Sometimes we meet actors and wonder how they manage to mine on-screen warmth from their seemingly chilly real-life personalities. Not so in the case of Julie Walters. She's adorable, lively, fun, and levelheaded. And she's one heck of a fine actor.
Take for example the Brit's latest project to hit the States, Calendar Girls. It's the true story of a group of women in Yorkshire, England, trying to raise money for charity. Walters' character, Angela Baker, suffers through her husband's death from leukemia. After having sat on a broken sofa at the hospital, Angela and her friends decide to raise money to buy a new one to comfort the patients' families. Their method of fundraising—to pose nude for a calendar—attracts wanted and unwanted attention.
In the film, Walters is surrounded by some of Britain's finest actors: Helen Mirren, Geraldine James, Celia Imrie, Annette Crosbie, and Ciaran Hinds, among others. Still, we notice Walters' quiet craft, her ability to do little and reveal much about the depth of Angela's agony. Mirren's is the showier role, but Walters' will be remembered among the other highlights of her long, impressive career.
Walters first came to the notice of American audiences in 1983 as the star of Educating Rita, opposite Michael Caine—a role she said was "a good start for me, really, a bit of a platform." She had been performing the role onstage yet thought she would be required to take screen tests. As Walters recalled, "I thought, Well, I'm not going to do it; I'll be too nervous; it'll be just terrible. I didn't hear from [director] Lewis [Gilbert] for ages. He came to the States trying to get some money. And then people here obviously wanted to do it American. But the writer wanted it to be done English. So Lewis came back, and he got Michael. And then he said, 'We don't need a star to play Rita; we can have you.'" The choice was perfect, and she earned an Oscar nomination.
Then followed a string of small British films, television series, and stage work. But her second round of worldwide notice began when she played ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson in Billy Elliot. "And then suddenly, around 2000, I don't know what it was, I suddenly started winning awards and things," the actor recalled. "I won three BAFTAs on the trot, year after year, and I thought, What's happening? It's really weird. I thought, In another year this wouldn't have won an award. I don't know why that is. I think sometimes it's just your turn, for some reason. And then Calendar Girls came up, as well." Walters modestly passes over the juggernaut that is the Harry Potter series, in which she plays the paragon of motherhood, Mrs. Weasley.
Walters studied English and drama at Manchester Polytechnic, where, she said, one of her most valued lessons came during her first attempt at improvisation. "I know that's really obvious stuff, but it was about being," she said. "[Our teacher] was just asking us to be. And that was the best—just to be in the character. I remember that, thinking, How fantastic; you're not there to be 'performing.' It was a very simple little message."
Asked about her current method for preparing characters, Walters said, "I never really think about technique. I never have [even in school]. I always felt it had to come from here [points to the heart], and if it didn't come from there, then it didn't matter. Which isn't a marvelous way to approach things; it's rather an exhausting way. I think technique will relieve you of some of that."
For Calendar Girls, the actor asked to meet her real-life counterpart, Angela—or Annie, as she is called. "Some people don't like to [meet their characters], and I understand that," said Walters. "I read the script, and it's a good script, but I saw that Annie was in scenes but doesn't say anything. Why was that? Was she shy? Depressed? I didn't quite know what it was. So I rang them and said, 'Can I please go and meet her?' I wanted to see what she was like—the dynamics of her relationship with Chris, Helen Mirren's character. I wanted to know how she fitted in with the group of women. Within the first five minutes of meeting her, I could see what the script was."
The actor and her real-life model found common ground in watching a loved one suffer with leukemia; Walters' daughter, now 15, faced the disease as a toddler. "So she knew I knew what it was like to have that news," said Walters. "So that was good for us in one sense—awful but good for us in that it made a bond between us."
Walters said she felt a huge responsibility to portray Annie faithfully and responsibly—her suffering and her reaction to the celebrity that came with the calendar. "I wanted to reassure her that we wouldn't be doing it for laughs," said Walters. "I told her, 'You're safe in my hands.' I was concerned, about the script, slightly, in that it was a difficult road to tread between the awful loss that she was feeling and this huge onslaught of fame and the pleasure that she was getting from that, in that it was keeping [her husband] alive in some sense. I didn't want her to be the wet blanket all the time, because she was in mourning. In fact Angela enjoyed all of it; it was a diversion from what she was feeling."
But, added Walters, "I said to Angela that it would not be an impersonation. It's not a drama-documentary. I was not trying to absolutely inhabit her physically. But I wanted to get the essence of her, not necessarily noting down mannerisms, but you get a feel that you take in. The emotional journey is what's important, and it will also be what's important to her in the end."
Walters' performance here is not a copy of life, but it is one worth emulating on so many levels—and one deserving of further recognition.