Julie Andrews: ‘I was certainly aware of tales about the casting couch’

Julie Andrews: ‘I think probably subliminally I was trying to give kids as good a feeling as I could.’ Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty
The celebrated actor had a turbulent upbringing before becoming world-famous for playing two perfect nannies. Now she’s bonding with a new generation of children through her storytelling podcast

“I’ll tell you what, shall I go outside?” Julie Andrews asks. We are talking by phone, but, alas, the reception inside her home on Long Island is, she says, “always terrible”. Torturous minutes pass in which I can hear only fragments of her conversation, and if anyone knows of a sweeter agony than being barely able to hear Andrews’s still lovely, melodious voice, I don’t want to know what it is. Eventually, I have to tell her this phone conversation isn’t working.

“I can stand out in my garden, although it is a bit nippy…” Andrews suggests.

Please do not go outside, I nearly shout down the line, suddenly envisioning Andrews developing pneumonia because of me.

“Honestly, it is no trouble at all! Oh dear, now my dogs are going crazy…”

Julie Andrews has described being offered cocaine at a party in 1971. ‘The hosts began pushing me hard, curious to see how Mary Poppins would react,’ she wrote. ‘Oh yes, I was terrified!’ she says, laughing, when I mention the incident

Andrews and I are talking today because she and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, have launched a podcast, soothingly titled Julie’s Library, in which the two women read children’s stories. The podcast had been scheduled to launch later this year, but they decided to bring it forward when most of the world was suddenly locked inside their homes. It’s fair to say the world was grateful. “Oh thank God: Julie Andrews wants to read us some stories” was a typical headline in response to the news.

Few people are more associated with feelings of comfort and safety than Andrews. “Nothing can be wrong in the world if Andrews is looking after us,” the US journalist Diane Sawyer said while interviewing Andrews last year. Much of this, of course, is to do with her two most famous roles, the perfect nannies Mary/Maria in Mary Poppins, from 1964, and The Sound of Music, from 1965. The movies are more than half a century old, but Andrews has long since accepted that she will never escape their double-headed shadow and has gracefully answered questions about them ever since from besotted members of the public and journalists.

Julie Andrews with her best actress Oscar for Mary Poppins. Photograph:Keystone/Getty
Julie Andrews with her best actress Oscar for Mary Poppins. Photograph:Keystone/Getty

Andrews, who is now 84, has always radiated a nourishing kind of goodness, although she makes an embarrassed laugh when I bring it up: “It’s hard to know how to respond to questions about [my image], Hadley. It’s just how it’s always been,” she says, careful to use my name in response to almost all my questions. It’s a gesture that feels entirely of a piece with Andrews, something born of careful good manners and precision. In her recent second memoir, Home Work, which focuses on her Hollywood years, Andrews describes being offered cocaine at a party in 1971. “The hosts began pushing me hard, curious to see how Mary Poppins would react,” she wrote. Eventually, her husband, the film director Blake Edwards, came to her rescue: “She doesn’t need any of that stuff,” he said. “She’s high enough on life as it is.” “Oh yes, I was terrified!” she says, laughing, when I mention the incident.

And yet Andrews’s life has hardly been bland rice pudding. In her first memoir, Home, she describes her at times near gothic childhood. She was born Julia Wells in Surrey in 1935 to a gentle, adoring father, Ted Wells, and a somewhat more erratic mother, Barbara Morris, a pianist. Her parents split up when she was young, and Andrews moved with her mother and new stepfather, Ted Andrews, a vaudevillian, to what she has described as a “slum” area of London. Her stepfather was an alcoholic, and twice he tried to get into Andrews’s bed, resulting in her putting a lock on her bedroom door.

With the young Andrews’s extraordinary clear soprano voice, she became the family’s breadwinner and worked relentlessly, keeping her drunken stepfather and miserable mother afloat

“My mother was terribly important to me, and I know how much I yearned for her in my youth. But I don’t think I entirely trusted her,” Andrews writes in Home. Perhaps her mother’s worst betrayal came when she drunkenly informed her young daughter that Wells, the most stable adult influence in her life, wasn’t her biological father. At 15, her mother yanked her out of school and put her on the stage to help support the family, and she travelled the country to perform in shows, sharing train carriages with, among others, Petula Clark.

With Andrews’s extraordinary clear soprano voice, she became the family’s breadwinner and worked relentlessly, keeping her drunken stepfather and miserable mother afloat. At last she was able to escape when she was cast as the lead in the Broadway shows of The Boyfriend and My Fair Lady, and from there it was soon a mere hop to Hollywood – although not, notoriously, into the movie of My Fair Lady, as the film’s producer, Jack Warner, decided Andrews wasn’t famous enough. He replaced her with Audrey Hepburn, whose singing had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon. Initially disappointing, this turned out to be Andrews’s biggest break, as it meant she was free to star in Mary Poppins. When she won a Golden Globe for her role, she said at the end of her speech: “Finally, my thanks to a man who made a wonderful movie who made all this possible in the first place… Jack Warner.”

There is fire and spice beneath Andrews’s creamy exterior, and certainly a helluva story. Sadly, we discuss hardly any of it: as well as Andrews’s erratic phone service and excitable dogs, our allotted time is cut from 30 minutes to 15 minutes because the PR couldn’t master the technology to connect us. On top of that, Hamilton is on the line to remind me repeatedly to talk about the podcast, and not, say, Mary Poppins. But Andrews is so sweetly apologetic that it’s impossible to resent her for all the nonsense. “Oh, poor Hadley! Poor Hadley!” she cries after Hamilton has reminded me again to bring it back to the podcast, and her sympathy is inescapably reminiscent of Maria’s pity for the Von Trapp children, forced to march to their father’s absurd whistle.

Julie Andrews on stage at the London Palladium in 1948 during a Royal Command Performance. Photograph: Keystone/Getty
Julie Andrews on stage at the London Palladium in 1948 during a Royal Command Performance. Photograph: Keystone/Getty

Still, 15 minutes with Julie Andrews is better than no minutes with Julie Andrews. So I start by asking about their decision to release the podcast early. I don’t want to make any clumsy comparisons between the coronavirus and the second World War, I begin stumblingly.

“Oh, but you can! You can! I feel a very big similarity to the feelings one had then to the feelings one has now. Ask your question, Hadley,” she says with her distinctively perfect enunciation.

I say that I wondered if it was because of her memories of the feelings that she had as a child during the war that she wanted to reach out to children today, who are feeling pretty anxious now.

One thing I did recognise as a child was the amount of bonding that happened in England because of the second World War, and I feel the same feelings in America here at this moment

“Yes, I think so. Then, I was very concerned and worried and frightened and anxious, and one didn’t know where the next wave would come. But one thing I did recognise as a child was the amount of bonding that happened in England because of the war, and I feel the same feelings in America here at this moment,” she says.

It is obligatory in every article about Andrews to point out that she made many films for adults that had nothing to do with nannies: Torn Curtain with Alfred Hitchcock, the jolly flapper musical Thoroughly Modern Millie and Victor/Victoria, the gender-bending comedy directed by Edwards, who died almost 10 years ago. Andrews drops in her own gentle reminder of this when talking about the success of Mary/Maria: “The thing is, Hadley, Poppins and Sound of Music were so successful that they crowded out and eliminated the less child-friendly movies I did, like Hawaii and The Americanization of Emily. It’s just the way things fell, and I’d never knock it, and I’m absolutely grateful for all I’ve been given.”

Julie Andrews with James Garner in Victor/Victoria. Photograph: Mondadori via Getty
Julie Andrews with James Garner in Victor/Victoria. Photograph: Mondadori via Getty

Yet it is also true that Andrews has devoted a significant part of her adult life to improving the lives of children. Even aside from the all-conquering musicals, which have unquestionably improved the lives of millions, she has written dozens of children’s books, often with her daughter, and made a Netflix series for children, Julie’s Green Room. On top of that, Andrews, who adopted two Vietnamese girls with Edwards, has been an advocate for the rights of children and orphans in Vietnam and Cambodia, and in particular for those with American servicemen fathers to be allowed to emigrate to the United States. I ask if she thinks this desire to help was in any way connected to her own turbulent childhood.

“I think it had more to do with – well, you know, I was just a working girl in my teens, travelling around England, singing my heart out, learning my craft. But once I got to Broadway and Hollywood, the films drew me into that particular work, and I found that it was what I wanted to embrace, because it was giving me so much pleasure. Those movies led me into this concern for kids, and I think probably subliminally I was trying to give them as good a feeling as I could. I have no idea if that comes from my own childhood. It was just the way I stumbled forward in the world. Does that make sense? I hope it does!” she says

I knew it was really important for me to make Emma’s childhood as normal as possible, even though it was incredibly abnormal in many ways. But she was a Trojan and has a very big heart

I tell her that the actor David Tomlinson once claimed the reason Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent was so terrible in Mary Poppins was because Tomlinson, who was born in the well-to-do English town of Henley-on-Thames and was very much not a cockney, had helped him with it.

“Oh, that was very generous of David! I think Dick asked all of us to help him, because I had the same experience, and he was very aware that he was stumbling about. He was adorable, so talented and charming anyway, so who cares, really!” says Andrews.

Andrews’s daughter now pipes up to tell me to bring the chat back to the podcast. As I haven’t actually heard the podcast, because it wasn’t online yet at the time of our interview, I ask about the relationship between the two of them. Andrews was pregnant with Hamilton when Walt Disney offered her the role of Poppins. When Andrews informed him she was unlikely to fit into the costume in six months’ time, Disney told this unknown stage actress: “That’s okay. We’ll wait.”

It is clear from Andrews’s memoirs – which she wrote with Hamilton – that the two women have always had an exceptionally close relationship, despite Andrews working nonstop from pretty much the minute Hamilton was born.

Julie Andrews with her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton in the 1960s. Photograph: Mondadori via Getty
Julie Andrews with her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton in the 1960s. Photograph: Mondadori via Getty

“We were bonded from the beginning because of, well, so many reasons. Emma’s dad, my first husband, and I separated, and that helped us. I knew it was really important for me to make Emma’s childhood as normal as possible, even though it was incredibly abnormal in many ways. But the same team travelled together; we were together as much as possible. It wasn’t easy for her, but she was a Trojan and has a very big heart,” says Andrews.

At this point, Hamilton says I have time for only one more question. I’m overwhelmed by all the questions I want to ask – does she resent Christopher Plummer for slagging off The Sound of Music? Did she hate Mary Poppins Returns, and is that why she refused to be in it? To my horror, I hear myself burbling out some question about whether she ever experienced sexual harassment during her years in Hollywood. And, sure, a lot of actresses have experienced that. But on the list of topics I’ve long dreamed of discussing with Andrews, that one would come pretty low. To her enormous credit, she doesn’t baulk.

“I was certainly aware, Hadley, of tales about the casting couch. But I was so busy working and raising my kids and being married to Blake Edwards eventually, it was an extremely busy life, and to a certain extent that put a protective fence around me, I think,” she says sweetly.

Even though our time is now definitely up, Andrews makes sure to ask if I have any children, what are their ages and oh! How busy I must be! How fast the time will go, I won’t believe it! Initially, I’m so miserable about how this interview has gone I can barely speak. But just hearing Andrews speak about my kids warms my heart, and by the end I’m almost smiling. Even in 15 minutes, Andrews can still give children – and former children – a good feeling. – Guardian

Julie’s Library is available now