Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks Talk SAVING MR. BANKS, Bringing the Essence of Their Characters to the Screen, and How P.L. Travers Would Have Reacted

     December 9, 2013


Saving Mr. Banks tells the tale of when Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) invited Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to his studio in Los Angeles in 1961, to discuss his interest in obtaining the movie rights to her beloved book and character.  While there, Travers, who had been resistant for 20 years, spent two weeks uncompromisingly fighting every idea and suggestion, on the road to bringing this classic to the big screen.

At a press conference to promote the film’s release, co-stars Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks talked about bringing the essence of these people to life without doing an exact imitation, what they learned about these individuals from playing them, the characters they were each obsessed with, growing up, and what P.L. Travers might have thought of this film.  Thompson also addressed whether there might ever be another Nanny McPhee movie.  Check out what they had to say after the jump. 

saving-mr-banks-tom-hanks-emma-thompsonQuestion:  In bringing these two real people to life, what were the little breadcrumbs that you used to follow the trail to get the essence of who these people were, rather than doing imitations?

TOM HANKS:  There was a bit of a vocal cadence and a rhythm that Mr. Disney had, that took awhile to figure out.  A lot of the little anecdotes that we found, specifically from the likes of Richard Sherman, were already in screenplay, like Walt’s cough.  Walt smoked three packs a day.  Richard Sherman said that you always knew when Walt was coming to visit your office ‘cause you could hear him coughing from down by the elevator.  So, you’re able to put that stuff into it, and it just ends up being one of the delightful cards in the deck. 

EMMA THOMPSON:  My search for P.L. Travers was very breadcrumb-y.  She went everywhere, so she was like going into a maze.  Around some corners, you’d find this terrible monster.  And around other corners, you’d find a beaten child.  She was the most extraordinary combination of things.  I suppose that was the scary thing.  In films, we often get to play people who are emotionally, or at least morally, consistent, in some way, and she wasn’t consistent, in any way.  You would not know what you would get, from one moment to the next.  

Tom, what were the challenges of playing such an iconic individual, and how did your research inform your performance?

HANKS:  There was a lot of anecdotal information that kept coming to us.  There were people who knew Walt, and they still have access to the studio ‘cause they still have their cards that let them in.  They searched us out.  Richard Sherman was literally a never-ending fountain of stories, of facts, of anecdotes, and of bits and pieces of everything that had happened.  And Diane Disney Miller, his daughter, gave me unlimited access to the archives and the museum in San Francisco.  I made a couple of visits there.  And I had a lot of video and audio that I could work with.  The only handicap was that a lot of it is Walt Disney playing Walt Disney.  There was a cadence to the man.  He believed everything that he said about his projects and he completely embraced the possibilities of wonder in the movies that he was going to make, as well as the rides he was going to come up with and the things that he was going to build.  So, I had a great road map, in searching it out.

Emma, you won an Oscar for a screenplay and you played a nanny in Nanny McPhee, and here you’re playing a person who is helping write a screenplay about a nanny.  Did any of that affect your approach to this film? 

saving-mr-banks-emma-thompson-tom-hanksTHOMPSON:  P.L. Travers used to talk a lot about Buffalo Bill.  While I was researching her, I found out that she referred to Mary Poppins in very similar ways.  She had understood that there was a spot of Zen mastery, in the way in which she worked.  This is my theory, but because women have traditionally been locked out of the superstructures or the power structures that we all live in, Buffalo Bill is a very good example.  I’ve always thought that Nanny McPhee was essentially a Western, only set in a domestic environment.  And P.L. Travers felt the same way about Mary Poppins.  There’s a very real connection, in the sense that the outsider comes into the place where there is difficulty, solves the problem using unorthodox methods, and then must leave.  That’s a Western.  And because women don’t have that kind of power, the Western form, which is an essential myth, emerges in the female world in the nursery.                    

Why do you think P.L. Travers, who can be so hurtful and so mean, is so much fun and irresistibly adorable?

THOMPSON:  That is the first time I’ve heard her called irresistibly adorable, but I’ll take it.  For those of us who’ve been so well brought up, we’re all so bloody polite, all the time, particularly Americans.  I think, quite a lot of the time, we act in conflict with what we really feel. 

In the film, both of your characters are pretty obsessed with this book and this character.  In your own lives, is there something that you either wanted to do, as an actor, or that you were obsessed with?

THOMPSON:  Just off the top of my head, which is probably the best place to start, it was always Sherlock Holmes, with whom I was deeply in love and really wanted to be.  If you’re a female, a lot of the heroic models are, in fact, male.  One of my first questions to everybody, as I was getting older was, “Who’s the female hero?  What does she actually do?”  

HANKS:  I always wanted to play Lestrade of Scotland Yard ‘cause he’s a buffoon that gets to wear a uniform.  I thought that would be fun.”    

What’s it ike to be Tom Hanks, as a grandfather?  Do you take your own grandkids to Disneyland?

HANKS:  I took them to Disneyland, on the day that we shot in Disneyland.  An interesting thing happens, as a grandparent.  You see no reason, whatsoever, that your granddaughter shouldn’t be delighted to take a ride on the Winnie the Pooh Adventure.  It’s Winnie the Pooh!  It’s fun!  It’s Pooh Bear.  It’s Kanga and Roo and Owl.  It’s Christopher Robin.  It’s gonna be a blast!  She’s gonna remember it for the rest of her life.  My granddaughter was terrified by the noise and the big spinning bears.  She will now be haunted for the rest of her days, by this first image of Winnie the Pooh, in a loud, short, herky-jerky ride that her grandfather forced her to do, on the day he played Walt Disney in Disneyland.  That is just a sample of the fantastic job I do as a grandparent.

saving-mr-banks-emma-thompson-bradley-whitfordTom, what did you learn about Walt Disney from doing the movie, that you didn’t know before?

HANKS:  He had the most discussed, photographed, analyzed, diagrammed, tested mustache on the planet.  I think documents actually went to the United States government to discuss the angle of the shave and how much mustache was going to be there.  I don’t look too much like him, but there is an angular figure you can get from the boxiness of the suits and playing around with various pieces of hair, in order to get there.  Walt Disney, at this time in his life, was very much already Walt Disney.  He was the accomplished artist and industrialist that he was.  The surprised was how much of a regular dad this guy was.  Disneyland came about because he used to spend every Saturday with his two daughters and, after awhile, here in L.A., he ran out of places that he could take his two daughters.  There were pony rides over where the Beverly Center is now, and there was the merry-go-round in Griffith Park, but that was it.  And he was sitting and eating peanuts on a park bench in Griffith Park while the girls were on the merry-go-round, and he said, “God, there really should be a place that dads can take their daughters on a Saturday in L.A.”  From that, Disneyland was born.  He smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and he died of lung cancer, which is just one of the grim realities of the way the world operated back then.

As an actor, director and producer yourself, how do you relate with the conflict of Mr. Disney wanting to tell this marvelous story that he has in his mind while having to deal with a temperamental author?

HANKS:  When you try to bring a story to life, it starts in your head and you see possibilities for it, but it’s just one damn thing after another.  At this point, Walt Disney was pretty much used to getting his way because everybody loved him and he was the guy who invented Mickey Mouse.  In the creative process, which is really what this movie is about, you come to loggerheads and you just have to keep the process moving forward, even if that requires jumping on a plane and flying to London.  It’s a good thing it’s fun, otherwise it would be too much work. 

In the film, P.L. Travers made what she thought of Disney’s Mary Poppins very clear, but how do you think she would have responded to Saving Mr. Banks?

THOMPSON:  I reckon this was a woman who kept on saying, “I don’t want anything.  I don’t want a biography.  I don’t want anyone to know anything about me.”  Meanwhile, she kept everything she wrote and sent it the archives at Brisbane University.  I’m certain she felt that she was an important contributor to the artistic culture, and wanted to have it preserved.  I think what she would say about this is, “This is an absolutely ridiculous film!  It has no relationship, whatsoever, to what was happening.  But, it’s about me.  And the clothes were really rather nice.”  I think that’s what she would have said. 

saving-mr-banks-tom-hanks-emma-thompsonEmma, is there any possibility of another Nanny McPhee movie?

THOMPSON:  We had a lovely time making the second one, and it went down very well in my country.  We came here and did this big two-week tour of all the States, which was just wonderful because I had never been to many of the States, and everybody was very enthusiastic.  And I got to the end of the tour, and was pretty tired.  I was on my way home.  I was in New York, literally packing my bag to go home, and the phone rang.  I said, “Hello.  How’s it going?”  This was opening weekend.  They said, “Well, uh . . .”  I said,  “What?!  What?!”  They said, “Well, the box office is not as good as we wanted it to be.”  I said, “Okay.  What do you mean?”  They said, “We projected that it would take 14 million dollars.  It only took 9.7 million.”  I said, “I don’t understand what that means.  9.7 million dollars seems like quite a lot of money, really.  But, you seem to be suicidal.  I better take that as evidence that there won’t be another one.”  And that’s how it works.  It doesn’t matter how good the movie is.  What matters is what it takes during the opening weekend.  It’s slightly distressing sometimes. 

Saving Mr. Banks opens in limited release on December 13th.

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