It would be difficult to mistake Julie Walters for anyone else. From the very moment you’re ushered into her humorous presence, it’s hard to avoid the phrase “national treasure”—even if you suspect she’d rather avoid it herself.
“It’s not my term,” she says, with a dismissive wave of the hand. “It’s an easy way to describe people if they’re a bit popular.”
We’re in the cosy surroundings of London’s Soho Hotel to discuss Julie’s latest role as Mrs Bird, the Brown family’s housekeeper, in Paddington, the long-awaited film version of Michael Bond’s delightful children’s stories. Deftly mixing modern CGI effects with live action, Paddington combines old-fashioned nostalgia with quirky contemporary humour (there’s a particularly funny satnav joke in the advance clips shown to the press —and Julie, for one, has no doubt that modern audiences will embrace it.
“I think people will find it amusing as a view of Britain and the British. It’s very English in some ways, but then again Paddington Bear is a universal figure; he wants to be accepted and to fit in.”
Even though she’s a near contemporary of the iconic bear—Julie was born in 1950, while the first story was published in 1958—she doesn’t have any childhood memories of Paddington.
“I remember the figure in the duffel coat, but I never read the books,” she confesses. “I didn’t read much in primary school, apart from The Borrowers. That had a big impact on me; I still can’t pass a hole in the ground without thinking, Are they down there? But not Paddington, no.” (How much do you know about Paddington Bear?)
Despite this, the script—co-written by The Mighty Boosh director Paul King, who also directs this film—was an instant hit.
“I knew that it would appeal to lots of children,” she remembers. “It was quirky and eccentric, but accessible at the same time. That’s typical Paul, really; he’s completely and utterly mad, but also creative. You felt free to improvise, up to a point. He’d come up with all these mad ideas for Mrs Bird. She’s an eccentric character anyway, so you can put all kinds of things in her mouth…for want of a better phrase.”
Indeed, the strict, funny and kind-hearted Mrs Bird could have been written for Julie, who’s made her name playing comic characters with an underlying warmth and emotional intelligence—one thinks of her career-defining performance as the down-to-earth Susan in Educating Rita, or her Bafta-winning portrayal of former Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam. So does this type of character attract her?
“Oh yes, I like roles with a bit of weight,” she says, nodding her head vigorously. “And that element of surprise when a character is funny, but then you suddenly realise, Oh my god, they’re not! Projects that offer those things appeal to me, because that’s what life’s like." " target="_blank">Click here to browse Julie Walter's wonderful movie career.
When it came to approaching Mrs Bird, Julie turned to a number of people for guidance. “I asked friends who’d read the books as a child to share their memories. I grilled my husband about Mrs Bird and he said, ‘Well, she was very stern, but you knew that she was loving.’ I remember thinking, That’s a difficult one.”
But it was Julie’s make-up artist Graham (“as camp as a row of tents”, in Julie’s words) who proved to be an unlikely source of inspiration.
“We decided that Mrs Bird was from Kelvinside in Glasgow, because that’s where Graham’s from,” says Julie, chuckling at the memory and slipping into an uncanny Glaswegian accent. “In fact, Mrs Bird becomes more and more like Graham. She’s always shouting things like, ‘Steady the buffs!’ because her husband was a sea captain and she carries around all these old terms.”
Julie smiles when I suggest there’s something typically British about Paddington Bear, from the duffel coat, hat, suitcase and marmalade sandwiches to his adopted name (as in the original stories, he’s rechristened by the Brown family after being discovered at London’s Paddington station). Despite hailing from “deepest, darkest Peru”, he’s a familiar figure.
Likewise, the film is a roll call of British acting talent, headed by Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent. This, you sense, sits well with Julie—the affection with which she’s held by the British public partly derives from the fact that she’s never fled these shores for Hollywood, even though she has a huge international profile largely through her role as Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter films.
“I was given an agent and taken under the wing of Columbia Pictures after Educating Rita came out,” she recalls. “They arranged all sorts of interviews, but nothing ever came of it. I just felt that the best writing and talent was in the UK. The stuff I was getting was c**p…well, not c**p, but just stuff I didn’t want to do. After all, the best American material is always going to go to the best American actors.”
After eight Baftas (including the Bafta Fellowship earlier this year), two Emmys and a Golden Globe, it’s difficult to argue with her decision. In fact, along with fellow Brits Helen Mirren and Judi Dench, Julie is arguably one of a select group of actors who’s been able to have a successful career on her own terms—and it’s one that shows no sign of slowing down.
“I don’t think actors ever retire, to be honest,” she confesses. “They might be forced to. I did consider it when I turned 60 [Julie is now 64]. I thought to myself, I could easily not work. But then this script came through from the National Theatre [The Last of the Haussmans] and I thought, God, this is fantastic!
And, she concludes, roles such as Mrs Bird suit her down to a tee.
“I love the part because she has great lines, but she isn’t in it all the time. And she doesn’t break down and cry, thankfully. I don’t really want any more thrusting leading roles where I’m working six days a week…but don’t put that in, for goodness’ sake!”
Watch the trailer for Paddington:
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