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Julie Walters: An education

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Retiresavvy presents an exclusive interview with Educating Rita and Harry Potter star Julie Walters 

For over 40 years, Julie Walters has been one of the leading lights of British acting. At 66, she has played hundreds of roles on stage and screen, earning Oscar nominations for Educating Rita and Billy Elliott.

But these days, she is perhaps best known for her roles in the Harry Potter series and singing alongside Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan in 2008’s Abba musical Mamma Mia! 

Weasley words 

Julie says: “I can't remember a time when I didn't want to act.”When asked about her favourite line, she names the moment in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 when her character, Molly Weasley (mother of Ron, Ginny and twins Fred and George) defeats Helena Bonham Carter's Bellatrix Lestrange. 

"Oooh, I just love it," she cries. "'Not my daughter, you b*tch'. Ooh, it's magic! I get people shouting it at me the odd time. It's very rare because I had a wig on and padding. But that was one of my favourites."

The Harry Potter movie juggernaut came to an end in 2011 after a decade in production, with Julie appearing in seven of the eight films in the series. 

“Harry Potter was a phenomenon because children were taken with the books in an extraordinary way. My daughter was about nine when the first book came out and they were all mad about it.”

Saying goodbye to cast and crew was hard: “The end of most jobs is a relief, but this wasn't like most jobs,” she says. “It went on for over ten years so there was genuine sadness for lots and lots of reasons.
 
“It's the people more than anything - that's the legacy. I became close with Domhnall [Gleeson] and Rupert [Grint] over the years. And it put structure into your life where there was never any structure usually.” 

Mamma Mia, here we go again 

Mamma Mia! is one of the most popular films of all time, holding the UK record for fastest-selling DVD. Despite its combination of Abba hits, Greek island setting and A-list cast, Julie wasn’t immediately sold on the idea. 

“I didn't say no, but I had my reservations,” she says. “I think everyone else jumped at the chance but I wasn't really a fan of ABBA so it wasn't that big of a deal to me.” 

But seeing the musical with her daughter and “practically dancing out the theatre” made her re-read the script with a more open mind. 

“It was so funny and said yes that day. It's a movie that ultimately you couldn't say no to,” she says. “I loved that movie but it was really hard work, especially all the song and dance numbers. We got to film in Greece, so I guess it's difficult to believe it was hard work [laughs]!”

When it comes to acting, Julie says she’s “always loved it, can't remember a time when I didn't want to act”. 

“I wasn't a song and dance sort of child but I did like putting on little plays and skits,” she says. “Probably came from my mother and her Irish side, she always had a great sense of drama, how very Irish [laughs]. Well it's true!” 

Don’t believe the hype 

Julie’s Irish ancestry has been to the fore recently. She appeared on the big screen in the critically-lauded Irish-US immigration drama Brooklyn, as well as on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are. 

“[My mother] emigrated much younger with her family [than the character in the film] but yes of course, very poignant. I believe it's a story that affects us all. Someone, be it yourself, your family, your ancestors, someone you know or are connected with, they all went through this. 

“I did Who Do You Think You Are and we went back to my great grandmother's village in Mayo. It was extraordinary. There was a point when I thought I wanted to go home, I didn't want to go further with this. I thought something awful was going to happen in the story but it didn't. In the end, it was kind of OK. I found it very moving. The poverty was endemic in the West of Ireland. It was very upsetting.”

Despite having two Oscar nominations to her name and being one of the nation’s most beloved actors, Julie is surprisingly modest, saying the secret of her success – as much as there can be one – is “just basically whatever comes along”. 

Mamma Mia! was really hard work, especially all the song and dance numbers. We got to film in Greece, so I guess it's difficult to believe it!

“You just have to do stuff that people will question, 'what is she doing'? I don't want to do the same role over again, so that's why I look further afield, see what's out there. You don't have a huge amount of choice, or at least I don't, so you have to do whatever comes in. 

“For whatever I did on television, I made sure I kept up on stage and I think that helped.” 

When asked if she has any advice for those starting out, she cracks up and laughs. “Oh God, that question!” Believe in yourself, because if you don't, no one else will. And if you happen to get into the public eye, don't believe the hype.” 

Having said that, she’s unsure whether she received any similar advice, and what good it would have done. “I'm sure I did but I can't remember [laugh]! In one ear and out the other. I was told stay in college and finish my nursing studies, but, well, as we can see, I definitely didn't listen to that.” 

Rita, Mo and me 

Julie got her first Oscar nomination for her breakthrough performance in Educating Rita, a role she says “opened so many doors” even if “Hollywood didn't know what to do with me”. 

“I was working class, not the most attractive, English actress. I wasn't exactly the Hollywood type.” 

But the role she says she’s most proud of is the late Mo Molam – Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the time of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, who passed away in August 2005 – in Channel 4’s 2010 docudrama, Mo

“Mo was so important to me for a number of reasons, largely due to the huge responsibility. But the script was so light and funny, because she was such a light and funny person that it made it easier. 

“It wasn't as heavy going as I expected, but she was so physically different, I didn't think anyone was going to take it. Plus she hadn't died that long before, so she was quite fresh in so many people memories. People felt so strongly about her, and knew about her, so I just thought ‘I can't do this’. I had to tell myself, 'c'mon, get on with it.'”

There has been a lot of debate recently about inequality and discrimination against actresses over a certain age in Hollywood. 

"I've been very fortunate, but it is hard. It is hard for women generally than it is for men and it's spectacularly harder for women when they get older. There aren't enough roles out there and so many find themselves typecast into a very small specific genre.

"Fortunately, I've been very lucky in that respect but it could easily happen to me. I don't know really, I'd hate the idea of being restricted, so maybe I'd just stay in my greenhouse and work on my peppers [laughs].” 

What's your favourite Julie Walters role? Let us know below, have your say in the Forum 

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Retiresavvy is brought to you by Skipton Building Society. The interview in this article was supplied by InterviewHub. This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.

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