How ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Saved Emma Thompson
On the first day of rehearsals for “Saving Mr. Banks,” Jason Schwartzman was running 20 minutes late. By the time he got to the tableread with Emma Thompson and the rest of the actors, he was in an apologetic frenzy. It got worse when Thompson, whom he had never met before, suddenly exploded.
“I just flew in from London!” she bellowed. “The least you could do was be on time!” An awkward hush fell over the room, and Schwartzman was horrified.
“Though my body was the same, within me I was shrinking,” says Schwartzman, who plays “Mary Poppins” songwriter Richard Sherman. “I was so embarrassed, and then she started laughing and the whole thing was a joke. The fear that she put in me, I used that for the rest of the shoot.”
While delivered in jest, the reprimand personifies Thompson’s dry wit and penchant for pushiness.
“My dad always thought I would be a director because I was so bossy,” says Thompson, who suffered a devastating blow when she lost her father, Eric Thompson, when he was just 53.
She briefly considered directing, but realized she had no interest. “Why would you?” she asks, in an erudite voice that sounds like a college literature professor’s. “It’s a horrible job. It’s so hard directing. My father was a director and I was married to a director (Kenneth Branagh).”
In many ways the role she landed in “Saving Mr. Banks” befits the British actress, comedian and writer: the uber-bossy author P.L. Travers, creator of “Mary Poppins,” who tortures Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) before eventually softening her stance and signing away the rights to her beloved literary character.
Thompson, too, had been feeling tortured creatively.
Despite having won Oscars for best actress (1992’s “Howards End”) and screenwriter (her adaptation of 1995’s “Sense and Sensibility”), and earning kudos for memorable turns in “The Remains of the Day,” “Nanny McPhee” and HBO movies “Wit” and “Angels in America,” both directed by Mike Nichols, Thompson has lately been largely relegated to supporting roles in films like “Beautiful Creatures,” “Men in Black 3” and the “Harry Potter” series. Her last starring role was in the 2010 sequel “Nanny McPhee Returns,” a box office disappointment.
“I hadn’t worked for a while, and I said to my agent, ‘I’ve got to earn some money,’ ” says the 54-year-old thesp. “I got offered, in quick succession, a very old lady in a wheelchair; Bradley Cooper’s mother (in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’); and Mother Teresa. And I thought people must assume I still look like Nanny McPhee,” in which she plays a British caretaker with a single scraggly tooth and a wart on her chin.
The “Nanny McPhee” movies are more similar in tone to Travers’ “Mary Poppins” book than the saccharine Disney movie ever was, suggests Lindsay Doran, Thompson’s longtime producing partner. Travers is a role that Thompson “was born to play,” Doran says. The multilayered part requires steeliness on the surface and vulnerability underneath.
Travers also lost her dad young. “I think when my father died, I swallowed him whole, and I think she did too,” Thompson says. “She swallowed a lot of pain, which she spent the rest of her life metabolizing.”
There wasn’t anything as sweet as a spoonful of sugar behind the scenes of “Mary Poppins,” and it’s this little-known backstory that provides the spine for “Saving Mr. Banks,” which bows in limited release Dec. 13.