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.
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.