A conversation with the lovely Julie Andrews

Al Woodworth on October 15, 2019

Julie Andrews is a legend; there’s no other way to put it. She has captivated the hearts and minds of generations with her iconic roles in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. She first wrote about her career in her bestselling memoir, Home, and in Home Work, her second memoir, she revisits her Hollywood years—and it’s a wonderful behind the scenes look at her life and career.

To celebrate the publication of Home WorkI had the chance to talk to Julie and her daughter and co-writer, Emma, from Julie’s home in Los Angeles. And it was a pleasure. With occasional barking from her dogs in the background, we talked about the magic of her famous roles, balancing her career and motherhood, singing at home, and the joys of working with her daughter on creative projects, and, of course, reading. Here’s our conversation – albeit slightly edited.

Al Woodworth, Amazon Book Review: In a 60 Minutes interview that you did years ago, you opened up with an acknowledgement that you tend to be intensely private about your life and family. So I wondered what made you want to share it all in these two memoirs?

Julie: Well, it was a pretty natural progression. The first memoir I thought about a lot, a lot: do I really want to publish? Why do I want to publish? And so on. But the great director with whom I worked, Moss Hart, had written a wonderful biography called Act One. I don't know if you've ever read it, but it is one of the great and finest autobiographies – in terms of a theatrical upbringing and career, and growing up in poverty. It really showed a time that people don’t know much about – I didn’t know much about: his part of New York, where he was raised, and what theater was like in those days. It suddenly occurred to me that for my first book, maybe rather than just writing it for my grandkids (which is in the long run what they’re for), people would be interested in this piece of history—English vaudeville, travelling, what it feels like to be coming to Broadway for the first time, and so on. And that gave me the courage to start. Moss gave me the courage to start.

The second book, of course, was everything to do with so many people asking me how is it going to continue; also, having reflected a lot on the first one, this was another opportunity to gain perspective, reflect again, and have an overview of my life which has been very, very special.

Speaking of courage, I was struck in reading about your Hollywood years how nervous you would get before filming or performing. How did you overcome that nervousness? 

Well, I think I was able to overcome it because of those early years in vaudeville: I just had to get on with it. Over the years, I paid my dues, so to speak, and began to learn a little bit about how to perform. Those years stood me in good stead, because then I knew I could do it. And, I did enjoy meeting all these people, I was curious and interested. And, I was so damn lucky. So, it all came together.

In Home Work, you peel back the curtain for readers and share how so many of your iconic movie scenes were shot. With Mary Poppins you detailed the different tricks that were used to make you appear as if you were flying, including, a very painful last day of filming…

It was painful—all of the flying scenes were. But the last day was especially so, since the rope [that was holding me up in the air] gave way. Thank God for the counterbalancing equipment in the studio. Because although I did hit the ground very hard, I didn't break anything or damage anything. I was quite lucky.

So there’s the physical magic of the movie that's created by camera angles, hidden (sometimes unreliable) ropes, but for movies like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, they have a sort of magic that seems to transcend time. What do you think gives these movies their staying power – in many ways they’re even more magical today than when I watched them growing up.

Well first of all, the craftsmanship behind all of them. The music in The Sound of Music and even in Disney, but particularly The Sound of Music, is superbly done; it’s a total joy. You have a vast orchestra, everything is pre-recorded, and every detail worked out. Then the craft of photography and how you're lit and who's designing this sets and costumes. Everybody in Hollywood seems to set out to want to help you succeed. I think the two differences I could talk about are: on Broadway everybody, including the cast of the show, think it's going to probably be a flop before it opens. But in Hollywood, they all think it will be the greatest thing ever. It’s a big difference, but both are very healthy.

Julie_Andews.jpegAs you share in your first memoir, Home, singing was such an important part of your childhood and you built your career on it. In your second memoir you write that it was “profoundly ingrained in your soul”—how did you incorporate singing into your children’s lives?

I’ve been keeping my ears open, wondering if there was any hint of a voice, and lo and behold, Emma’s daughter, Hope, has perfect pitch and a charming voice. And, I'm thinking: be still my heart. It’s thrilling. In terms of music, there has always been music. All of my kids, and their kids have been raised with it and that includes a lot of classical music.

Emma: There was always music playing in the house growing up. Mom took us to the theater and the ballet. People often ask me, Did your mom sing to you when you were a child? And it’s not really like she walked around whistling tunes from The Sound of Music...

Julie: But I would sing. And we would sing together – lots of old English songs and campfire songs. And, of course, when Emma was a baby it was "You Are My Sunshine" and all kinds of songs like that.

You’re incredibly candid about how it hard was to balance it all - your career, being a mom, being married, caring for your parents and brother who lived with you for a time. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like?

One day, I said to my youngest adopted daughter, the sweetheart she is: “Maybe I could have been such a better mom if I had been home more. If I didn’t have a career, if I wasn’t who I am.” And she said “Oh mum! That’s silly!”—how she knew to say this, I don’t know—“Imagine, when we grow up we’re going to say: ‘Well, you are silly, weren’t you? Because you didn’t do what you wanted to do!’” In other words, why shortchange yourself? And I thought, wow: how she knew to say, if you don’t do what you love, you’ll regret your whole life. She was right.

Wow. How old was she at the time?

She was about 8 or ten.

What’s also so remarkable is that you crafted a career working with your family – with your parents early on, with your husband, and with Emma on children's books and now your second memoir. What is it like working with family?

I think it's part of the reason that both my memoirs have the word home in them. As I say in my first memoir, my first word ever, apparently, was home. Home, for me, was everything that was warm and good feeling and safe. Because I traveled so much in my childhood and teens, and then of course went to America—I had very real separation anxiety. Home meant so much to me. But, I tried to figure it out and became about how could I make a home where I was and within the work that I was doing? How could I make my dressing room feel like home? Or my apartment in New York feel like home? What would help it feel safe, cozy, warm? And that applies to the reasons why I love working with my family. 

Emma: I think that's definitely true. We are fortunate because we have a close relationship. We don’t pick on each other, or compete with one another, or get combative—or overly combative. We have a mutual understanding that the best idea wins and somehow we both seem to know what that idea is. We’ve worked together not just on the books, but we’ve developed films together, did a television series together, and produced plays that Mom directed, and things like that – so we’ve done a lot of creative collaboration. If you’re fortunate enough to have a good relationship and complementary strengths like we have, it allows us to have a kind of shorthand, that I suppose is true for any partnership, if it lasts long enough. There is a huge degree of trust, mutual respect, and ability to get to the point quickly.

Julie: You do that more than I do. You’re wonderful that way.

Emma: Well, because we’re not alone. We have each other to be a sounding board – someone to bounce ideas off of. We trust one another.

Julie: And we literally sometimes finish each other sentences or say the same thing at the same time. And we have a very good time writing together, even though we might be writing about something quite emotional.

That’s so wonderful to have one another as support in the writing process.

I can’t imagine not writing with Emma. She’s such a rock for me and a sounding board and I think to some extent you [Emma] feel the same way. We have very different strengths. Emma has the foundation and the nuts and bolts of the story. And I think I'm more the sort of Flights of Fancy, or what the opening sounds like or feels like, that kind of thing.

I would love to hear from you both about what you’re reading. Who are your favorite authors that you go to for inspiration or comfort?

Julie: So many. Well, believe it or not: I re-read Moss’s Act One memoir, because it was such an inspiration as to how to write a good—I mean, it was a very, very good autobiography. I beg of you to read it. But I love Philip Pullman. I should go look at the pile by my bed—I have a huge pile! I’m very passionate about all things to with nature, and the plant hunters of old—how plants got transferred from one continent to another. I find that fascinating. So more of those books are by my bed too.

Emma: Right now, on my nightstand is a book called I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory by Patricia Hampl. She’s a nonfiction writer who writes memoir, and it’s a book about writing. We have a lot of books about that. That’s the one I’m currently knee deep and I have a huge pile of things yet to be read.

Julie: Mostly bios, mostly historical or otherwise. I don’t think either of us read a lot of novels.

Emma: Sadly, no. I read a lot of children’s book these days, because I teach children’s book writing. But I love memoir and nonfiction. I want to read the new Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Julie: And there are a lot of memoirs out there right now. I mean, Demi Moore [Inside Out] and Sally Field [In Pieces]. And of course, Elton John [Me] and Obama. I love to read about anything I can learn about or improve my weary old mind about. We are curious, Thank God for that.

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