A decade after spreading her wings in HBO’s Angels in America, Emma Thompson soars again as irascible Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, the tale of Walt Disney’s struggle to bring the flying nanny to the big screen. Come along, children, as the British Oscar winner serves us a spoonful of unfiltered sugar.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: Mrs. Travers is so prickly and snappish. Was it hard to shake off her attitude when you stopped filming?
Emma Thompson: Oh, I didn’t try to shake it, darling. It was so much fun I thought I’d adopt it for the rest of my life. You can be honest about everything and say, “No, I don’t want to come to your fucking party — and I’m not sending you a bloody Christmas card either!” It’s bliss.
Although it isn’t addressed in Saving Mr. Banks, Travers, who never married, is considered by many to have been bisexual, and she lived with close friend and rumored lover Madge Burnand while writing Mary Poppins. Did that inform your performance?
Sure. She was what I would call a real searcher. I don’t know whether they were lovers or not, but she did live with Madge for a long, long time, and she certainly had very complex, passionate relationships with both women and men. She was an explorer of her own condition, and very possibly her own sexuality.
Since Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney film, I assume her sexuality wasn’t addressed in earlier drafts.
You can’t fit everything about a person’s life into two hours. Like when we made Carrington, which did address homosexuality, we didn’t include stuff about Dora Carrington’s relationships with women because it would’ve looked like she’d literally gone bed-hopping her entire life. Besides, Saving Mr. Banks is about a woman’s creative, artistic life. It’s a relief, quite frankly, because when is a movie about a woman not about her love life?
But even when there’s no love interest involved, is it still important for you to consider a character’s sexual orientation?
At this particular moment in time, the last thing on Mrs. Travers’s mind is her erotic life, but she did divide the life of women into three main parts: nymph, mother, and crone. When she went to Los Angeles to meet with Walt Disney, she was definitely in the crone period, which she felt was the best patch because you were free to do what you liked and still had energy to do it. She was actually older than I played her — we all had long conversations about it, because I could’ve easily played her more elderly with prosthetics and padding — but I was interested in making sure the audience realized that this woman did have an erotic life, and that it could still be a part of her life, but she had chosen to live alone. It didn’t occur to her to find someone to pay for her house or her bills. She was completely independent, and it was her independence that, in the end, forced her to give up her character, Mary Poppins, for adaptation.
You’re preparing to play meat pie-maker Mrs. Lovett in a New York Philharmonic staging of Sweeney Todd. What’s she up to in the bedroom?
Oh, crikey, with all that lard and suet lying around? You just don’t want to go there. It’s not a nice thought, is it?
Besides your Emmy-winning 1997 guest spot on Ellen as a closeted American version of yourself, you have yet to play a proper lesbian role.
Nobody’s come up with a really interesting one for me yet, but I’m sure they will.
Did you do that Ellen episode to address and toy with lesbian rumors in the media?
I wasn’t thinking about myself so much as the profoundly brilliant script. I don’t take jobs to alter public perception about myself, which seems to me a high road to nothing — and rather unattractively self-involved. I’m interested in doing work that’s well written, fascinating, and true, and that Ellen episode was one of the best pieces of satirical writing I’d ever read. I love how it played with the idea that being a lesbian was perfectly normal, so I was more concerned with people finding out that I’d lied about my nationality.
And at the end of the day, can’t we just blame that lesbian rumor on a career of short and often unfortunate hairstyles?
[Laughs] Yeah, like Mrs. Travers’s bubble cut! That’ll put the cat among the pigeons, won’t it? It’s definitely a look.
You were once attached to star in a film adaptation of Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness.
Yeah, that was a long time ago, and it’s kind of gone away. But I am writing a screenplay, set in London, about a lesbian who was born in Darwin, Australia. It’s about suicide, really. I had a great time recently in Australia doing research on the character; I spent a fantastic day and evening with a group of lesbians who all had different experiences growing up in Australia, which, when they were young women, was not a pleasant place to be gay.
Do you feel a connection to the LGBT community?
I always have, perhaps because I’ve always felt like an outsider. I believe that actors and anyone in the arts should be outsiders, so that we can say whatever we want and hold a mirror up, as Shakespeare says, to what’s really going on in the world. We shouldn’t be within the pale of polite society. It’s a disaster that actors have become so respectable.
You’ve also spoken about the influence of your gay uncle and two gay godfathers.
Yes, I was brought up, partially, by these remarkable, intelligent, wonderful men, and they made me consider and question all moral systems from a very young age. They were the reason I rejected Christianity outright, because it said that homosexuality wasn’t allowed. I thought, That’s ridiculous! It’s perfectly normal, so what do you mean it isn’t allowed?
And now you have a loyal gay following.
Oh, and I love it. It’s a source of great pride and happiness. That support is very supportive, and my support in return is so profound and real.
Hugh Grant, your Sense and Sensibility and Love Actually costar, once referred to you on Oprah as “a bloke, for all intents and purposes,” with “a very blokish sense of humor — like a guy.” Is that an accurate assessment?
Well, I find that terrifically difficult stuff. Look, in a sense, he was trying to express approval, but what’s wrong with being feminine? What is he actually saying? The problem is that men have extreme difficulty with powerful women, who will immediately be dubbed masculine. I don’t accept that. Yes, I’m a powerful woman, but I don’t think I’m like a man at all. I don’t want to be a man. It’s not something that any person of my gender would wish, whether lesbian or straight. We’re women. I want to be allowed to be a powerful woman without being told that means I’m like a man.
Speaking to The Advocate for a 1995 cover story, you chose Michelle Pfeiffer as your fantasy on-screen lesbian love interest. Have your tastes changed?
After full-on snogging Meryl Streep in Angels in America, where do you go from there? We practically had sex, for God’s sake. [Laughs] Oh, there are so many beautiful women... Well, I met Sandy Bullock at an awards thing a couple years ago, and she said to me, “If I were gay, you’d be the one.” I said, “I’m there!”
The Advocate, February/March 2014 issue; extended online version.