Words by Alison James Pic © Nils Jorgenson, REX
"Marmalade sandwich?” It’s not every day one of Britain’s best-loved actresses offers you a triangle of brown bread and orange breakfast preserve. The staple diet of Paddington Bear, Julie Walters, who plays housekeeper and nanny Mrs Bird in new film, Paddington, is not too fussed about the sandwiches, preferring to stick with a cup of tea. She’s clearly excited about the release of the film in good time for Christmas – and indeed Christmas itself.
“I do love Christmas,” she smiles. “Lazing in front of the fire with the family, everyone talking at once and so loudly you think your ears will burst, eating too much – all the usual stuff. I just hope there isn’t a repeat performance of last Christmas where we got completely flooded out. There was more than 3ft of water in the cellar and we had no electricity. The Aga was still going but we didn’t have turkey and just ate all the rubbishy snacks instead.
“Actually, it wasn’t too bad – we had candles everywhere so it felt quite romantic, but I wouldn’t like to experience it again, so one of my Christmas wishes is not to get flooded out this year.”
What might Julie’s other Christmas wishes be?
“My ultimate wish is a big one and probably the same as many other people’s,” she replies. “I wish the Middle East and all that could be sorted out. I wish the dangers could be taken away for all and that everyone would start to get on. Actually, Paddington has this message very much at its heart.”
Paddington Bear political? Really? Julie nods.
“In a way – although it’s really more about kindness and understanding. The story is about a bear from Peru who arrives in Britain not knowing anyone. He’s a refugee and an outsider who struggles to fit in. Everyone is saying, “What is this thing? Where has it come from? It can’t stay here!’ Paddington creates chaos at first and almost splits the Brown family – who adopt him – down the middle. But they give him a chance and eventually there’s harmony as the family accept Paddington for what he is and vice versa.
So, in addition to being exciting and funny and very entertaining, the film is all about acceptance, inclusion and understanding our differences. It’s a great message for Christmas.”
Julie didn’t read the Paddington Bear books as a child, but husband Grant did and he really remembered Mrs Bird, Julie’s character.
‘One of my Christmas wishesis not to get flooded out this year’
“I asked what she was like and he said she was really strict, but lovely, and very kind beneath it all. She’s Scottish and her late husband was a sea captain so I really play up the nautical references.
She blows a whistle like a captain on deck when she wants the Brown children to behave and she’s constantly coming out with nautical sayings. She’s eccentric – more so than she is in the books, I think – but really quite wise. Paddington exasperates her at first but she becomes very protective of him.”
Speaking of which, does Julie have any teddy bears of her own?
“Two. And I’ve had them since I was very small,” she reveals. “There’s Tedland, who’s quite small and 64 years old like me. He also looks like me with his grey, curly hair and tiny eyes. Tedland has a withered arm, which my mother always said was due to me being sick on him when I was a child!
“Then there’s Big Ted, who I got when I was two, so he’s 62. His paws have been chewed off by the dog but he’s a bit like me, too. Lie him on his back and he groans! Big Ted wears a Rasta hat and a string of pearls – I don’t know why. He’s just rather eccentric. Both teddies hang out on an old chaise longue that’s falling to bits.”
In addition to Paddington, Julie has another film, Brooklyn, set for release next year, and she recently finished filming Indian Summers, an epic ten-part BBC1 drama set in 1932 as the British cling to power in India. Sounds like she has no plans to slow down, then.
“When I reached 60 I thought about retiring. Becoming 50 didn’t bother me but 60 felt different. I’d shaved my head to play Mo Mowlam and it grew back white. I looked in the mirror and saw an assortment of my late mother’s relatives staring back at me and realised I’d reached the age when many people retire.
I wanted to take some time off and think about what I was doing, so I didn’t do anything for about a year and then a play came along. I read it and realised I really, really wanted to do it. I don’t think I will properly retire – I don’t know many actors who have. I’m choosier about what I do, but I certainly still like a challenge.”
- Paddington is in UK cinemas now
Psst… Julie shares a secret
She was terrified of watching her Who Do You Think You Are? episode, which was screened earlier this year.
“I genuinely had no idea how it would turn out because they’re filming it while you’re seeing things for the first time. I’d told myself I wouldn’t cry but I just couldn’t help it. It was just so immensely moving and I genuinely loved these people they were telling me about. It was an amazing, amazing experience.”
There's more star chat in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday