Julie Walters’ stock-in-trade is batty eccentrics.
There is Mrs Overall, the geriatric tea lady in Acorn Antiques, with her unwavering belief in a macaroon and a nice cuppa as a panacea for all of life’s troubles.
Then there’s the all-singing, all-dancing Rosie in the film version of Mamma Mia!, kitted out in clothes and colours that Julie admits cheerfully ‘made me feel daft because I looked it’, and Ron Weasley’s well-padded mother in the Harry Potter films.
Julie Walters was unsure about taking on the role of Mo Mowlam in new Channel 4 drama Mo
She plays virtually every part with a glint of merriment in her eyes. As more than one critic has observed, Julie Walters can find the funny side in anything – and enjoys the joke more than anyone.
Now she has taken on the role of the exuberant and cheerfully uninhibited Mo Mowlam in a Channel 4 biopic about the political life, and traumatic early death, of the charismatic Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who brokered the groundbreaking Good Friday Agreement.
It is almost certain to win her a BAFTA, to add to the two she already has for Educating Rita and Billy Elliot, alongside her Oscar nominations, her Golden Globe and her Laurence Olivier award.
The actress was unsure whether her portrayal of Mowlam would do her justice
If so, it will be an irony. For after accepting the role, she panicked. Watching news footage of Mowlam and realising her broad shoulders and swaggering stride was the polar opposite to the ‘little weed who totters along’ that Julie describes herself as, she asked her agent to get her out of it.
‘Our body shapes were completely at odds. My husband Grant described her as being like a hockey mistress, and, well, that’s not me, is it?
‘Then there was the way she spoke, in a kind of shrill way, with her mouth a bit puckered and squeaky, and I thought: “Oh, God! What have I let myself in for?”
‘I rang my agent and asked him to get me out of it. He said I was talking rubbish and that once I’d put on her wig and glasses, I’d be fine. And he was right.’
Julie as Mowlam and David Haig as husband John on the set of Mo
Walters makes the part her own, milking every line in Neil McKay’s cracking script for shock comedic effect.
Peter Mandelson, whom she suspects (rightly, as it turns out) is after her job, is dismissed as ‘a silly old queen’. She wrong-foots the po-faced Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble by sitting across from him with her legs wide apart. (Mo herself claimed that she was wearing no underwear at the time.)
And to break the ice with the deeply suspicious Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness she whips off her wig – for by now she is deep into treatment for brain cancer – and gives her balding head a good scratch.
‘Yes, it all happened’, says Julie. ‘Mo was a remarkable woman, a one-off with an honesty and a compassion that is rare in politics today. She knew how to charm people, how to get results, and by the time the Good Friday Agreement was ready to sign, she had everyone in Northern Ireland eating out of her hand.’
Julie shaved her head to play Mowlam
But not, alas, at Westminster. Tony Blair moved in smoothly to take the credit for the agreement and then gave Mandelson her job – offering Mo, as a sop, the relatively lowly post of Cabinet Office Minister.
Disillusioned with politics, and laid low by her cancer, she tried to fight back, but descended into bitter alcoholism, and, after a fall, died in 2005 at the age of 55.
‘The first thing everyone asks me is how I managed to copy her body shape’, says Julie. ‘That’s easy – for the last year I’ve been eating for England and beyond. I pigged out on cakes, bread and huge cooked breakfasts.’
The weight gain, she jokes, will require more to shift than a few strolls around the Sussex farm she shares with her husband Grant.
‘I reckon I’ve put on at least a stone and a half, and anyone who tells me I don’t look as if I need to lose some of it is either being very kind or my corrective knickers are working better than I thought!’
With the voice and figure in place, Julie turned her attention to the most emotive part of Mo’s appearance – her baldness.
Mowlam herself faced her cancer treatment with great stoicism, even though she knew it would result in hair loss and a drastically changed appearance.
‘Twenty minutes on gas mark 7,’ her character cheerfully instructs the nurse in the drama as she lays down for her first radiotherapy session.
‘I could have worn a bald wig, but for the sake of realism, I felt it necessary to shave my head,’ says Julie.
‘Initially, I got a laugh. I looked in the mirror when it had all been cut off and said out loud: “F***ing hell, I look like Harry Hill!”
‘But almost as soon as I’d made the remark, I felt this terrible wave of sadness. Not out of vanity, but because my look reminded me of all the things with which we associate female baldness: the women in the Nazi concentration camps who were dehumanised by having their heads shaved, the French women who had collaborated with the Nazis and were shaved as a punishment and, of course, hair loss through cancer.’
Julie has played a variety of eccentric characters throughout her career, including Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques (left) and Rosie in Mamma Mia!
Her own daughter, now 21, fought leukaemia as a child, but Julie is reluctant to discuss the parallels, saying she made Maisie a promise ‘not to talk about her too much in public’.
The film does not flinch from showing Mo’s robust sex life, ‘almost pornographic’ in its intensity, or the painfully intimate details of her illness and later alcoholism. So how would Julie feel if somebody were to make a similarly warts ‘n’ all film about her?
‘I’d be quite happy about it if it were dealt with in the same way. It’s a celebration of her and is quite uplifting.
‘Yes, it’s warts ‘n’ all, but that was the way Mo was. She liked sex, so we show she liked sex. She had no vanity, and if she could have wandered around naked she would have done. Her honesty, her earthiness, was a major reason why she became so popular with the public and politicians alike.
Julie alongside Gary Lewis, who plays Mowlam’s friend and fellow MP Adam Ingram
‘She didn’t try and hide behind any kind of mask. So many of them do, which is why I have so little time for politicians. At the General Election later this year, I shan’t know who, if anybody, to vote for because I simply don’t trust any of them any more.’
Despite her own status as national treasure, Julie is not tempted to opt for a career change as an MP.
‘I don’t think I could bear to work with people who I found so untrustworthy,’ she says.
But she still worries that the next acting job will be her last, despite the fact that several major studios have made it clear that if ever she wants to move to Los Angeles, they will keep her busy.
‘Well, it’s very kind, but I can’t see myself uprooting to settle over there. You see, dear, Hollywood isn’t my cup of tea.’
And for a moment, she sounds just like Mrs Overall.
Mo is on Channel 4 on Sunday at 9pm.
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