Q&A: Julian Fellowes


Since winning the Oscar for best original screenplay in 2002 for "Gosford Park," British actor-turned-author Julian Fellowes has been on a tear: He has written two novels, "Snobs" and the new "Past Imperfect"; directed two films, "Separate Lies" and "From Time to Time," starring Maggie Smith; contributed the book to the musical "Mary Poppins," which recently arrived in Los Angeles; and penned "The Young Victoria," in which Emily Blunt plays Queen Victoria as she's ascending the throne.

The Hollywood Reporter: How important has winning that Oscar been to your career?

Julian Fellowes: If Meryl Streep won another Oscar, I'm sure she would deserve it, and I'm sure we'd be very pleased for her, but she's already a great star, so it's a confirmation. But I'd come from the back of the cupboard; nobody had ever heard of me, and suddenly at 51 or whatever, I was walking up on the Oscar stage. I love this town, but there is a sense here that if you've not broken through the surface of the water by 35, it's probably not going to happen. When people are sent a new script by a writer they haven't heard of in his 50s, their assumption is, this is nothing. I hope I helped to question that assumption. I was sort of the president of the Last Chance Saloon.

THR: How did "Victoria" come about?

Fellowes: The original idea to make a film about Victoria and Albert, as opposed to Victoria the widow, came from the Duchess of York, and she brought the idea to (producer) Graham King. The idea being we all knew about the widow, but we didn't know about the wife. I was already a big fan of Victoria's. I had read her diaries and letters for years. And suddenly, here was an opportunity to put that into a movie. So I pursued it.

THR: Did you have a particular take of your own on Victoria?

Fellowes: More or less everyone in the known world has heard of her, and the woman they have in their head is very specific: the little dumpy widow in black with a handkerchief on her head. They don't really know about the early years at all. I was approaching a subject where I didn't have to explain who it was, but the story I was going to tell was completely new to 99% of the audience. I believe she was misunderstood. She believed that her job was to show clear leadership all the time; that was one of the responsibilities of being a national figure. You have to abide by the rules, you know, and you didn't have a latitude to indulge yourself. Would that more people thought that today, so I'm not going to criticize her for that.

THR: Why have so many movies been made about the English royals?

Fellowes: It's the language element. The other royal families, with the possible exception of Russia, haven't contributed nearly so much. I think it's quite simply that America is the mainstream of movie entertainment, and the English royal family speaks English. In a way, I think it's a pity because there are other families -- the imperial family of Austria is incredibly rich in material and hardly tapped. One of the great advantages dramatically of royalty vs. republicanism is, until the last few years, that meant there were women involved. In the history of republics, certainly before the 1980s, women didn't feature in the front lines, whereas that isn't at all the case with the royals. Not only the queens regnant, but the queens consort (and) have been a constant source of love and hatred. There is something about high life and high drama that is hard to replace. Misery and terror against a backdrop of gilt seem somehow more glamorous and intriguing.

THR: You also have a strong woman, Angelina Jolie, at the center of your next project, "The Tourist."

Fellowes: She is the woman I imagined in this role because she has that curious mixture of sensuality and strength. She has a tremendous sense of purpose as an actress, and that is precisely what is required. Normally, a thriller is about a man, and there's a girl saying, "Look out, he has a gun," but that's not the case with "The Tourist." The film (has) two equally important leads, a man and a woman, both heavyweights, both with an agenda.

THR: Christopher McQuarrie also worked on the screenplay. How do you handle another writer taking up something you've written?

Fellowes: It's come back among friends. It's now with Graham King again, so I'm not in the least bit worried about that. I know what is good and useful in my screenplay will be there in the end. If there's someone like Christopher who can add to it, it costs me nothing. It's part of the process, really. I know new writers become hysterical when other writers come on board, but other writers bring other things. If you're confident in your producers, you know that they will keep the best of what anyone contributes, and in this instance I do have that.