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From Mary Poppins to The Sound of Music to The Princess Diaries, Julie Andrews is a part of the fabric of moviegoing. And to talk about Andrews’ decades-spanning career is to talk about Hollywood history itself.
Andrews earned an Oscar for her first feature film, Mary Poppins, and has gone on to be recognized at the Grammys, Tonys and BAFTAs. Ahead of receiving her latest honor — an AFI Life Achievement Award on June 9 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood — the actress talked to THR about the (literally) high-wire acting in Mary Poppins, movie musicals and her offhanded suggestion to Garry Marshall that made it into the The Princess Diaries.
What was career advice you received early on in entertainment that still sticks with you?
From the earliest days when I was a kid — from about 12 years old onwards I was one of those child singers that seem to attract a lot of attention — my mother would say to me, “Remember, there’s always somebody in the wings that can do it better than you. And just be grateful for what you get.” And that was a very good piece of advice at that time. I’ve had several other wonderful pieces of advice, but that was the very first one.
How was the early transition from stage into film?
Hollywood, very wonderfully and miraculously, beckoned. And, of course, it was Walt Disney. I knew nothing about film when I came to Hollywood, and many kind people were dear enough to educate me. And I asked a lot of questions, and I watched a lot.
How was it walking on to that first day of filming for Mary Poppins?
I would say hugely daunting. I remember all I had to do was walk across from right to left or something like that and say one line. I did, and they said, “Fine, print.” And I thought, well, I don’t know if I was acting enough or whatever I was supposed to be doing. But honestly, it was a great learning experience, and I learned about cameras and closeups and lenses and all those kinds of things.
Do you have a favorite scene you shot?
Probably one of my favorite sequences was about halfway through the film, when I had sort of settled down and my fears were subsiding a bit. The “Supercalifragilistic” song is a lovely memory, and we had such fun with it.
Watching it, it seems exhausting to film.
It was more joyous than that. They saved all the difficult flying stuff until the end in case of some kind of an accident. In which case, most of the stuff was already in the can. So I was up there for hours hanging around in my flying harness, doing bits and pieces and pickups and so on. And I felt myself drop like about a foot and I got panicked like you don’t believe and said, “I think I’m feeling a little nervous about this today. Could you let me down very carefully when I come down?” And they said, “Yes. Down carefully, down carefully, Joe!” And then I dropped to the floor like a ton of bricks. Luckily there was a lot of balancing equipment helping me when I fell, so I didn’t thunder through the stage, but I did let fly a few expletives that I didn’t know if anybody had ever heard me utter before. Then there was this long silence and suddenly the gentleman from the back, who had been letting me down gently, said, “Is she down yet?”
You have played so many well-known characters. For you, does your relationship with characters end when the performance ends, or does it live on because the characters do?
The films live on if you’re lucky ,and some of them don’t. (Laughs.) But some of them have. In a way, there’s always a piece of oneself somewhere in there. I don’t think it’s completely all that one is, it’s a character, and it’s an acting exercise. But I don’t know if I carry them around. I’m not sure. I don’t think I do. I could certainly summon it up if I had to, but I don’t dwell on it and I don’t see it very often. If I happen to stumble on it, I might look at it and think, “Oh gosh, I wish I’d done that better.”
Was there a role you played that you were surprised by the audience really responding to in a strong way?
Well, positive or negative? I am thinking of a movie called Star!, which funnily enough was not a hit. People responded to the fact that it was a character that wasn’t endearing, and she was a somewhat odd lady to portray. It’s the story of the life of Gertrude Lawrence. And although she was incredibly talented, she wasn’t easy, and she wasn’t tremendously beloved except for her performances. But I think probably what you are referring to is something like The Sound of Music, which has stayed in people’s consciousness all this time. It made a big, big dent in people’s psyche.
Would you say that is the role that people most often want to talk about?
I think you are always bracketed for what is the most popular thing you’ve done. If you think about someone like Clark Gable, it’s Gone with the Wind. It was the most popular thing he could have possibly done. I think that’s why people remember because it is a big success. But these days, far from it being only Mary Poppins, young kids know me better from the Princess Diaries.
For Princess Diaries, I read that you took the project because you were a fan of director Garry Marshall’s work. What was it about his films that made you want to work with him?
The humor and the understanding of human nature. I think also it was the idea of the story, of course, but he was incredibly generous. When I first met him, and I had never met him until the role was being talked about, he asked some fabulous questions, like, where do you think Genovia is? What do you think Genovia is famous for? I said something idiotic like, “The nuns in the country would’ve made lace and exported it, and maybe they’re famous for their very beautiful pear trees and their pears.” Well, we had pears all over the set and lace costumes. He embraced what everyone cared to offer.
Is it a story you would want to revisit?
I think it would be too late to do it now. There was talk of a sequel many, many years ago. But I don’t think it ever came to pass. And Garry then did leave us. [Marshall died in 2016.] [For] especially me, it’s too far down the line now to go back to it. It’s a lovely thought, but I don’t think it would probably be possible.
How did you and your friend Carol Burnett first meet?
We were brought together by a mutual friend who said, “You are going to love each other.” She was on Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress. I was on Broadway in Camelot, I believe, after My Fair Lady. When somebody says, “You’re just gonna love each other,” it’s the kiss of death, you know? I think it was a Chinese restaurant and there were three guys, one of them was my manager at the time and a producer for Carol and things like that, but they never got a word in edgewise. We’ve been great chums ever since. We often refer to it as discovering somebody that’s been living on the same block for years, and you never knew.
How is it to find a kindred spirit in a fellow performer?
We did three big specials together, the Carnegie Hall one and then Lincoln Center and then one in L.A. I vividly remember [on the first one] standing on my side of the stage looking across at her on the other side of the stage before we made an entrance, and both of us were so young, so nervous and encouraging each other and pumping fists at each other. Saying, “We can do this!” It was a huge gamble in those days. But, it’s a laugh a moment, and lovely stimulation to work together.
For you, what makes a great scene partner?
A generosity, of course. That’s true of all the actors that I think I’ve worked with. I don’t recall anybody that was selfish or self-involved in any way.
What about in a director?
Well, my husband [Blake Edwards] was a director. We made about seven movies together. That was a great joy, and we could talk about it or forget about it at the end of the day, but it was wonderful working with him because he had six ideas a day and was charismatic and wonderful to watch. He was very dedicated to film and the art form that it is, and also hated any tricks for the sake of being smart or sassy. He loved pure film, where you never realized there was a camera. He was a great believer in that. I was stunned to meet him and trying very hard not to fall in love with him, but then we did. We were married 43 years before he passed.
Looking at entertainment today, what excites you?
There’s a lot of very good stuff around these days. In the older times, in younger times for me, there were a lot of sort of fads and fashions. At one point, musicals were huge and then all of a sudden people said, “Oh, that’s much too expensive. We want independent, small movies.” Like Easy Rider, for instance. That became the fashion. Then suddenly everything comes full circle and back you are with musicals again. Nothing is to be finished because it will come around again.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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