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Five questions with . . . Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks

Posted 12:00am on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014

Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks

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 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 (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), struggled to collaborate with her.

On a recent evening at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif., Hanks and Thompson met to talk about Saving Mr. Banks and their real-life counterparts.

1. 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?

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.

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

Hanks: Thirty-nine hours of recordings. That must have been magnificent.

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

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

4. 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 socialize 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.

5. 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?’

— Margy Rochlin, New York Times News Service

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