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Interview: Julie Andrews Talks AFI Life Achievement Award, Princess Diaries 3, New Memoir & More

Ahead of Thursday's ceremony, the icon looks back at a lifetime on stage and screen & ahead to new projects including this summer's Minions: The Rise of Gru.

Interview: Julie Andrews Talks AFI Life Achievement Award, Princess Diaries 3, New Memoir & More

Whoever said, "Don't meet your heroes," either never interacted with Julie Andrews or never referred to himself as a "Mary Poppins extremist," as I once did (embarrassingly) on a podcast. But for those of us whose childhoods were rooted firmly in the magic of practically perfect nannyry and anti-Nazi nunnery, the dream of ever encountering the great Dame Andrews seemed as impossible as a penguin popping out of pavement.

But here we are, on the cusp of her AFI Life Achievement Award (airing Thursday, June 16 on TNT) and I've just finished a 25-minute conversation with the one and only.

Nothing entirely prepares you for hearing Julie Andrews's voice on the other end of your phone - not even a week's notice, but it helps. I spent that time revisiting her movies, memoirs, and countless old interviews on YouTube, the net effect of which might have made me nervous but did exactly the opposite. That warm, kind, instantly familiar voice of hers only served to set me at ease.

We talk about her upcoming honor at the American Film Institute and the dynamic filmography it commemorates, from early work in Poppins, The Americanization of Emily, and The Sound of Music to later roles in Victor/Victoria (currently celebrating its 40th anniversary), The Princess Diaries (she tells us where that rumored third installment stands), and her upcoming role in Minions: The Rise of Gru (in theatres July 1st).

The wide-ranging conversation also touches on her plans for a third memoir (she reveals the tentative title), a potential return to stage work, the long-reported but unconfirmed status of her audio commentary for 1968's Star!, her favorite Broadway musicals, and so much more...


I have to tell you, it's such an honor to talk with you today, not only because I am a lifelong fan...

Thank you so much.

...but also because you are about to be honored with the AFI Life Achievement Award.

I know. Isn't that amazing? I'm thrilled.

If someone could go back in time and tell a Julie Andrews very early in her career, starring in My Fair Lady or Camelot on Broadway - not yet having embarked on a major Hollywood career - that one day you would receive the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award...

Well, I never, ever thought about it. Honestly... I watched other people getting it and admired and applauded, but I never really thought about it because it's just been an amazingly wonderful line of good fortune and lovely movies and a lot of work. But I never, ever thought of it as being anything worthy of a lifetime achievement. That's what's quite wonderful. And it is a wonderful evening for AFI. They bring in a lot of money for the things they support so well... They're very honorable people.

In thinking about a lifetime of achievement in your film career, you know, a wise voice once said, "Start at the very beginning," so I will take that advice...

(LAUGHS) Well, mine was way back when I was a kid and in vaudeville and things like that. I mean, in English vaudeville and radio and early television and so on, and lots and lots and lots of touring before I got very fortunate and went to Broadway. And really, I think of my career as three major steppingstones: the first one when I was about 12 and became this kind of freak child prodigy with a strong voice and became known for that. And then going to Broadway. And then going to Hollywood, of course. Those were the three major building blocks.

Do you think - you had that voice as a child beyond your years - do you think you just sort of had to grow into that? The voice arrived before your age did?

Oh, that's an interesting point. It was pretty phenomenal for my age. I mean, I started practicing and working on it when I was seven, and I didn't think of it very much. I didn't like the lessons that I was getting from my stepfather. But he handed me over very quickly to my wonderful, wonderful teacher, who was with me for years, who taught me a great technique and things like that. I think I'm very grateful for it because it was a little ahead of its time in my body. It was like an adult larynx in a young kid, but it was a young voice and it grew and strengthened... and all the things that one does, if you practice well enough. It was what I considered to be my stock-in-trade, really. I was a singer. And then Broadway taught me so much, you know, long runs and wonderful roles. And then, as I say, Hollywood beckoned. And thanks to Mr. Disney, I was in a whole new world.

Well, so let me ask you about that: Mary Poppins, your first major film role, which of course was enormously successful upon release. Here we are 58 years later. That film and your performance in it really have become cornerstones of the childhood experience and I think even of American culture. What I'm curious about is: at some point, a movie must go from being a "recent success" to something that is clearly emerging as an all-time classic. Was there a point where you realized that Mary Poppins was becoming transcendent in that way?

I think it grew on me as the years went by and one kept seeing it doing well and being talked about and so on. But the funny thing, Aaron, is these days, I think more children know me for Princess Diaries because [Poppins] was, as you say, what, 58 years ago? And so young kids today know me better from Princess Diaries than they do for even Poppins, although they get around to it.

Yes, Princess Diaries, another instant classic. And I'll ask you, since you mentioned it... we can't go more than a few weeks, it seems, without some new report or rumor popping up of a Princess Diaries 3. Reports say that a script was circulated during the pandemic. Is there any truth to that, and any chance we might see it happen?

There was discussion. There was no outline, there was no detail in any of it, but there was discussion. I think Annie Hathaway had a lovely idea for another sequel and it just never really went anywhere. And I think probably the virus contributed to that as much as anything. But I don't think it's going to happen now. I've not heard anything more, and I would guess that just went by the wayside.

There may be some broken hearts hearing that, but fan hope springs eternal...

(Laughs) Well, listen, there was a break. It's a long time ago even that, you know?

So let me ask you, speaking of Mary Poppins, it has been reported over the years that P.L. Travers wanted the song "Stay Awake" cut from the movie until you wrote her a letter and convinced her otherwise. Is that true?

Oh, gosh. These rumors! No! Not that I recall, honestly, Aaron. But she did have very... she didn't even want it to be musical at first. And I think Walt was very, very smart with her, but she did get a little, um - didactic - and decided that she wanted in. And Walt very gently and lovingly kept her away from that, because her ideas were very odd and she was a real character. But I did meet her, and I think you know the story. She called me when I'd just given birth to my daughter in the hospital, and I woke up on like the second day or the third day, and this voice said, "Hello." And I said, "Who is this?" "It's P.L. Travers." And I said, "Oh, my goodness!" She said, "I understand you're going to be doing Mary Poppins." And I said, "I understand I am." And she said, "Well, you've got the nose for it, but you're far too pretty." (Laughs.) And I subsequently did meet her, and I did write her occasionally and tried to sort of feel what it might be like for an author to be kept in touch as to what was going on. And so we didn't have any kind of unpleasant meeting, but she really was a character.

You've described Walt Disney as being very kind, gentle, supportive once you met him. I'm curious, what did you think or know of Walt Disney before you met him? And did he surprise you in any way?

Well, of course, I loved all the great movies, particularly Bambi and Dumbo, and all those wonderfully designed films, and was enormously in awe of him. I knew that he'd done one musical before Poppins. Its name escapes me right now... but what I'm saying is really I knew him and admired him and loved the films that he'd made. And then meeting him was to be charmed by him because he came backstage when I was in Camelot on Broadway and introduced himself and asked if I'd like to go and hear the songs of Mary Poppins in Hollywood and would I be interested? And I said, "Oh, Mr. Disney, I'm pregnant! I'm so sorry." And he said, "Well, it's okay. We'll wait for you." And of course, there was a ton of pre-production to be done, by which time I'd had my lovely baby. So we all trundled off to Hollywood and he couldn't have been lovelier. And what I did find amazing was two things: First, somebody that didn't fit in to the 'Disney pleasure' or the joy of working at Disney didn't last very long. They were wonderful people on the lot. He had a talent, a real talent for spotting somebody. I mean, he always found new talent, always looked for it, and was always ahead of himself. Then the other thing that I found amazing was that he worked very hard. He was in the studio at seven in the morning sometimes and wandering through all the animators' offices and peeking at things. And he knew exactly what was going on in those days everywhere. He was very decent to me, really sweet and spoiled me. We had a great time.

The man lived up to the legend.

Yeah, he did. I mean, I'm sure I have no idea really what his family life was like or anything like that. But certainly, he laid everything out for me and I couldn't have been better taken care of, which was lovely since it was a first film. And he kept away from us mostly and just let us get on with it and occasionally would come down onto the set and be delighted or do a bit of publicity or something like that.

There's the famous picture with you two at the tea party.

That's right. Very well set up, but also quite fun because we had a good conversation while we were doing it.

So in addition to your AFI Life Achievement Award, you've been honored as a Disney Legend. You've done a number of projects with the studio, the theme parks, etc. Walt Disney World Resort in Florida is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, which means this is also the 50th anniversary of the grand opening TV special that you hosted back in 1971.

I know! I remember that pretty vividly, dancing along the road there, [Main Street, U.S.A.]. It is a long time since then. My God, I mean, the things that have happened in the world, everywhere, it's just amazing how a lot of it has changed, but Disney is still making its studios and its theme parks as good and clean and decent as they ever were.

And for many years, there was an attraction at the Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park called The Great Movie Ride, which had a "Chim-Chim-Cheree" sequence and a Mary Poppins animatronic.

I didn't see that! Which one was it- out here or in L.A. or in Orlando?

Orlando.

I don't think I ever saw that! Well I did see some of the newer ones, but not that one.

We'll have to get you a YouTube clip so you can see it. It's not there anymore, unfortunately, but it was such a wonderful tribute to your performance....

(Laughs) Well, there you are. He was always very, very good at marketing his own products, of course.

So to touch on another movie, Victor/Victoria strikes me as an especially important film in so many ways, and so incredibly ahead of its time.

It was ahead of its time, that's for sure.

It's celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. And yet so many of the themes in that movie are still front and center in our headlines today. Did you think of Victor/Victoria as controversial at the time? And what do you make of how far we have (or haven't) come as a society since then?

Oh my God, those are hard questions! Yes. I think I thought of it [that way], but I think Blake [Edwards] wanted it to be all about love. It's a love story. Whichever way you look at it, it's a love story. And he did want to sort of stretch the feeling and he wanted society to recognize that there's all kinds of love, and so on. I think [society] has come a long way, but not nearly far enough. And you could say the same thing about abortion, and you can say the same thing about so much these days. But it's coming. But it's not there yet, I don't think.

Along the lines of Victor/Victoria, if there were to be a "Miscast" or role-reversal remake of one of your classic films, which role do you think you would have more fun playing? ...Maybe Burt in Mary Poppins or Captain Von Trapp?

(Laughs) Oh! (Laughs) Oh, my God! That's a funny question! I think I'd rather be... Jimmy Garner in Victor/Victoria or in The Americanization of Emily. We worked together about three times, he and I, and he was... I admired him very much. He was a lovely friend. And that's probably who it would be, if at all.

The Americanization of Emily: another great film so early in your film career. And now, your next role will be in this summer's Minions: The Rise of Gru.

That's right! I mean, just a small role, but it was such fun to do because my character is such a terrible, terrible character and such a bad mother and all of that. But it certainly is fun and I hear the movie is grand.

She is deliciously horrible...

Isn't she!?

She is! And what makes it so much fun is it's so clear that you are having so much fun.

Oh, I'm so pleased! Because I am. I mean, I couldn't imagine why they would want me to do it. But it really was a lovely free-for-all in a way. They just said, "Open up and be whatever you want to be and do whatever you feel like!" And of course, they pick what they want. And then they asked me to name her and and I chose Marlena because she thinks she's the cat's whiskers, as you know.

I've heard you say that your grandchildren get a kick out of the Minions movies, which I'm sure is delightful.

I get a kick out of them! Don't you?

That's just what I was going to say... I wonder, too, about your grown children. How did they feel about hearing the "mean side of mom"?

Oh. (Laughs). Now, that's a dangerous question, Aaron! I could say that they're used to it, but I'm not sure that they are. They really revel in the fact that I'm lucky enough to be still playing in the best of all possible worlds, which is the film industry. And it's grown in so many ways and changed in so many ways. I've seen several eras pass and you know, it was the great extravaganzas and then everything went to small independent movies for a while, like Easy Rider and so on. And then it's all come back the other way. Everything's on a pendulum, I think.

Despite all your screen success, you have returned to the theatre from time to time over the years, including as director when you brought The Boy Friend back to the stage. Might we see you return to Broadway or the stage in the future, whether as actor, director, or in some other capacity?

I'd love to return as a director of some kind because I enjoy it very, very much. I was fortunate enough to be able to develop one of my children's stories into a musical, and that's getting a new reading and might be happening next year sometime. It's still a might, but it's really lovely that it's being considered... And I would love to, obviously, I directed it originally and I would love to do it again.

Do you see much theater these days?

Not as much as I'd like, because of obviously, you know, being at home as much as possible because of Covid. But no, I used to go an enormous amount. But these days, no. I do keep up with as much as I can, and read all the reviews if I can, and try to stay current. But it's a lost cause these days and hard to know what's opening up and then shutting down again or opening up and staying open. And I haven't been following it as much lately.

Do you happen to have a favorite musical from more recent times?

Oh, gosh. Well, obviously, I love Lin-Manuel's work. I haven't seen as many as I should. I hear that some of them are just lovely, but the old ones I adore, I mean, I've got so many favorite musicals, I can't tell you.

Well, and you've been in so many of everyone else's favorite musicals...

JA: (Laughs.) Well, that's nice. But I mean, I adore all the great, great famous... I mean, they're famous for obvious reasons.... They were terrific: Guys and Dolls and South Pacific and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum... Carousel... I could go on and on and on about them, and I think they will always be around. I hope.

You've made so many incredible movies in all different genres. Some are comedic, some are dramatic and very grown-up. There's Hawaii, Torn Curtain, you mentioned The Americanization of Emily. If you were talking to a young person growing up today who wanted to see a movie that perhaps isn't talked about as often as, say, Mary Poppins, is there one in particular that you would really want them to see?

Of mine or just in general?

Of yours!

Oh, my. I don't think of them that way, really, Aaron. I mean, there are many, many movies I would recommend they see... and just get as wide an experience of film as possible is probably what I'd say. I don't think one in particular of mine that I would tout. Every one of them was a learning curve and a big experience. And, you know, you never know. You hope never to make a failure, but you never know it's going to be a success either. But you just try to do the best work possible. And some of them were very successful and some were outright flops. But it was all very worthwhile and wonderful fodder for learning. And I mean, to this day, one never stops doing that.

There's so much great film there in that library. One that so many people - and a growing body of people - love today is the movie Star! I know there was some talk of recording, maybe an audio commentary a few years back.

I did do it! I did do a commentary on it. If I recall, I think I really did. And it was quite early on actually, but then they brought it back and revitalized it and put it in mint condition so it's available. And yeah, it was a very hard-working job. I mean, I never had so many costumes and so many numbers to sing and learn. At the time, it wasn't the success that I hoped it would be - but nevertheless it was a great thing to have done, and I'm very pleased that I did.

I have to ask you, following Home and Home Work, is there any chance of a third book?

Yep! There is hope. I'm working on the final one, the third one. Because of Covid and everything, my daughter and I who write together... we finished three books and they're all coming out for children. One will be out this fall and two next year. So we've been pretty busy. We were not that idle, believe me. (Laughs.) [The third book] will be a while yet because the children's books will be out. But this one is taking a while, and it will be the final one. I mean, it's a little much to do three, but it's been such an amazing life, really. And there's a lot to share, and I hope it turns out to be okay. The first one was Home, and the second was Home Work. And this will be, I think probably something like Home Stretch. I don't know. We'll see. I think it will.

Walt Disney once said that his greatest reward was having the public's love and adoration all these years. And I think that's true for you too. When people found out that I was going to be speaking with you, my phone battery nearly died from all the text messages...

You're kidding. Oh, gosh.

...True story. So many people simply adore you. And I wonder, is that something you can feel? To have millions of people who've never met you, but they have such genuine love for you. In a sense, can you feel all that love flowing your way?

Yes. I do. And I think... I know it sounds cute to say this, and I don't mean to be schmaltzy about it, but the great treat is being able to send it back. The days in my youth when I learned that I could give the gift of pleasure to people, and they could forget all the problems at home for one evening in the theater and so on... those days were great learning curves for me. And to be able to love what I do because I hope that it will give pleasure, that is the greatest treat for me. And what comes back is just superb and lovely. And I am aware of it. And it's like a two-way street, really.

Well, that's beautifully said and you have certainly done that and more. And as just one of those millions of voices, allow me to say thank you for all that you've given us. And thank you for being so lovely today.

You're really lovely, Aaron. Thank you, my dear. And very lovely talking to you also. And I hope you enjoy the [AFI] evening when you see it.


The American Film Institute's star-studded Life Achievement Award ceremony honoring Dame Julie Andrews will be held in Los Angeles on Thursday, June 9, 2022. The ceremony will later air on Thursday, June 16, 2022 at on TNT. Visit the AFI website to learn more.

Minions: The Rise of Gru from Universal Pictures will hit theatres in the United States on July 1st. Visit minionsmovie.com to learn more or find showtimes near you.



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