Dame Julie Walters on her career and life at her Plaistow farm
- Credit: Archant
Academy Award nominee, beloved comedienne, and organic cattle herder: Dame Julie Walters is certainly a woman of many talents both on and off the screen
“My darling Victoria, Dawn French, and Kathy Burke – how could I improve on that for company!” trills the ever-effervescent Julie Walters of a one-time poll that placed her as the fourth funniest woman in Britain. “Honestly, I was astonished to be in the top ten, let alone the top five!”
It seems a discredit to Dame Julie’s varied career in acting to dismiss her comedic inclinations so. Younger fans of her work may well remember her appearances in the spell-bindingly blockbuster Harry Potter franchise, or recent turns in summery Scandi sing-a-long Mamma Mia! and this year’s sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again best. But Dame Julie has been a staple of British acting on the stage, small, and silver screen since 1983’s Educating Rita earned her a first Academy Award nomination. And two years prior to that had seen the first in a long line of TV series alongside the “darling” late Victoria Wood – from Wood and Walters to the hilarious Dinnerladies. Few actors of the past 30 years can match the sheer breadth of the Edgbaston-born star’s back catalogue, or been privy to such a view of the changing landscape of the entertainment industry in that time.
“Everything is done so much faster now,” the 68-year-old nods.
“There’s so much pressure of schedules. I remember doing Personal Services [with Python Terry Jones] in 1986, and each lighting set up would take forever. We’d be there until 10pm because each scene had to be rearranged and set up accordingly.”
There are still, however, hang-ups that even true veterans of the industry like Dame Julie can succumb to. “I don’t suffer from stage fright, professionally, but on the first night of a theatre show I do go down with paralysing nerves. I really do have to be forcefully persuaded that I am good enough to go on and to face the audience. Once I get there – then it’s great. I’ve ‘dried’, forgotten the words, times without number. Sometimes that’s fine, in something like Acorn Antiques in the West End, because the audience are with you, and they love all of that. But it’s definitely not good in a Shakespeare – not good at all!”
Regardless of these minor blips (which many would argue only add to her charm), the star has one rule she swears by when it comes to looking over the diverse assortment of characters she has portrayed over the years.
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“Never ever play someone that you totally and absolutely hate!” she declares. “How can you do that person justice? You have to find little chinks of light and illumination. Even if they are very nasty indeed, there has to be a reason for them being what and how they are.”
Of course, that’s all well and good when it comes to portraying the virtuous Mrs Weasley of JK Rowling’s novels. Dame Julie, however, has often dipped her toes into a selection of far darker portrayals – in spite of her own bubbly nature.
“I often wonder what gets into the head of a casting director when they see the words ‘Ancient old crone, with psychopathic tendencies’ on the page of the script and then they think ‘Right, perfect for Julie Walters,’” she laughs. “Is that a back-handed compliment, or what? But I base a lot of those women on the elderly actresses that I’ve known over the years, and also on my own dear Granny, who lived with us for some time when I was a girl in Liverpool. Mind you, the word ‘eccentric’ doesn’t go half-way to describing what Granny was actually like…”
Dame Julie is undoubtably one of the more deserving of the oft-misplaced moniker ‘national treasure’ – but three decades and counting in the film industry can turn even the most endearing soul into somewhat of a diva. She has an ace up her sleeve though: a rural idyll in Plaistow that acts as a safe haven from the frivolousness of the Hollywood Hills and its spotlight. “We live down in West Sussex, on a farm which is a little over 200 acres, and it’s very much a working operation,” she beams. “It’s livestock, rather than arable. We have our own vegetable patch, so we’re quite green, which I thoroughly approve of! It’s an organic farm: cattle, sheep and chickens – 40 cattle, 700 chickens, about 100 sheep.”
And like any committed farming family, Walters and her husband of over 20 years, Grant Roffey, are active members in the local Sussex community – and staunch protectors of the verdant expanses that encompass their village. The role of farmer’s wife, as it were, is one that Walters cherishes alongside anything she has done in her professional career. “We have a couple of stalls in the local town and sell to some of the local hotels,” she says. “We have a lot of loyal customers; we can’t make it much bigger because it would become a factory.
But he does make his own sausage and bacon.
“I enjoy having two personas, two identities. I’m this luvvie one minute and then the old boot down the supermarket the next. I’m ordinary, just like everyone else. My luck is that I get to do some extraordinary jobs, that’s all… but I really do have this amazing domestic streak. It’s so boring. I will stand there staring at two bottles of bleach like I am in a trance for what seems like hours making my mind up. Passers-by have been known to stop and say, ‘You all right, luv?’.”
Nearing her 70s, Dame Julie appears to have mastered the best of both worlds. Her promise to keep on acting “as long as God spares me” is evidenced by the three films she has upcoming in this year and beyond – beginning with the much-awaited Mary Poppins Returns. Dedication is obviously something that runs in the family: “Grant has been known to fall fast asleep on a tractor before now because he works so hard!” she reveals – but there was a time where she considered retiring from the stage and screen for good. “I reached 60, and I thought, other than any age, it’s that one that’s really defined. You know, 50, I never thought, I didn’t care about 50. But 60… I’d let my hair grow through so suddenly all this white hair appeared. You know, the shape of my head looking like all my mother’s male relatives, I suddenly thought, in life this is when people retire. I just wanted to stop and think about what I was doing. So I didn’t do anything for a year or so and I really did think, ‘I don’t need to work anymore’. Then I realised, it’s still there but it’s only for specific things. It’s not that I just want to work. I don’t know many actors that do retire. Unless there’s you know, some problems. I like the challenge and want to keep on being challenged.”
For someone who, by their own admission, is far more comfortable in a pair of tracksuit bottoms with a mug of green tea – she’s even been known to attend award ceremonies with gowns bearing the homely marks of Sussex mud – Walters is content to lend her talents to directors and scripts as she sees fit. It helps for her to have a partner she can lean on, explaining that she tends to run every new potential role past Grant as standard: “Especially if I have a problem. Or ‘do you mind me going away?’. He’s always great, he says ‘no, but I’ll miss you.’ But he’s always away on the farm anyway!”
Perhaps the clear love of the village in which she settled after stints in Liverpool, London, and even New York City, makes Walters’ decision to choose projects as she pleases all the easier. Or maybe she’s mindful of running out of space to house her Golden Globes and countless BAFTAs in the corner of England where, across 200 acres, the very best of rural Sussex living and Hollywood talent mix.
“Well our front door doesn’t open – we don’t use it because we live on a farm and everyone comes around the back,” she smiles. “So they’re all there in the hall. No one goes in there! I wouldn’t want them pride of place. No, not at all!”
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