Not-So-Cheery Disposition: Emma Thompson On Poppins' Cranky Creator

In Saving Mr. Banks, Emma Thompson plays Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, who, Thompson says, hated the whole idea of having her book made into a film. i i

hide captionIn Saving Mr. Banks, Emma Thompson plays Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, who, Thompson says, hated the whole idea of having her book made into a film.

Francois Duhamel/Disney Enterprises
In Saving Mr. Banks, Emma Thompson plays Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, who, Thompson says, hated the whole idea of having her book made into a film.

In Saving Mr. Banks, Emma Thompson plays Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, who, Thompson says, hated the whole idea of having her book made into a film.

Francois Duhamel/Disney Enterprises

Emma Thompson grew up in London, the daughter of two actors. She went to Cambridge University, then began performing in sketch comedy on stage and television before getting into dramatic roles.

Today, she's an accomplished actress; she won a Best Actress Oscar when she was just 33 for the film Howards End, and has made many memorable films since, including The Remains Of The Day, In The Name Of The Father, Sense And Sensibility, Primary Colors, Love Actually and three of the Harry Potter movies. She's also a talented screenwriter — she won another Oscar for her screenplay for Sense And Sensibility.

Thompson latest film is Saving Mr. Banks, in which she plays P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books, opposite Tom Hanks. The film tells the story of Walt Disney's efforts to convince the reluctant author to let him to make a Mary Poppins movie.

Thompson tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that she was herself reluctant to take on the role.

"I had never really played anyone so contradictory or difficult before," she says.


Interview Highlights

On P.L. Travers' resistance to having her book made into a movie

Crucially, there are the tapes of the meetings that she had with [Mary Poppins songwriting duo Robert and Richard Sherman] and [Disney screenwriter] Don DaGradi. She insisted that all of the time that they spent together was tape-recorded, so there are 67 hours of those tapes and they're ... just so torturous to listen to because she was awful to those young men.

She hated the whole idea [of having her book made into a film]. She didn't want to give it up. ... She just interfered; she patronized; she demeaned their efforts. She was rude about everything and everyone. She didn't eat with them; she would sit on her own in the commissary. She was vile about America and Americans to people's faces. She was so resistant.

She slightly reminded me of Margaret Thatcher — who I always wanted to punch, from the moment that she came into power to the moment she left — partially because of that voice and the very, very patronizing way in which she would talk to people who she clearly felt were idiots.

[Travers] didn't like the movie, and never came around to it, and never gave permission for any of the other books to be made into another one.

On how Thompson's sketch-comedy work led to writing the screenplay for Sense And Sensibility

The [sketch] that inspired [producer Lindsay Doran] to ask me to write Sense was based, in fact, on an Edith Wharton short story about a young woman who comes back after her honeymoon to confront her mother, who has not given her any information about sexual behavior.

I wrote a sketch about a young woman coming back to her mom and telling her about the small hairless mouse that her husband had attached in his lap. ... Clearly the husband has been trying to show this woman his genitalia and explain sex to her, and she doesn't get it and she's gone to describe this scene to her mother. And her mother doesn't understand at first, and then slowly starts to get the picture that this woman is so ignorant and knows nothing. And I guess Lindsay thought it was pretty funny and she also thought it was Austenian in some way, about misinformation and the mother-daughter bond.

On the Sense And Sensibility scene in which she cries hysterically

I remember Hugh Grant looking at me and saying, "Are you going to do that?"

I said, "What?"

He said, "Cry like that, all the way through my last speech."

And I said, "Yeah, what's the problem?"

And he said, "Well, it's my last speech! You can't."

And I said, "Yeah, but Hugh, it's funny." Which is the point: It's funny. Of course it's moving, but it's that, I think, very difficult ... but vital balance between something having humor, having wit, but also being moving that I always strain to reach and achieve.

It's difficult. Alexander Payne is one of the people who achieve that so often in his movies, that you're laughing and you're also very moved at the same time. That's my favorite thing in a movie, actually.

On her writing process

I tend to take on each character as I'm writing it and become — as far as I can — that character, so that whatever comes out is say-able and real. ... Writing is so solitary and mysterious. It's a mysterious process, because I've had the experience of writing something and then leaving it, as I always do in the afternoons and for a night, and then coming back to it the following day and not remembering writing it. Not really knowing who wrote it.

I think that when you do give yourself over to the creative process of writing and acting — it's the same, I think, in any art form — something is passing through you in an odd way. You just have to make sure you're open to it.

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