We caught up with the star of SAVING MR. BANKS to talk all things Poppins…
Everyone knows and loves Disney’s 1964 film adaptation of MARY POPPINS. The film, starring Julie Andrews, has become a cult favourite, especially around Christmas when it is aired on multiple channels. What is’t widely know, is the relationship between Poppins author P.L. Travers and Walt Disney Himself. For twenty years, Walt Disney chased Travers, who furiously resisted having her books adapted for the big screen. SAVING MR BANKS focuses on a two week period in the negotiations between Travers and Disney, when she travelled to LA to meet the man who tenaciously sought the rights to her book, and find out just what Disney planned to do with her beloved character.
SAVING MR BANKS stars Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, Emma Thompson as author P.L. Travers and Irish actor Colin Farrell, who was an inspired choice to play Travers’ father. The actor was home in Dublin last month and we caught up with him to talk all things Poppins.
SAVING MR BANKS is a beautiful film, what drew you to the project?
Colin Farrell: Just a brilliant script. On reading it, it was just incredibly moving. It was funny in turns as well; there was a sweetness to it, and yet, it didn’t shy away from some of the more painful aspects of the story and what these characters went through. I never felt those painful aspects were indulged or manipulated. It was a really, really – and this is kind of a boring word – respectfully written script. It stayed with me; once I closed it, it defied my habit of getting analytical on a script. I felt it, more than anything, and it just stayed with me.
There is an Irish connection in the film as well; P.L. Travers’ poetry was first published in an Irish newspaper, and her father had a deep love for Ireland. Was this part of the appeal?
CF: Certainly Travers Goff’s love for all things Celtic and the poetry of W.B. Yeats, that was interesting. That would allow me to go ‘Oh it’s meant to be’, if I wanted to. I could go ‘Oh there is a little bit of synchronicity here’, but it was just such a good script.
You have established yourself as a leading actor, yet in SAVING MR BANKS you are in a supporting role. What made you take a step back for this film?
CF: It was the love of the script and the love of the character. I would have fought, I would have auditioned, I would have done whatever I had to do. Thankfully, it was an offer, but I would have. I nearly didn’t get to do it, because there was schedule conflicts with something else, and they did me a favour by putting all our stuff together and shooting it at the start of the film. I’m more proud of being a supporting actor in this, than I have been as the lead actor in a lot of the things I have done. I actually really like this film more than a lot of the things I have done.
Were you ever concerned that because your character is only seen through flashback, that this could detract from the story?
CF: The script just read so perfectly. Flashbacks can be a tricky contrivance in a film; they can just as quickly take you out of the film as they can expose certain elements of the characters’ back-story that will make the film more engaging or clearer. In this, in the script, they seemed to allow the present to take you to a need to get a glimpse of the past. It was only ever that, you would only ever get a glimpse. You would go back for a minute and a half or three minutes at most, and then you would be back in the present. There was such a through line between Ginty – played by Annie Buckley – and the woman she becomes as P.L. Travers, there was such a direct connect between what she witnesses as a child and what her behaviour and her way became as an adult, that it seemed to make perfect sense.
Were you a fan of MARY POPPINS?
CF: Not really! Not a lover, nor a hater. I remember seeing it as a kid, but whatever confluence of the time I saw it, wherever I was when I saw it… I was a lover of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; that was me, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a little bit. I certainly have a respect for MARY POPPINS, and reading the story, the film takes on a whole new meaning. Not that it needs to, because it stands alone of course, but it takes on a whole new relevance.
There are several generations of people who grew up with MARY POPPINS, and now, as the fans get older, it is all tied up in nostalgia and memories of childhood. Did you feel responsibility, knowing this?
CF: Not really. I suppose I had some silent, unspoken faith in the integrity of the story. All of the aspects that seemingly did take place are dealt with in a really lovely manner. All I knew was that the script really worked, and I had every belief that John Lee Hancock would make a film would work as well. I might have felt more responsibility if I was playing someone like Walt Disney, I am sure my answer would be a bit different, if I was playing P.L. Travers I am sure my answer would be a bit different, but I had the good fortune of playing somebody who was unchronicled, somebody who was unknown. I didn’t feel the pressure; I knew the rest of them had the heavy lifting to do and I would just go in and be with the kids.
You mentioned that Travers Goff lived an unchronicled life, so how did you research the role?
CF: It’s very hard to find any information on him. I looked him up online and the researchers on the film had done some bits and pieces, but it was all a lot of hearsay; he said he went to Ireland, he said he spent time in Ireland, but people aren’t sure whether he did or not. He was a bit of a spoofer. He did go from job to job and he certainly did die of acute alcoholism at an early age. It was very hard to fill in the gaps, so you are just trusting that whatever his life was, we are telling a version of the idea of him, more than anything. I just went with the blueprint of the script.
When last we spoke, we talked about FRIGHT NIGHT and you mentioned you would have liked Jerry to be more of a romantic character. Travers Goff is a very romantic role to play. Did this fulfil a creative need for you?
CF: I dunno, I think mortal romance and vampire romance are two different things! [laughs] I certainly did love the lyricism of this character, as much as it came accompanied with a certain kind of heartbreak. There was a beautiful lyricism, and a beautiful insistence on existing in the world of the imagination, before it all goes very wrong. I loved that. I loved the expansiveness of him because a lot of the time I play characters who are internal and wounded and laconic, silent, brooding and all that kind of stuff, and it can get a bit dull. This was lovely to be large, but to be large naturally; not be large for the sake of being large, but to allow the character’s voice to find it’s own parameters, rather than have this conceptualised idea of how he may have been.
How did you find the balance of showing both the light and dark sides of the character?
CF: He could never seem to have two feet in one place; he never had two feet in being optimistic and imaginative and expansive in how he was in his play with the kids, nor did he have two feet in being solemn, despondent and melancholy. He always had maybe one and a half feet in one world and a toe dipping into the other. He was a very conflicting character, but unviolent and not filled with rage, filled with disappointment more than rage. I didn’t bring it home at night; I have done things where I play guys who are angry or exist in a place of distain or aggression, and they’re hard to wash off sometimes. Sad as he was, and f***ed up as he was, there was still something beautiful about this guy and his failure. It wasn’t attractive, not romanticising it, but there was something kind of sweet about his inability, because of his desire to be there and his love for his kids, but he just couldn’t attend to what he needed to attend to.
Your on screen actress with Annie Buckley – who plays the young version of Emma Thompson’s character in the film – is lovely. How did you go about creating that?
CF: It was really easy. She came over from Sydney and she was sweet and grounded, she didn’t seem to be too ambitious, which was lovely. She was just a really lovely little human, and I just had a blast working with her and the other kids. We would joke in between takes, and it was all kept very very mellow. It didn’t feel like business.
Your last few films, including SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, TOTAL RECALL and DEAD MAN DOWN were very different to SAVING MR BANKS. Did this kind of role bring a different set of challenges?
CF: They all bring different challenges. In many ways, TOTAL RECALL was a bit more challenging, because it was more tedious. It took about five months to do that film and I maybe have five pages of dialogue in the whole thing [laughs], so it can get rather tedious. That’s more of an exercise in physical performance and stunt work and all that kind of stuff. Each gig is a challenge in a different way, but I loved this. I loved working on this, every second of it. I felt very privileged to be allowed to be part of this story unfolding. If I was in it loads, my answer might be different! [laughs]
Moving on slightly, TV is going through a renaissance at the moment, thanks in part to THE SOPRANOS paving the way, would you ever have any interest in doing something like that?
CF: I love working in film, because I love the idea of a two or three month gig, and then I get to go home. Having said that, if there was something that was shooting in Los Angeles for television… Yeah! Television is amazing at the moment, the production values are amazing, the writing is incredible, the acting is incredible across the board. It is, per creative piece, better than American cinema at the moment. The standard is phenomenal. As you said, from BREAKING BAD to THE SOPRANOS, BOARDWALK EMPIRE, HOUSE OF CARDS with Fincher, HOMELAND… It’s just phenomenal. Steven Soderbergh doing BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, so I would never say no to anything like that.
Are the rumours about WORLD OF WARCRAFT true?
CF: Duncan Jones is genius, but I don’t know what’s happening with it. I have no idea.
CF: Nothing. I have nothing lined up yet, I’m just reading stuff. It’s nice to just be home with the boys.
SAVING MR BANKS is released in Irish cinemas on November 29th
Words: Brogen Hayes