that the damn thing’s being made at all, so you have to get over that. Then there’s joy, because there’s something that’s designed to be acted being acted, and that is really a wonderful feeling. Especially because it takes me such a long time to write scripts, and then when they finally come together it’s a real pleasure. Something like this is different because I don’t have to worry about the writing stuff. I leave that hat at home. If someone said, “Oh, this scene isn’t working, will you put your writing hat on?” then I’ll do it. But if the script is well-written I don’t sit there as I’m learning the lines thinking, “Oh, I think it’d be better if we changed this…” As I was saying earlier, I don’t like to work on projects that I can’t commit to. I have to, sometimes, because I have to earn money, you know; but generally speaking, if I have the choice, then I have something so well written I don’t have to worry about the writing. I just go in and do this other wonderful kind of first conscious, and then unconscious job of acting, which is something I like to do. I prepare, I do all my prep and then I have to forget about it, and I’m not conscious of what I’m doing. If I’m conscious that I’m doing it, then it’s over.