Fan-favourite, veteran actor Paul Giamatti takes on the only fictional character role in Saving Mr. Banks – out on March 24th on DVD & Blu-ray from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.
As Ralph the driver, Giamatti is assigned to Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers and soon softens her brash persona. We had a chat with Paul about the film, his experiences on-set and his recollections of Mary Poppins.
Tell us about Mary Poppins and when you first remember seeing it.
I have a funny relationship to Mary Poppins because I didn’t see it until I was about 25. I never saw it when I was a kid. I read a couple of the books when I was a kid, but I didn’t see the movie until I was an adult and I loved it. I thought it was great, but I think it was probably too late for me by the time I saw it when I was an adult.
But the story is amazing and at the time it was made nobody had really done anything like it. With the scale of it and everything, it must have been a completely unprecedented thing for people to see. It is visionary, seeing what they came up with from the books and to have seen where Walt Disney wanted to go with it. It’s a great movie! I loved it.
Talk us through Ralph, the character you play in the movie?
I play the one fictional character in the film. He’s a guy named Ralph who is the limousine driver for P.L. Travers when she is in Los Angeles. In the movie she says that he’s the only American she liked when she was here and they have a nice relationship. You get to see another side of her; you see a lot of her difficult side but then you see her be less difficult with Ralph.
It is hard not to like Ralph, but P.L. Travers does start off with a tough relationship with him, doesn’t she?
Travers is just completely blunt with him but Ralph gets right away who she is and he understands and he’s totally cool with it. But yes, she’s rough on him, too, but she comes around. It’s easy to like him, and I think she can’t resist after a while so she comes to actually like him.
P.L. Travers, as depicted in this movie, is rude but at the same time funny. Can you talk a little bit about how she’s portrayed here?
Emma Thompson plays her as hilariously rude. She’s just very, very, British and has no filter, no editing device. She’s completely blunt with no great social skills but she is deeply in love with her own creation and terrified for its safety. It’s like her child that she’s very protective of and you see enough about her past to understand why she’s such a defended person. But it is very funny and Emma is super funny.
Tell us about P.L. Travers’ history.
P.L. Travers was Australian and she had a hellish upbringing with a difficult father and a difficult family life with all kinds of madness and moving around. But her father was clearly a hugely powerful figure in her life and she drew lots of things from him. It seems like a lot of people who write children’s stories have had difficult childhoods.
There is a huge contrast between the “gee-whiz” Walt Disney world and the world of P.L. Travers, isn’t there?
Definitely. That is how it is meant to be. Nothing is friendlier and more smiley than Disney and it’s the ultimate fish-out-of-water thing to put this woman in the middle of all of that. The character I play is just super nice and everybody is nice in the film except for her, so a lot of the comedy derives from this English thing that just doesn’t tolerate that kind of silliness.
Emma Thompson’s costumes and hair make her look very stiff and tightly wound like P.L. Travers. Did you get that impression when you saw her in character?
Yes. I was watching her and thinking about these amazing suits that she wears and the fantastic design of them. She’s the kind of woman who never goes without the right hand bag and the right gloves and shoes; everything is so perfect, her hair, everything. They’ve done a great job with it and Emma obviously makes it all work really well. She’s got that real eye on the incredibly proper British person. Nothing is ever out of place and nothing is ever going to be seen to be out of place. She doesn’t even move very much. She’s incredibly still with no wasted energy or wasted time on anything. Everything is perfectly in line.
What was it like filming some of the scenes taking place in the 1961 on the Walt Disney Studios lot?
The Walt Disney Studios lot is really like a time capsule. You don’t really have to do much to it at all. It’s totally great. It’s a good time period and a fun time period to do with the cars and the skinny ties.
What are your feelings about Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney?
I have good feelings about Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney. When I got the script and they said it was about Walt Disney and Tom was playing Walt Disney, I thought, who else would play Walt Disney, really? I can’t really think of anybody else that could do it. It seems so perfect in so many ways and it’s a really good portrait of him. It’s not like a total gloss of the guy; he’s a complicated guy who’s got actual dimensions to him and Tom’s totally great. It would be a sacrilege if anybody else played Disney but him.
How did you feel about the script?
It’s super well written. I thought, actually it’s one of the better-written things I’ve read in a long time. All the characters are great. You don’t come across things like this that sustain so well and it’s two very distinct movies that move back and forth in time and they feel really well integrated. A lot of material gets covered and it does it really elegantly.
Did you meet songwriter Richard Sherman, who is a music consultant on the film?
I did meet Richard Sherman briefly, which was really cool. He’s a nice guy. Something they do really well in the film is showing the process of developing Mary Poppins early on, which Richard was an important part of. A lot of times in a movie they’ll show the artistic process and you don’t buy it because it doesn’t seem real but this actually has a feel of guys working and people figuring stuff out. I’m really interested to see how all that works.
What was your experience working with director John Lee Hancock.
John Lee Hancock is super-efficient and super-good. Filming moves along incredibly swiftly and he knows exactly what he wants. But he also somehow manages to give you an enormous sense of freedom. He’s doing exactly what you hope a director would do and most of them don’t, which is that he gives you the illusion of freedom but he’s actually very much in control. He’s great.
Is this an emotional movie? Will audiences find themselves getting emotionally involved?
This movie has a lot of emotional thrust to it both from its 1961 storyline and the 1906 flashbacks but probably too because people have such associations with Mary Poppins. I think for a lot of people Mary Poppins itself is such a hugely nostalgic thing that it just sets off emotions immediately.
Describe how you think the movie will affect audiences.
Saving Mr. Banks has a big scope and lots of things to it and it’s very funny too. It will be a very interesting portrait of P.L. Travers, but it’s also a portrait of her creation. So, I think the movie will be an interesting window into Mary Poppins, the classic film that people love so much.
Saving Mr. Banks is out on DVD & Blu-ray 24th March 2014 from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.