Early this week I shared interviews with Disney’s The BFG Director Steven Spielberg, actress Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance and Jemaine Clement. Now I get to share my interviews with the ladies of The BFG.
Dame Penelope Wilton has been acting for over forty years. Gracing the stage in London, even working with co-star Rebecca Hall’s dad, British stage director Peter Hall, who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company. The ladies are hilarious, beautiful, and share just why working on The BFG was so important to them.
The BFG Ladies: Penelope Wilton and Rebecca Hall
Can you tell us how you both got involved in the project?
Penelope: Well, I got a phone call, my agent got a phone call and said Steven Spielberg wants you to do this film, “The BFG,” and I said yes. If Steven Spielberg wants you to do a movie, you do it. Wouldn’t you say?
Rebecca: Yes, I would. I had the same thing. I got a call saying it’s not a very big part, but he has asked specifically for you to do it, so I’m like well, I’ll do it, of course, I will. Also, BFG is a book that as a child I loved, so even before I’d read the script or knew what the part was, I was like yes, certainly I want to be a part of that, of course, you know?
Penelope: So that was quite a simple answer.
Were you still filming “Downton Abbey” when you got the call?
Penelope: Well, I hadn’t started the last series. So they were very accommodating, and they said, because I was going to be in the middle of the shoot, so because Julian (Fellowes, writer) hadn’t written it all, he worked with me a bit, for just over a month and then that was fine.
It must have been interesting going from one character to the other.
Penelope: Yes, it was. When I was playing the Queen and then, you know, it was all very, very um, upper class. (Laughing)
Did you let everybody know on “Downton Abbey” know I’m the queen now?
Penelope: No, I didn’t. They weren’t too interested. In fact, they were rather envious. (Laughing) There was silence around the thing when I came back. She’s just been making a film. Who with? Oh yes. (Laughing)
And now you are a Dame, what is that like for you?
Penelope: Well, it’s rather surreal actually, to be quite honest with you, being a Dame; also when they asked me to do it about seven weeks ago, and they write to you, and they sent it to the wrong address. (Laughing) So, then another one went out to my agent and then it said priority because obviously, they hadn’t heard. And so and they asked if the Prime Minister puts your name forward to the Queen, would you accept it? So, I said I would. And then they told me you must not tell anybody until it’s released which was six weeks after. And then there was a total silence and of course then, I thought I dreamt that. (Laughing) That didn’t happen. I made that up. I just had a dream. So when it came out on papers and it did say my name, I thought, oh thank God. (Laughter) I hadn’t told anyone but my daughter. I told my daughter and my sisters. They would have been a bit disappointed as indeed I would have been.
What was it like working with Ruby? She’s darling.
Penelope: Oh she’s a darling. Well, we both loved working with her. Rebecca will tell you; she’s got the most wonderful sense of humor, and she’s a lovely girl. She also takes direction very well, doesn’t she? And she concentrates, and when you’re young, repetition is boring. I mean, you do it twice and then why would you ever want to do it again? And she managed it, didn’t she?
Rebecca: Yeah, no she was, she was a consummate professional, but I also remember it was all of that sort of stuff, the acting, the repetition, but she was also brilliant at just being a person on the set. I remember her knowing everyone’s name. Coming in in the morning and being like all right how are you doing, Jim? You know, that sort of thing, I remember her being —
Penelope: Very professional.
Rebecca: She made me laugh all the time. We did all sorts things. She made me work out like dance routines. She gave me a nickname because of my purple dress. I was Purple Swan for some reason.
Penelope: But she was wonderful because Steven worked tremendously well with her, and worked very fast when it came to the scenes took a while to set up. Once the scenes were setup he worked very fast, didn’t he? So, you know, the boredom level is minimized because otherwise, it becomes, would, you know. You have to be spontaneous, especially if you haven’t (done this before), if you’re young you haven’t learned about repetition, that is a difficult thing. I find it pretty hard. Well because acting is quite close to the sort of games you play on the playground but you don’t have to do it again and again and again. I mean, you have everybody believe once in the playground that you’re the Queen, and I’m the thing, you know, then it’s great.
It’s amazing to watch her and know that this is her first film. Amazing. So, do you have a favorite scene from the movie?
Penelope: I like the dreams because it’s written in the book that they catch the dreams, but Steven made the dreams so beautiful. Then the angry dreams, the red dreams, when they get caught in the bottle when they go under the water…I loved that. I thought that was a lovely sequence, but there were so many. I mean, I loved the giant.
Rebecca: Yeah, I did too. I’ve got to say, it’s when, when you have a problem with wind, is probably my favorite. (Laughing)
That whole scene is ingenious.
Rebecca: It’s brilliant. It’s so funny.
Penelope: And we had fun playing that scene because Rafe (Spall, Mr. Tibbs) had to do his, his proper moment before we did ours, so we all gazed at him while he did his. (Laughing) The effect of how it would come in silence, then all right, Rafe, the camera is on you and then he, right, go, and he had to do whiz popping, but you know, it’s a private moment that you don’t often see.
The story has so many lessons. What is something you want people to take away from this story?
Penelope: Well, on the very basic level I want people to enjoy being taken to that world because it’s a wonderful story written by a great storyteller, meeting another great storyteller and a visual storyteller. So if you get those two together, it’s a wonderful combination. But like all these stories, it is people learning to understand themselves and learn that you have just to believe in yourself. And, and little Sophie, who doesn’t have much, but when she meets somebody who has even less than she does and he’s 20 foot tall, they sort of work as a good team. They both of them understand that they are outside the norm, and they give each other confidence. When you have confidence in yourself, you can take on the world. And I think that’s the overall message of the movie, which is the message of a lot of very good children’s’ literature. It’s the same in there’s always a pursuit and a pursuer and in the end, you have to turn around and face the bully. If you do that, the world opens up, and I think in a very, very, in a wonderful way, not in the sort of preachy way. The magical way, that’s what the movie is saying.
For either of you, does the fact that you are playing a kind of childhood literary character change the way that you wanted to portray that character on screen? Because kids have read the book and had an idea in their head of each of the characters. Did that play into how you chose to play those characters at all?
Rebecca: I couldn’t because Mary in the book is very much a maid. I mean, she’s drawn by Quentin Blake as a sort of in a maid’s outfit, even a feather duster (Laughing). So it’s a very different sort of character than Melissa Mathison and Steven sort of created. I think that it was conscious to create something of a potential mother figure for Sophie at the end. Also the sense that she’s more of a P.A. than the sort of right-hand woman. And that gives her a bit more authority I suppose. Yeah, so I basically couldn’t.
Penelope: Well, I think that’s true. I think that you can’t always do exactly what’s written, and it’s a disappointment to some people because they have made up their minds as to how they see that person when they read the book. Children do, they do it in pictures in their head. I know I do, but I thought the best way to play the Queen was to try and be our Queen as best I could because if I had made a fantasy Queen in a fantasy, they would have canceled each other out. But if you have a real Queen saying in an extraordinary situation, then it’s a much more interesting story, wouldn’t you say? I think we’ve played them very straight and then we were put into this extraordinary situation and then it works better because there’s a change.
Rebecca: A contrast. The humor that’s in there.
Penelope: Yes the humor, because you’ve come from something very conservative that’s met with something very funny.
You did such an amazing job capturing the Queen in that role.
Penelope: I was helped a lot by Joanna Johnson with my wig and my clothes. I had the Queen’s glove maker make my gloves, and the Queen’s bag maker made my bag. It’s a strong fit. It’s not going to fall off your arm while marching past a whole lot of soldiers. And very sturdy shoes, which are nice. And bright colors because she likes to be seen at a distance and she’s a quite small Queen, but you have to when people go, they said did you see the Queen? They want to — even in a crowd, “I saw the Queen, I saw the Queen,” especially young children.
What makes this film special for each of you?
Penelope: I’m lucky Steven Spielberg has done great things in my life, in my career actually, and so that was special. Also, this is a wonderful story, wonderful to be part of something that. A whole generation of young children will remember like they did “E.T.” because it will be a stand-up moment in the film so for all those reasons and also I met and worked with Rebecca here, so that was lovely, too.
Rebecca: I think we probably met when I was a child.
Penelope: Yes because I worked with Rebecca’s father, Sir Peter Hall when he ran the National Theater, so I remember when she was born.
Rebecca: And I remember a figure who I’ve always admired and loved from afar, so it was a real treat to get to work properly with you. But yes, I think, I very much second what you said. For me, it’s the combination of two such hugely influential people in my childhood, Roald Dahl, and Steven Spielberg, as a child, those were, the creative output of both those people influenced me, and I loved, and so it was the opportunity to have both of those together was wonderful.