When I interviewed Julie Andrews for her new animated movie, Despicable Me, I halfway expected her to come in riding a white unicorn or some other magical creature, because, well, it's Julie Andrews. But the iconic actress and children's book author who has enchanted generations chatted with us as if we had known her forever ... in fact, she reminded me of my grandmother. Only British.
She talked to us about what it was like playing the character of Gru's mother, who's horribly mean -- the anti-Mary Poppins, if you will -- as well as some family stories of her own.
Coming into this role with animation, you're a villain ... how was that?
Great fun! Have you seen what she looks like? I saw the drawing of her and I thought, My god, what can I do? How can I contribute to that lady? But it was just an emancipating feeling to just go for it.
What was the inspiration for her voice?
A lot of people have said that they didn't even realize it was me until about a third of the way through. Well, looking at her, I figured it had to be somewhat gravelly, and then I heard a snippet of what Steve Carell was preparing for his character, and it was so brilliant. And I thought, Okay, if I am playing his mother, then I would have influenced his voice, so I should probably have something similar. We both settled on a slightly Eastern European mishmash.
Was it hard to be a diabolical mother?
At first it was, because I thought, Oh I don't want to disappoint the sweet, young children that might be coming to see it, because to them, I'm still Mary Poppins. But then I stumbled on the fact that this lady has absolutely no idea how appalling she is, she's totally self-involved, she has no idea that she's a terrible woman. And then it became great fun.
Would you have been open to playing the same character if this wasn't a cartoon?
Well I did Eloise's nanny with a huge prosthesis on my backside [laughs] so I don't know. That's a good question. Now that I've done it, I can say I most certainly would but beforehand, I just don't know. The most important thing when you're asked to do a role is ask yourself, "What can I contribute? Do I think I can make that a good character?" And with this one, I honestly didn't know if I could. But the producers and director said to just come in and play, if you don't like it we won't hold you to it. I think they wanted me to go against type, I don't think they wanted a Mary Poppins British voice. She definitely doesn't look the least bit like it.
You seem to be quite invested in children, in your films and books; what is it about entertaining children for you?
I fell into writing children's books quite by accident, and it's become something that I love to do. There's something about children's publishing. First off, children's publishing division houses are filled with fabulous art and cheer, and it just resonates for me. I practiced a lot to my kids as children, and they were very patient, and you can tell instantly if it works or not, and if they're bored or getting restless.
Have you ever thought about marrying the two, film and writing?
[Laughs] Yes, I have thought about marrying the two, but from your lips to someone's ears! I'd love to see my book, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, go to film as a musical. Because, I sort of wrote it with that in mind, and when I write, I write them musically or scenically; if I was watching it, what would I want to see?
What books did you read to your children?
Oh everything. The Phantom Tollbooth, all the classics, but there was this one book in particular, which I'm actually pleased we included in our publishing collection, it's the most enchanting book. It was the book that my father bought for me when I was 8, and it has enchanted me ever since. It was a book called The Little Grey Men. I'm don't know if you've ever heard of it, but I urge you to go out and buy it. It's by the author Bb. Like all good children's books, it brings you down to the level of the four little men and they're the last four gnomes left in England, and it's their life and the adventure they go on, it's a great nature study book.
How did you get yourself excited to go into a booth by yourself?
I was terrified. It was very different for me, quite emancipating. But I thought, What have I got to lose these days? Not really very much, I don't have to do it. But they seemed pleased with it. I did a lot of singing and stomping, but it didn't make it into the final cut. Every time she exited, I thought she should be singing something and kind of stomping away, but they didn't use it. But it was great fun.
How have your grandchildren reacted to your animated movies in the past? Do they make the connection that that's you?
I will tell you a sweet story. My grandson, Sam, when he was about 3, his mother (my daughter) told me that she hadn't yet let him see Mary Poppins because she wanted him to know what he was seeing, and who he was seeing. But he went to a birthday party, and they were showing Mary Poppins as a treat. And she came to fetch him after the party, and she said she found him close to the screen, looking terribly puzzled. So she knelt down beside him and asked, "Sam, do you know who that lady is?" and he just shakes his head no. "But you think you recognize her?" He nods yes. "Do you think it may be someone we know very well? Do you think it may be Granny Jewels?" And he went, "OOOOHHHH!!" Of course, I happened to be in the neighborhood the next day, so when he came to greet me he had this silly grin on his face and goes, "Hi Granny Jewels. I know something about you." It was priceless!
A big thank you to Julie Andrews for taking the time to chat! Check out interviews with the rest of the cast of Despicable Me all this week.
Are you a fan of Julie Andrews? What's your favorite movie of hers?
Images by Universal Studios