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'Saving Mr. Banks' Star Emma Thompson Shares P.L. Travers Insights, Favorite Films

Emma Thompson Janet Maslin - H 2013
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Janet Maslin and Emma Thompson

The actress also reveals which Mel Brooks comedy she thinks is a "work of great genius" and the French film that made her say, "I can't not be involved in this business."

Emma Thompson provided a fascinating and funny look into how she approached playing author P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks as well as other influences that have shaped her work as an actress and writer in a wide-ranging discussion hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the New York Times in New York.

To embody Travers, Thompson delved into her personality, posture and psychological makeup and shared her insights into the Mary Poppins mastermind with Times critic Janet Maslin during Friday night's talk at the Times Center in Manhattan.

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"I had access to all of the letters, and I had access to all of the tapes, which after a while make you want to plunge red-hot forks into your ears," Thompson said of her research into Travers' dealings with Walt Disney and the tone of their conversations. "They're very difficult to listen to because … it's not just that she's being difficult and recalcitrant and bringing up objection after objection, often without making sense, but it's also the nature of her voice, what's going on in her voice and it gave me so much information about the condition she was in at the time … you can tell that there's distress there. Profound distress. Because it comes out as irritability."

Indeed, Thompson argued that Travers' profound sadness informed her life.

"She wrote a very good essay on sadness, because she was, in fact, a very sad woman," the actress said. "She'd had a very rough childhood, the alcoholism of her father being part of it and the attempted suicide of her mother being another part of it. I think that she spent her whole life in a state of fundamental inconsolability and hence got a lot done."

She also said she found Travers' mean attitude toward Walt Disney freeing.

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"It was interesting, actually, because it was very liberating. I know she was mean, but she was also authentic in one way or another," Thompson said. "There's an authenticity to her irritability that's rather embracing and a relief because you can tell when people are being insincere -- actually, finally -- and in the end one did know where one stood … I spoke to friends of hers … and they said she was very tricky, she was, but she was very honest."

Thompson also used Travers' wardrobe to illustrate the author's internal trauma and external toughness, explaining that she used her handbag as her shield.

"You don't defend yourself unless you're profoundly vulnerable," Thompson said.

The discussion also included clips of three of Thompson's beloved films and a discussion about what each meant to her. The movies were Young Frankenstein, The Apartment and the French film Children of Paradise.

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The first Young Frankenstein scene was the funny train farewell.

Thompson said of that clip: "Madeline Kahn, of all the funny women in the movies, she was the one I think I worshipped most. Also, Gene Wilder, whom I was deeply in love with for years and years and this movie was very important to me because I saw it when I was 16 and I can't tell you what it did to me. I found it very romantic as well because it was so funny. It was funny and it was spooky and it was romantic and I didn't know how he'd done it, Mel Brooks. Gene Wilder is brilliant in it and, of course, Madeline Kahn, that suppressed sexuality that then comes out at the end … it's a work of great genius. That's my favorite scene."

Thompson said she also appreciated how the scene ("not on the lips," "the hair") effectively satirizes the ultra-feminine behavior of, for example, complaining it's cold and waiting for someone to close the window or, as her mother once observed a woman do, taking out a cigarette -- and waiting.

Thompson gushed about The Apartment, saying, "I can't be sensible about this film because I think it's one of the best screenplays ever written. I think Billy Wilder, for the combination that I like so much of pain and humor, is kind of the master, for this film, in particular, covering as it does very funny situations and very, very painful subjects, it's kind of extraordinary."

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She also said that after she saw Children of Paradise multiple times, she knew she wanted to be an actress. "I wrote to my father and I said, 'Whatever I do it will have to be something with these people … I can't not be involved in this business … because I love it and I love them.' "

The discussion of that film also led Thompson to reveal how she studied with a French instructor who encouraged her and his other students to create their own "monsters" based on where they flinched when he hit them with a stick.

"Mine was a horrid little thing … that sort of trying-to-please character, which was very much a part of my character and still is," she said.

Thompson also shared her insights into the Jane Austen era and talked about her experience adapting Sense and Sensibility.

And she did reveal one big spoiler from Saving Mr. Banks.

"They make the movie of Mary Poppins at the end," she blurted out before clapping her hands over her head in mock horror as to what she'd done. "Spoiler," she said.