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When two-time Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks talks about taking on the role of the legendary Walt Disney in Saving Mr Banks, out on Friday, he is quick to point out that he neither looks like him nor sounds like him and that his approach to capturing Walt Disney on screen comes from a different place.
“I can grow a moustache and part my hair, but the job at hand was to somehow capture all that whimsy that is in his eyes as well as all of the acumen that goes along with it as well,” said Hanks. “You can’t do an imitation of Walt Disney. There is a cadence to the way he sounds that comes from his enthusiasm for what is in his head. His head was so full of magnificent ideas that he could not help make everybody else excited about what those ideas were. That’s what I was going for.”
To prepare for the role, Hanks visited the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and spent a day there. “I heard every single piece of audio and saw every piece of film that was in the place about the entire history,” recalls Hanks.
“You just see Walt explaining how he did it and how he did it was hands-on every step of the way. It’s funny he always said ‘we’, which I thought was great. The ‘we’ that he used was the inclusiveness of everything he did. It went all the way from goofy cartoons to the theme parks that he had.”
Hanks first learnt of Mary Poppins author PL Travers’s troubled childhood and the possible reasons behind her uncompromising personality when he read the screenplay for Saving Mr Banks.
“I was surprised because I didn’t know about the backstory at all. But I was impressed. The artistic process is such an interior one; it’s all about what’s turning around inside the creator’s own soul and it did a good job capturing what was the creative impetus of Pamela Travers, her father, this magnificent but troubled man who was constantly sunny and happy despite all the alcoholism and business problems and everything that goes along with it.”
Emphasising that Saving Mr Banks is not about the making of Mary Poppins, Hanks says, “It’s not about the filming of Mary Poppins. It’s about translating it from the book to the screen. It’s about the invaluable creative process of how it ended up on paper first, so it became the movie that it was. What are the secrets behind this great movie that everybody loves? Well, it’s a checkered past. It’s not about somebody who broke their foot while they were shooting. It’s about somebody who broke the spirit of the people in the room when they were writing it, and that was Pamela Travers.”
Describing the relationship between the curmudgeonly Travers and the up-beat Walt Disney, Hanks says, “They didn’t like each other. Right up to the end, they did not like each other. She was a tough, mysterious lady. PL Travers is burdened by her past in our film and she cannot escape it.”
When Walt is able to verbalise to her the way he dealt with his own pain, she understands because this man who is supposed to be so different from her (Walt Disney), with his moneymaking machine of Disneyland and his dancing pigs and his penguins, experienced a difficult childhood as well.”
Though the movie explores some serious themes, it is filled with humour that just explodes spontaneously on the screen. Explaining where that humour comes from, Hanks says, “PL Travers was this delightfully malevolent character that was loaded with a benign brand of victory. She’s the nutty lady who lives down the street, who, even though she’s mad at you, will probably say things that you will remember for the rest of your life because they’re so funny. At the end of the day, we’re capturing the making of Mary Poppins as a joyful, funny, emotional romp, but at the same time it has a degree of sophistication to it.”
Emma Thompson took on the role of the prickly author Travers and worked closely with Hanks in many scenes of the film. Describing their on-screen working relationship, Hanks says, “In the work that we did together, there was always something going on between us. There was always a secret that Pamela had that Disney himself did not see, until literally the end.
“There’s a scene where Walt Disney is saying, ‘Will you please share with me why this isn’t a good experience for you?’ The emotion that Emma had was a woman who was about to break into tears over something she could not communicate and that she wasn’t going to communicate to this guy, who at the end of the day, she thought was not going to care about it. That’s just the quality of an actress who is forever, it seems, at the absolute top of her game. Emma is that. She is so far removed from the old English biddy who lives in the townhouse in London, and yet her finger is on the absolute pulse of all the Englishness that goes on with that.”
Tom Hanks came away from Saving Mr Banks with a wealth of information about Walt Disney that was new to him. “I discovered so much that is brand new. Walt was in it for the art but it turned out to be an art that cost a lot of money and he kept track in his head of every nickel and dime. “But he never lost the enthusiasm for the process itself. He was a visionary without compare.” – Supplied