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A little funny, a little sad

Julie Walters' duality helps her to land a 'Driving Lessons' role as a grand actress in decline.

October 12, 2006|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

JULIE WALTERS had distinct opinions about how her character should look in the new film "Driving Lessons," even if it meant she would have to stop covering up her gray hair with dye. "That was painful," she said, laughing.

In the coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old boy, Walters plays an eccentric, dipsomaniac British actress named "Dame" Evie Walton.

"I thought she would have long hair because short hair is something people coif," the 56-year-old actress explained. "Her hair had to be something she hasn't thought about. There is a mixture of neglect, but she is also someone who can brush up. I felt she had been isolated and lived alone. She would have been known in the neighborhood as someone eccentric."

She even gave Evie a slight osteoporosis hump on her back. "I felt she was bound down anyway by life," said Walters, who was Oscar-nominated for 1983's "Educating Rita" and 1990's "Billy Elliot."

"The script had that feel that it comes from someone's heart, though it's mad and funny," Walters said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "And I just loved her. She is in chaos."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday October 16, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
'Billy Elliot': An article about actress Julie Walters in Thursday's Calendar Weekend referred to the film "Billy Elliot" as being from 1990. It was released in 2000.

Writer-director Jeremy Brock envisioned Walters as Evie while he was working on the script for "Driving Lessons," which opens Friday.

"And I got her," he said. "How lucky was I? To get her was a key moment because she embodies that particular talent that a few of her caliber of actress has, which is the ability to be both serious and funny -- to achieve bathos and pathos in that very quick mix. She does it with consummate grace."

Based loosely on Brock's own life, the film stars Rupert Grint -- Ron Weasley in the "Harry Potter" films -- as a teenage sad sack named Ben, who is kept under the thumb of his evangelical mother, Laura (Laura Linney). Not only does she rule her son with a firm hand, Laura also browbeats her soft-spoken vicar husband (Nicholas Farrell). When Laura suggests that Ben get a job, he ends up working for Evie, whose career and personal life are a shambles. She's had rotten luck with husbands, and her only child died when she was young. Evie's last job was working on a TV soap opera.

"She's a child as much as she's a grown-up," Brock observed. "She lies, she cheats and she gets drunk. But at times she can be very dignified."

Walters came across an Evie-esque actress years ago. "She had been an actress, like, 30 years before at the Royal Shakespeare Company," she said, but now was working as an extra on a movie set. That didn't stop her from telling everyone what it was like to be on stage with Laurence Olivier.

"She was terribly sort of grand," Walters recalled. "I thought she was delusional, but [now] I think she was telling the truth."

Walters felt that the character of Evie was slightly older than herself, so she played her with a pitch-perfect voice. "She probably had gone to some drama school and she would have lost any type of accent," Walters explained. "That wasn't the case when I went to drama school. But there are so many actresses [of a certain age] and they all speak frightfully posh. I imagined she could act. She wasn't someone who couldn't act."

Initially, Evie thinks she can manipulate Ben. But these two lost souls soon find a real kinship with each other. "Then she sees him for who he is," Walters said.

Walters enjoyed getting a chance to work closely with Grint. The two have played mother and son in all the "Harry Potter" movies, but their screen time there is very limited, so Brock scheduled a week of rehearsals between the two so they could get to "just know one another in a different way than 'Harry Potter,' " he said.

JUST like Ben, Brock is a vicar's son with a domineering mother.

When he was 21, he cleaned house for Oscar-winning actress Peggy Ashcroft ("A Passage to India"). He later moved into her basement when he decided he had to leave home. He made Ben four years younger, "for the simple reason that I was very, very naive. I wanted to capture an age where it was acceptable to be that naive."

Both Brock's parents are alive. "My mother has Alzheimer's now. I couldn't have written the movie until my mother was outside a place she would know. Some might say I am ruthless. All I would say is the film is obviously taken from my family experience, but it's fiction too. The fights that he has to break free from his home are a universal story."

And one that Walters could also identify with strongly.

"My mother pushed us all," said Walters, who was born into an Irish Catholic family in working-class Birmingham, England. "She worked in a office -- a lowly job. She hadn't reached her potential. She drove us all, and nothing was ever good enough."

Her brother, said Walters, even went into the priesthood on her mother's insistence. "Not just any old priesthood -- the Jesuits. He couldn't handle it."

Because her mother thought Walters wasn't an academic, she pushed her to become a nurse. Though she did go to nursing school for nearly two years, Walters harbored dreams of becoming an actress. Finally, her first serious boyfriend suggested she apply to college where he lived in Manchester.

Her mother put up a fuss, but Walters didn't listen. "I applied to a college where they did do drama and went on an audition and I got in."

Walters' mother lived to see her success in "Educating Rita" before she died in 1989. And unknown to Walters, the older woman did take a serious interest in her daughter's career.

"She never really said much. She was pleased I got a pension. But what happened was when she died, my brother and I were cleaning her flat and we found a whole box of clippings [of Walters' career]. We had no idea."

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