Two-time Oscar® winner Emma Thompson (“Howards End,” “Sense and Sensibility”) is the filmmakers’ first choice to play “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers in Walt Disney Pictures‘ inspirational drama, “Saving Mr. Banks.”
Also starring fellow double Oscar® winner Tom Hanks and acclaimed actor Colin Farrell, “Saving Mr. Banks” is inspired by the extraordinary, untold back story of how Disney’s classic “Mary Poppins” made it to the screen.
“When you’ve got somebody like Emma Thompson, she has a very large toolbox,” director John Lee Hancock proclaims about his leading lady and her abilities to tackle such a challenging role. “Anytime you’re taking on a character that is that complicated and that sad, there’s a weight that goes along with it. Emma confided in me that it was tough to wake up and play P.L. Travers every day. And it would be great when we were done so she would have hopefully done P.L. proud. She is so incredibly talented.”
Emma Thompson says of the curmudgeonly P.L. Travers, “She was a wonderful case study, requiring so many different shades. She’s one of the most complicated people I’ve ever encountered.”
She adds, “I’ve never played anyone more full of contradictions, which makes it fascinating because she oscillates all the time. Her early life interfered so radically and so successfully with her capacity to have relationships and particularly with her relationships with men. Her father had been so emotionally unstable and unreliable that for her, love was always a very tricky thing. There was a brokenness and an emptiness and a sadness in her.”
Describing Travers at the point of her entry into the story for “Saving Mr. Banks” when she gets to Los Angeles, Emma Thompson says, “She hated the script for `Mary Poppins.’ Actually, she appeared to hate everything, but whether she actually did or not is another matter. What she was dealing with were her own issues, which were deep and complex. Her relationship with Mary Poppins was the same really in a sense as Walt Disney’s with Mickey Mouse. Mary Poppins had saved her in a way from the wounds of her own childhood, in the same way as Mickey Mouse had saved Walt. So, it wasn’t as if she was giving this character up with any degree of ease. She felt as though a part of her very soul was being taken away and turned into something that it really wasn’t and she found that psychologically difficult.”
Emma Thompson also points out another facet of the patchwork quilt that was P. L. Travers. “She was a bit of an intellectual snob,” comments Thompson. “I don’t think there’s any question about that and indeed she was an extremely original and clever, talented woman. She was unusual in the sense that she had relationships with highly intellectual men at a time when it was not always easy for women to get access to them.”
Although Travers sought out the company of charming men in her lifetime, Emma Thompson notes, “Walt’s charm was probably easier for her to resist. She would not have thought of him as an intellectual.”
“Pamela’s a tough old stick,” producer Collie adds about the film’s main character. “She is, in a sense, not an easy woman to like because she is so controlling and seems to be so humorless. And Emma, of course, portrays all those qualities. But, Emma also brings a certain warmth and just a hint of vulnerability where you want to give Pamela a big hug. That’s the skill of a great actor, to bring that empathy for what is a tough, unsympathetic old character. Emma was perfect casting.”
Emma Thompson has her own take on her character and the story. “It’s about artists,” comments Emma Thompson. “Why they do it and how interesting the relationship between the artist and their childhood is. A lot of children’s authors have had terrible childhoods. What I loved about it was that it was about how early suffering informs what you write, what you make and what you produce as an artist.”
In preparation to take on the persona of P.L. Travers, Thompson listened to tapes of the sessions in Los Angeles between the songwriting team of Richard and Robert Sherman, Walt Disney and Travers, all of which had been saved in the Disney Archives. “The tapes remind me of the myth of Sisyphus because it’s like listening to people push something very, very heavy up a hill and then get to the top and just watch the whole thing roll back down again. It’s really hard work listening to those tapes because P.L. is so awful and so irritating. Just listening to them makes you want to throw something heavy at her.”
“But there are lots of little clues about what was really going on as well,” Emma Thompson continues. “She’s often performing and there’s a stuttering quality to the tapes that makes it very difficult to listen to because she’s dealing with letting something out of herself that she just doesn’t really want to communicate. There’s a lot of straight negation and a lot of bullying. Of course, no one could say anything. Don DaGradi and the Sherman brothers were stuck in a room with her for weeks on end and just couldn’t say anything because she had to be handled with kid gloves. So, it was a nightmare for them and the tapes are a nightmare to listen to. But they were very, very useful.”
Tom Hanks enjoyed the experience of working with Emma Thompson and watching her bring forth the very difficult and complex P.L. Travers. “Every time I’ve seen Emma, I say, how does she do that? How does she make it look so easy? With the work that we did, there was always something going on between us. There was always a secret that Pamela had that Disney himself did not see until literally the end. There’s a scene where Walt Disney is saying, ‘Will you please share with me why this isn’t a good experience for you?’ The emotion that Emma had to bring to a woman who was about to break into tears over something she could not communicate shows the quality of an actress who is forever at the absolute top of her game. She is so far removed from the old English biddy who lives in the townhouse in London, yet her finger is on the absolute pulse of all the Englishness that goes on with that.”
Opening across the Philippines on Feb. 26, “Saving Mr. Banks” is distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International through Columbia Pictures.