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Tough tale behind a magical nanny

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: December 05, 2013

A-LISTER: Emma Thompson.

A-LISTER: Emma Thompson.

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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 will 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 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 recalls an incident involving 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 says. "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."

Playing the sharp-witted and curmudgeonly writer was a lot of fun for mother-of-two Thompson, who is married to actor-producer Greg Wise.

"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."

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 out 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 won an Oscar for her Sense And Sensibility screenplay and says that, as a writer, she empathises with Travers.

"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 Mary Poppins as family, in the same way Walt Disney described Mickey Mouse 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."

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