'Mary Poppins' star talks 50th anniversary and 'Saving Mr. Banks'

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

It may be hard to believe, but it has been nearly 50 years since Julie Andrews flew in to a house in London and taught us all the joys of a spoonful of sugar and the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. (Technically, it has been 49 and a half years since the original release, but Disney wanted to get a jump on celebrating.)

Disney is honoring the anniversary by releasing Mary Poppins from the Disney vault with a new digitally restored Blu-ray version. Their timing is practically perfect in every way; with the release of Saving Mr. Banks in a few weeks more people than ever might want to go back and watch the film. That was certainly the case for Karen Dotrice, who played Jane Banks in Mary Poppins. The retired actress explained to EW that seeing Mr. Banks brought up all kinds of feelings and memories of her time on set. Shockingly, Dotrice had never even seen Mary Poppins until a few weeks ago, jokingly referring to her role in the film as her “dirty, dark secret.” She also had no idea about any of the behind-the-scenes drama with Walt Disney that Mr. Banks depicts.

In anticipation of the anniversary, Dotrice spoke with EW about the film, her relationship with “Uncle Walt” Disney, and why she owes Julie Andrews a major favor.

Can you tell me about how you got cast originally? I read that you met with Walt Disney himself.

What had happened was I had made a film for Disney before, The Three Lives of Thomasina, and I was cast in that from doing a play in London. In the audience was a casting director who was on the hunt for a London girl to be in Thomasina. Got that, and then I don’t recall auditioning for Mary Poppins. I don’t believe I did, because I was on another continent. So I think I just got it, or they may have looked at footage from Thomasina, but I don’t recall meeting with anybody. But I mean Walt Disney was a jolly good friend so I knew him very well once I got to America. We became firm friends even though I was eight [laughs].

I’d imagine through his job he’d have a certain way with kids.

He definitely did! Having just seen Saving Mr. Banks, when I went to see that I was just crying my eyeballs out because I was always wondering why Walt – who I was allowed to call Uncle Walt – why was he so nice to me. He brought my mother, my two sisters over to America, put us up in this gorgeous house in the Hollywood Hills, I had a car and driver, blah blah blah, and I wondered why. And it took 50 years to find out, but seeing Saving Mr Banks, [I learned] when he was eight he was given such a horrible childhood by his parents. So I guess what had happened was he looked at an eight-year-old child such as myself and thought, ‘Ok. If she’s going to work it’s going to be a magical experience and something she’ll never forget.’ And now it makes sense to me, having seen that film, it was a magical experience. He gave me everything he obviously didn’t have.

So you had no idea about any of Walt Disney’s personal history?

No, none whatsoever. I never thought to look into it over the years, I just thought, ‘What a wonderful experience.’ Another thing is he was afraid of flying, and so was I, even as an eight-year-old. So he liked to go by steamship everywhere. I remember one time he did have to fly, and he told me this story where his doctor just thought, ‘OK. We’ll give him a sleeping tablet.’  So Walt got on the airline, took a tablet, nothing happened, took another one, nothing happened, took another one still  and then when he landed he was taken to the VIP lounge. And then he fell fast asleep for two solid days and missed all his meetings and they all to be redone! But what was great about that was he knew I didn’t like flying either so when he loaned us his plane, Mickey Mouse, to go to his ranch in Santa Barbara or his place in Palm Springs, once he found out I didn’t like flying he had the interior of the plane decorated like a candy shop. And so as soon as the seatbelt sign was off I got up and sold candy to my mom for the whole trip. [laughs] That was the caliber of the man – he was so enchanting and he saw life through a child’s eyes. Around children he reverted to being a kid.

What do you remember about working with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke?

Again, Saving Mr. Banks has brought up so much stuff because I didn’t realize the history of Mary Poppins [involving] P.L. Travers. Julie, she’s not Mary Poppins , she’s really fun and a silly girl. She’s got quite a good English mouth on her so she’d swear a bit, so it was funny to try and respect her performance when off camera she was just a silly girl. And of course Dick Van Dyke, complete loony tune, love him half to pieces, he’s doing the Dick Van Dyke show, everything with him is a pratfall.  So all that was going on, but then the director would say, ‘Action!’ and I’d still be peeing myself laughing. Of course Dick being the ultimate pro, as soon as the red light came on he could switch into being serious but I would just be giggling my head off.

Julie, she was so nice to me, she and my mom got on so well, she was a great help to me. They sent the music and lyrics to England for me to practice. My parents took me to this Shakespearean voice coach. Well, this lady was probably about 110 and used to dealing with [Laurence] Olivier and all those sorts of people. So she taught me to sing the solo I had, “The Perfect Nanny,” in a sort of operatic style. It was so embarrassing! I got on the set and thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to nail this. I’m really good,’ and I stood up and was singing [in this deep opera voice]. Julie just goes, “Oh my! That’s lovely, Karen. Super! Tell you what: This is what we’re going to do. I’ve got the day off tomorrow, Can I come round to your [house] and we’ll just work a little bit on the songs?’ [laughs] She came over the next day and she was so sweet and taught me how to sing all those songs properly, like a little girl. …Thank God she saved the day!

Sounds like you definitely owe her a favor.

Oh big time! Actually, she had a house near me for a time and I’d see her all the time and she’d often remind me. We’d be in the grocery store and she’d say, ‘What do you want to buy me today, because I saved you?’ [laughs]. She’s a love.

Tell me about attending the premiere.

Well I didn’t go to the U.S. premiere, but I did go to the London premiere, which was equally as glam. Actually, it was much more glam because I got to sit next to Princess Margaret and on the other side of me was Queen Elizabeth. So I wasn’t watching the movie, I was looking sideways at royalty! Every little girl’s fantasy is to be a princess and sitting next to them was much more interesting than the film. Actually, in fact, before this AFI premiere for the 50th anniversary [a few weeks ago] I’d never seen Mary Poppins all the way through, and neither had my kids [ages 17 and 23], so it was fun to see. It’s actually a really good film! [laughs]

You never wanted to watch it with your kids when they were growing up?

No, they’ve never seen any of my work; I know that always sounds odd. I hope I did the right thing. I just didn’t want to lose my position as mom and the person who makes your sandwiches for lunch and washes your soccer clothes. I didn’t want to be anything else to them. So they knew I’d been an actress, but they had never seen any of it. And that was just a choice. The best job I’ve ever had is being a mom and a wife, I didn’t want to confuse the two careers.

And now that they’re older, what do they think of Mom in Mary Poppins?

It was the perfect time because now I’m getting so much fuss, which I didn’t get before. They’re looking at me totally sideways. Yesterday, I went to do a Disney thing and my 23 year old actually called me and said, ‘Mom! I forgot to tell you. When you left the house you looked really nice!’ because they aren’t used to seeing me with make up on and heels. So it’s very sweet. I think it’s the right time. I feel like I did the right thing because they’re enjoying it now without it ever touching on their experience of having a mother.

Mary Poppins 50th Anniversary Blu-ray + DVD is available beginning today.


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