Playing P.L. Travers mother in flashbacks, Wilson speaks about capturing that melancholy in an otherwise fun production, how she was approached for the role in a hotel lift – and her own appreciation for of Mary Poppins, which she most recently watched at a party at co-star Colin Farrell’s house.
Your role is one of the saddest, if not the saddest in the entire film – yet is shy of much dialogue. Was it a challenge for you to express a lot of these emotions without the use of words?
Yeah it is a bit, but if you haven’t got a great deal to do on screen, and there isn’t that much dialogue, you have to pitch out that character quite carefully. That’s not the focus of the attention, that’s with P.L. Travers and her father, but her mother is equally as responsible for abandoning her child at one point, and for who she ultimately becomes, and they’re really dramatic scenes. So you’ve got to work out how you get to that dramatic feeling without it feeling out of the blue and odd, without much time on screen. You want to make it as detailed as possible without being boring – the miserable mother in the corner! So you want to try and put as many elements into that and make her as rounded as possible. It is quite hard but it’s a good challenge to have. I enjoy those challenges.
For a film that’s very enchanting and fantastical on the whole, to play the neglected wife of a chronic alcoholic is very human…
Yeah and I did a lot of research into post-natal depression and dealing with alcoholism in your family. She just couldn’t cope with the situation she was in and it wasn’t a life she had expected she might lead. It is interesting, because without that section of the movie it wouldn’t be the same – you need that heart, you need that understanding of where she comes from.
It’s the first Disney production to have been co-produced by America and Britain together. Did it feel quite British, quite homely, despite being a big Hollywood film?
Well I actually got the job through Kelly Marcel. I didn’t know her before, but she accosted me in the lift and she loved Luther and said that I was brilliant. So I asked if she wanted to go for a drink and we got on really well, and she was like, ‘You should be in my movie. There’s a great part for you in my movie’. I said not really, because I hadn’t read it, so couldn’t exactly commit there, and she’s not really allowed to do that. But I read it and it was one of the best scripts I’ve read all year, and it already had Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson attached, and you could tell why because it was so good. That combined with Alison Owen who I’ve worked with before – you did know you were in familiar family territory, and of course Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell… It did feel very British. The eccentricity of P.L. Travers and the language and dialogue which you get on British TV, in that way it felt quite familiar.
Is it quite weird that you’re doing the publicity campaign alongside Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, and you’re sharing the Saving Mr. Banks experience with them – and yet you’re not in any scenes with them?
Yeah it always feels quite strange, because there’s so many films you do you never meet half of your co-stars, because you don’t film with them, and then you meet them for the first time at a press junket and that’s when you get to know them and it’s so odd! I’d met Emma before and she was on set once, but I’d never met Tom before, apart from once in a make-up truck when I was coming off set and he was going on to do a screen test. That was it. So this was the first time I’d properly met him. It’s very odd, because we feel like a family and yet half of them feel like they’re missing.
That just sounds like Christmas day.
[Laughs] Yeah to be honest that’s just what it’s like, you come round, have a nice celebration, pretend you all love each other and then go home again.
At the heart of this film, it’s about the magic of cinema and the allurement of cinema – is that something that also attracted you to the role?
Yeah, what was so great about it, you get this insight into the mechanics of the film world. You get the clash of culture between the Brits and the Americans, and the clash of consumerism versus creativity, or how you co-habit and the problems that happen when you do try and bring them together. I’m always asked, ‘have you left us for Hollywood?’ and its this idea that Hollywood sucks your soul away and P.L. Travers is determined not to be sucked in, or give way to the overwhelming enthusiasm and the shiny teeth. So for us it’s very interesting because it’s very stereotypical, clash of cultures. It’s an insight into how this world works, and it still exists like that, there’s still a fight to hold on to your integrity or to hold on to your baby, certainly for writers. I’m sure you talk to lots of writers who have constant fights over their material and what’s theres and what they don’t want to be manipulated in a different way. But like you say, it celebrates film and celebrates the beauty of film and the world of make believe and imagination, and escapism in every way. It’s what we all love doing in that shared experience.
Have you had the chance to go back and watch Mary Poppins since making this movie? And have you got a newfound appreciation for it?
I haven’t watched it since the movie, but we watched it all round at Colin’s house before we started shooting. He had a party and we watched Mary Poppins and ate pizza. It’s such a wild film and quite psychedelic in places and what they created in those Disney movies, the combination of music and animation and live action was just incredibly progressive and wild and imaginative and beautiful and fun. I think they still hold up and you just go, wow, this film is bizarre, but brilliant!
It’s really long, too…
It is really long. I kept thinking, God, it goes on, and on, and on… People will sit and watch it time and time again though. We’ve lost our ability to sit and concentrate for that amount of time.
If you could make a film now that was about the making of process of any other film in the history of cinema – which would you most like to explore?
It’s probably the Pressburger films, like The Red Shoes or Matter of Life or Death. The DP was just an artist at work, and the way they used lighting back then, and the formation of technicolor, it would be fascinating to see that period and when colour was coming in and what DoPs were doing with light. Something like that, so vivid.
You are predominantly renowned for your stunning TV work over here, but now you’re really making a name for yourself out there in Hollywood. Did you ever envisage that would be the case? Did you think that far ahead?
You always have an idea of what you’d like to do, but you can never predict what’s going to happen. Nothing happens quickly, so you just have to go where the good work is, and you realise what you need as an individual, and what you enjoy doing. I love filmmaking but it’s a long process and it can be frustrating sitting around waiting to act, so I thought right, I need to get on stage, because it feels so much more immediate and you have more control. So you learn when you go along and get an idea about what you like, but that changes when you grow and develop and realise where your skills are, what you enjoy doing, what feels good, what serves the soul, as well as the wallet. You formulate a game plan but you have to adapt it to what’s going on and what’s around you and where the good work and what will satisfy you ultimately and keep challenging you.
One of the films you’ve got coming up is Locke, which I loved. That must have been quite a unique film to shoot, as you’re one of the leading roles, and yet you’re just a voice on speakerphone…
It was really odd. I was asked if I’d like to be part of an experimental film, shot in a week, just evenings and it’s a bunch of actors sitting in a green room, like a live radio play. As I was saying before about making work for myself, I was like, what am I doing this week? Nothing. Okay, I’ll do it. But it was great people, Tom Hardy, Steven Knight. It was odd to be part of, but I knew doing it that it was unusual, that’s what films should be. You know, we haven’t got much money so sod it, let’s try and do something new. That’s what it was and it’s turned into this huge success and it has really worked. Good on Steve, he wrote that and it’s brilliant writing and good on Tom, too. An amazing performance. It’s really nice to be part or something experimental that did work, sometimes they are the easiest jobs and the best jobs.
So were you actually talking to Tom, or was it pre-recorded?
Yeah, they were live conversations. It was like a live radio play. He was the one on camera but we were all live in a green room off the M1 and one room was a sound studio, and the other we just sat in eating biscuits, and we had to run in with our sheets of dialogue and talk to him live on a radio link-up. Through a phone in fact, so it was proper live calls. Quite unusual, but I love stuff like that, it’s fun to do.
Saving Mr. Banks is released on November 29, and you can read our review here.