Not a cake walk

Candid conversations

Not a cake walk

Hollywood’s acting powerhouses — Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson — have starred in ‘Saving Mr Banks’, which is based on the making of the Disney classic ‘Mary Poppins’. The duo talks to Mary Rochlin about the tough portrayals


For nearly 50 years, moviegoers have embraced Mary Poppins as a whimsical Disney classic about a magical English nanny, a twinkly chimney sweep and a London banker’s fractured family. But the new Disney film Saving Mr Banks, written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, shares two less cheerful tales.

In flashback, it reveals Mary Poppins author P L Travers’ sad past as an Australian girl with a hard-drinking father and a suicidal mother. The other story is of two weeks in 1961, when Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who had been trying to secure the film rights from Travers (Emma Thompson) for nearly 20 years, finally lured her to California, where Disney staff composers, the Sherman Brothers, struggled to collaborate with her.

Critics have praised Hanks’s performance as a grinning international impresario unaccustomed to being stonewalled, while Thompson, imbuing Travers with equal amounts exasperation, fierceness and vulnerability, has already been nominated for a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award and seems to be on track for an Oscar nod, as well. Hanks and Thompson talk about Saving Mr Banks and their real-life counterparts. 

Among other things, Saving Mr Banks shows the adaptation process. Emma, how much of your own experiences adapting Sense and Sensibility and Nanny McPhee for the screen offered insight into Travers and what she was going through?

Thompson: The big difference is that I adapted a book as a screenplay. Screenplays are designed to be handed over to somebody else. She was writing something that came from some subatomic part of her that she wasn’t willing to let go (of) at all, because she relied on it emotionally.

Emma, you did quite a bit of research on Travers. Was she really that cold?

Thompson: Last night, when we were doing a Q&A, Kelly (Marcel) said (Travers’) grandchildren had said she’d died not loving anyone and nobody loving her. 

Travers insisted on taping her sessions with the Shermans, so there were hours of recordings available.

Hanks: 39 hours of recordings. That must have been magnificent.

Emma, what did you learn about her by listening to her voice?

Thompson: They were the biggest tell, the tapes. You can hear the distress, tension and resistance, just the purposeful sabotage in her voice. It’s fascinating.

How much of that distress came from being alone in a foreign country and outnumbered by Disney staffers?

Thompson: I think she sounded like that most of the time. We can’t forget that she made absolutely no effort whatsoever to go out with them, to socialise with them. She wouldn’t even eat with them in the commissary here when they were working together. She was horrible. You can’t sugarcoat it in any way.

Meanwhile, Tom, you’re playing the fellow who created the company whose movie it is. Can you walk us through what sounds like a strange job offer?

Hanks: It was incredibly straightforward. Disney’s chief executive, Robert A Iger, called and said: “Look, we have a bit of a circumstance here. We have to make this movie about Walt Disney. We didn’t develop it. It came to us from somewhere else. It’s a great script, and if we don’t do it, that means somebody else might be able to do it, and we’re going to look heartless. But if we quash it, we’ll look like we’re trying to hide something. So will you play Walt Disney?”

What happened after you said yes?

Hanks: I was immediately dry-mouthed by the prospect. It’s just the hardest work that is to be done. There’s a billion hours of video, of Walt performing as Walt Disney, being a great guy. But I found enough actual footage of him in interviews when he’d really like to be done with the subject. 

Was the Disney family of assistance?

Hanks: The Disney family connection with Disney studios did not end well. When Roy Disney (Walt’s nephew) was still here, he was sort of creatively shunted aside, but kept aboard for almost ceremonial reasons. Then eventually they left. Not unlike the filmmakers who sent the script to the Walt Disney Co wondering if they were going to get a cease-and-desist order, we went to see Diane Disney (Walt’s daughter) wondering if she was going to say, “I don’t like this idea at all.” But she wasn’t like that.

Were you always mindful that P L Travers was on the ropes financially when she finally relinquished the rights to Mary Poppins?

Hanks: Know what? No one knows what they said to each other when push came to shove, but I’m almost willing to bet that it was all about money. “Hey, look, doll. You’re going to be an old bat and die here all by yourself. Don’t you want to have a bunch of money in your pocket? Well then, let me make the movie.” I’ll bet you anything that’s what went down.

Thompson: And it’s not just a financial question. It comes from the age-old difficulty of women being written about by Austen onward. What do you do? How do you make a living, if you’re not going to be married to someone who’s going to pay your bills?

Saving Mr Banks is also a movie about the limits of charm in business dealings. Walt Disney had it. P L Travers was put off by it.

Hanks: I can’t smile like he could. My smile looks kind of demonic. But his was kind of “Isn’t it wonderful to be alive?” And he’d done that everywhere — from the UN to every room he walked into.

Thompson: You’re talking about two different ends of a spectrum that is actually quite wide and varied. You’re talking about someone who had the power to charm the birds from the trees and someone who refused on every level to use it. She could charm. I know she could. I read about it, and her friends told me. She just never ever did.

So how did you find a way into her?

Thompson: She was a tough nut to crack. When I’m creating a character, I sort of do a brass rubbing, sort of put some tracing paper over the character and rub it and then think, “Which bits?” Of course, the father-daughter thing, the loss of the father’s storytelling abilities and the loss of his control, the loss of his power is very much a connective bit for me. He couldn’t speak, and I was the only person he allowed to teach him to talk again.

So I was with my father when I was 18, 19 with little cards which said, “I am” and “you are.” I thought, “I’m being given this sacred task,” but it tore me apart.When my father came to Cambridge, when I was graduating, he slurred his words, and he didn’t want anyone to know that it was because he had a stroke, so the teachers thought he was drunk. So there were those connections. But I think most artistes are fundamentally inconsolable. 

Travers was certainly so. According to Richard Sherman, she went up to Disney after seeing Mary Poppins at the premiere and told him she had ideas to improve the film.

Thompson: Yes, and he said, “Pam, the ship has sailed.”

Hanks: And then he walked away from her. He was done.

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