D23 First Look, Off the Page

Q&A with Emma Thompson

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The role of P.L. Travers is a challenging one—she’s a person acutely concerned with both the past and the future. How did you prepare for this deeply psychological role?
I always make it my first priority to panic, then I read. I read the Mary Poppins books and her other works. In fact I read as much as I could find. I watched all the documentaries I could find, I listened to the tapes of her work with the Shermans, (which took forever), I met friends of hers and was granted precious access to their memories and archives. I lay in darkened rooms and thought. Then I tried to forget all about it. There’s only so much you can do before you have to dive off the roof without a parachute.

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Your role is the fulcrum on which the rest of the characters in the film pivot—and you are the person in the film everyone is trying to persuade or convince—from Robert Goff Travers, to Walt Disney, to the Sherman Brothers to Ralph. Did that present any special challenges from an acting perspective?
Yes, I expect it did. I’m so glad no one pointed that out before we started.

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What was it like to work with John Lee Hancock? How would you describe his working style and the visual and thematic vocabularies of the films he has made?
John Lee Hancock is a true gent, a deeply creative, gentle man who knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. It’s a risk-laden business, making a film in two time zones where each informs the other. When I saw the film, finally, I was deeply impressed with the way in which he’d layered time, slowly, incrementally, until at the end one isn’t quite sure how or why one has been so touched.

What was it like working on the set? What was the atmosphere like?
We were a reasonably gregarious bunch, but what do you expect with Whitford, Novak, and Schwartzman? I couldn’t get a word in edgeways. Dick Sherman was there a lot, exuding goodwill and benevolence and full of fascinating memories and insights. He absolutely hated P.L. I wish I’d known, he kept saying. Oh if only I’d known what was underneath!

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Do you have a favorite scene from the film?
I think the scene I looked forward to playing most was when Ralph (Paul Giamatti) brings P.L a cup of tea. It’s oddly tender and prevented Paul and I from indulging in too much of the immoderate corpsing that had threatened to destroy some of our other scenes together. That man knows no limits.

The “song and dance” sequences with Jason, Bradley, and B.J. seemed so natural and believable—and to an outsider looked very fun to act out. What was it like working with them?
Of course the song and dance sequences were almost obscenely enjoyable. The sort of thing you privately hope no one will find out you’re being paid for. Brad and B.J and Jason were a dream team to work with. I know everyone has to say that about actors they’ve been working with but sometimes they are lying. I’m not. I think at the end of the job I may have asked Jason to marry me. He said yes in spite of my being twice his size. I do hope this isn’t on record.

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The scenes with Paul Giamatti are so nuanced and emotional—the ones, perhaps, where we see the real P.L. Travers’ emotional side. How did you prepare for those scenes?
Well, we learnt it and tried to stop making each other laugh. It’s good to have a goal….

In addition to showing the story of P.L. Travers, the film is also about the creative process and the way personal lives factor into the stories and art that we create. It’s a topic that isn’t always puled off as effortlessly and interestingly as we see in Saving Mr. Banks. What are the factors that gave this film such a winning formula?
The winning formula is always the same—get a great writer. Kelly Marcel’s script did all the work for us. All we had to do was to show up. I’m not kidding. Ask anyone. The woman is a huge talent and someone I’ll always be grateful to have met. I am being especially nice to her these days in the hope she will write something else for me. She also gave me an incredibly useful pair of clogs.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I can’t dare to propose what people might “take away”. All I know is what I want from a film and I think it is to feel different after I’ve seen it. Ideally I want that feeling to last into the next day—and sometimes, with great films, it can last a good deal longer and write itself into your soul in some mysterious way. That’s what I’d like for the audience. Bit of a tall order, but this is, after all, a Disney movie, and no one knew more than Walt about reaching for the sky….