At only age 56, Julie Walters is already a British institution. Not only has she triumphed on stage, screen and television, but she was honoured by the Queen with an OBE in 1999. So meeting her is, naturally, a little intimidating. But she instantly puts me at ease with a wide smile and a hilariously relaxed running comedy routine as she answers questions in a mixture of accents, interrupting herself frequently. She’s chatty and open, always entertaining and engaging, and still remarkably guarded. And you can’t help but feel she was just a wee bit typecast as the wonderfully batty Evie in Driving Lessons...
Have you ever met anyone quite like Evie?
Bits of her, no one quite like that, but I’ve met eccentrics. I’ve met people over the years who have been in the business a long time, and I’ve met eccentrics who have lived on their own a long time, which she has. So it makes them eccentric because they don’t have to deal with anyone else. But I wouldn’t say there was a specific person that she’s like. No, I never get specific people in mind, unless you’re playing a particular person. It’s always a mix of people, gradually as you read it, bits of them come into play.
Are there bits of you in there?
Well there always is, isn’t there. I mean she’s got to be expressed through me. I’m not averse to swearing - I’ve got no problem with swearing, like some people have. The business I’m in isn’t bothered about swearing. And I loved the swearing in this film - it’s so hilarious. Evie’s probably only six or seven years older than me - she’s not that much older - but she’s somebody who’s been terribly bent by life. She’s lost a child, and that’s very hard to live through. And that explains an awful lot of stuff that goes on. I think she’s weathered and beaten down by that, and the awful grief that’s involved in that.
Why are you usually cast much older than you are?
I think I get cast older because working with Victoria [Wood] I played old people, and I loved that. It’s really fascinating - it goes back to childhood. I had a grandmother who was eccentric to put it mildly. She lived with us at home, and I was fascinated by her and the way her body was and all of that. So I think it partly comes from that: just wanting to recreate it somehow, to kind of understand it. Then there was Alan Bleasdale who gave me the GBH mother - playing Robert Lindsay’s mother, when Robert’s a year older than me!
Is there a danger of drifting into caricature with such a theatrical role?
Yeah. But it’s not a question of reining her in - because she’s not somebody who reins herself in. What you have to rein in is the desire to really enjoy it too much. I was very aware of that, and I said to Jeremy [Brock, the director], ‘Don’t let me enjoy it too much.’ Because you just want to. It was a matter of finding her real centre all the time - Evie’s real centre - where’s it coming from? And a lot of it is a performance for her. She’s hasn’t spoken to anyone properly for about a year, and now she’s got this boy so she can actually say, ‘bloody f**ker bugger’ - all those things she’s wanted to say to people, but there hasn’t been anyone to say it to. Now she’s got this boy who hardly ever speaks, and she gets pissed off because he’s not actually giving her anything back.
The director worked for Peggy Ashcroft as a young man - how much of his experiences are in the film?
Well, the character isn’t based on Peggy Ashcroft. What’s happened is that he had a friendship when he was young with Peggy - in fact she was an inspiration in the way this woman is. The relationship is kind of similar, although Peggy Ashcroft is nothing like her. She is based more on his eccentric aunt, who was an actress who hardly ever worked. And no one really knew her acting - ‘Did she ever act?’ She was a bit of a drinker, I think, and rather posh. So it was based on that, but the relationship was based on the one he had with Peggy Ashcroft. No, Peggy Ashcroft would be turning in her grave if she thought we thought she was like that! ‘Ya f**king bastard!’
Have you ever suffered from stage fright like Evie does in the film?
Poor old Evie! Yes, every actor would understand what she was going through. I’ve had first night nerves, and occasions when sometimes you’ve identified someone in the audience - I don’t mean by looking, but knowing that someone’s in. That ruins stuff often. Suddenly it’s not an audience, it’s a person. But not to the degree that she did, where she’s paralysed. No not as destructive as that. But I’ve had times when I think I cannot perform this until after the first night - I’ve had that experience. And I’ve dried - loads on Acorn Antiques - I’d just say, ‘What comes next?’
You couldn’t do that in a Shakespeare?
But you can cover it, because people don’t know Shakespeare well enough. And if they do then that’s too bad, isn’t it? You can cover it more easily with Shakespeare than in a modern piece probably. There’s always ways around it. But she is crippled, isn’t she? She hasn’t just forgotten.
What are you like as a driver?
Ah, you’ll have to ask [husband] Grant or [daughter] Maisie. ‘Mum’s wild,’ I heard her say the other day. ‘She’s like a rally driver.’ And I said, ‘I am not!’ And then when I was driving them they were saying, ‘Woo woo, watch it! Go easy!’ But I know the width of my car, I think I’m all right. I wouldn’t say I’m a natural driver - my husband will vouch for that. I was 37 when I got my licence, but I lived in Central London for all those years, on Greek Street, and I didn’t have any reason to drive. But it was Grant who said, ‘You really ought to pass your test.’ So I bought a Mini and drove him everywhere - and mad - and round the bend! And then I had lessons with a marvellous man whose name I’ve forgotten now. He was fab, his girlfriend’s called Geraldine - that’s the only way I can identify him. And he was great. We’d have a cup of tea, and I used to wind him up all the time. And then I passed my test - first time - a good job at 37. Now I love driving - just been down to Cornwall and back.
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