Julie Walters taps into her inner Mayo woman
The actor, who has channelled her Irish side once more for the film ‘Brooklyn’, talks about the class divide, Irish nuns and Mo Mowlam
Julie Walters is verging on national treasure status. And not just in England, but in Ireland as well.
Her latest role, as the indomitable Mrs Kehoe, keeper of a ladies’ boarding house in the film of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, sees Walters revisiting her role as one of Ireland’s favourite everywomen. She brings humour, talent and an extremely acceptable Irish accent to a part that stands out in a sea of admirable performances from the likes of Saoirse Ronan and Jim Broadbent.
“Oh, I absolutely loved it,” Walters says on the phone from Malaysia, where she is filming the TV drama Indian Summers. “I loved the book. I read the book when it came out in 2009 and I remembered Mrs Kehoe. I absolutely loved her, so I was really thrilled.”
For Walters, the role was a no-brainer. She is no stranger to playing Irish women, having portrayed the Irish mother of Michael Murray, Alan Bleasdale’s fictitious nod to former Labour Party bête noir Derek Hatton, in Channel 4’s GBH (1991). And she starred as a Belfast housewife who takes up the cause of peace in the 1999 Troubles film Titantic Town.
Walters’s mother, Mary Bridget O’Brien was from Co Mayo. She emigrated to Smethwick in the west midlands, where she married an English builder.
No wonder Walters plays Irish so well.
“Oh thank you,” says Walters, who has never lost her endearing humility. “My mum was Irish, so I grew up surrounded by Irish aunts and uncles and friends of my mum, and obviously my mum. And I was educated by Irish nuns as well. So it’s sort of in you, isn’t it? The accent’s there.”
It’s there, all right. We exchange Brummie pleasantries about Smethwick, where my sister lives and my great-grandparents had a house just like the one Walters grew up in. She says her Irish heritage never marked her out as different, growing up.
“That was just the way it was,” she says. “A lot of my friends had Irish parents and we went to the local church, St Gregory’s, and a lot of people who went there were Irish as well, so I didn’t feel different.
“At my grammar school, it was slightly the case because I used to go to Catholic assembly, which was separate, and I was in with all the other Catholic kids. But, generally, I didn’t feel like a fish out of water or different really.”
As a child, Walters visited her mother’s home place in Mayo. She doesn’t remember too much about it “except there was no electricity and there was a huge farm. At least it felt like a huge farm. It probably wasn’t.”
Parties in Ballsbridge
Walters was introduced to Dublin in the early 1980s, when she came to film Educating Rita, which landed her the first of two Oscar nominations and won her a Bafta and a Golden Globe.
“I remember the beauty,” she says. “The beauty of Trinity and the parties we had in Ballsbridge. And working with Michael Caine, of course. It was just a lovely time.”
After going to Manchester Polytechnic, Walters joined the Everyman Theatre Company in Liverpool in the mid-1970s. There she knocked about with the calibre of Pete Postlethwaite, Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell and Alan Bennett.
Does Walters think there is a new type of actor in the ascendancy at the moment? The Blunts, the Cumberbatchs, the Redmaynes, who all attended public schools? “I think they are all brilliant actors, and they should be in the ascendancy.”
Still, she is aware the playing field has been skewed in recent times. “These days it is very hard for working-class kids to go to drama school. They can’t afford it, basically. And drama isn’t on the curriculum, but it is a very important subject.”
Drama opens people’s horizons and “gives them a voice. It’s a very important subject, and now, with not being able to afford to go to drama school and no grants for people to go, there aren’t so many working-class actors coming up.”
So will the great working-class monologues that Bennett and Walters herself did so well be back? She believes so.
“I think things are cyclical,” she says. “I was lucky. When I was coming out of drama school, it was really, really the thing to be from a working-class background, starting with Michael Caine and Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney.
“I came in their wake, and there was wonderful working-class drama, and that will come again. I think maybe people have to be a bit angrier, but I know it will come again.” Maybe Jeremy Corbyn will usher in a new era. “You never know,” laughs Walters.
Her favourite role
A working-class hero is something to be, but Walters has also played some brilliant women. Who was her favourite? “Apart from Mrs Overall, who is actually my favourite, I think probably Mo Mowlam. ”
Walters relished the 2010 role of the late MP and British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, even though she had had to be persuaded to take the part, doubting she could do Mowlam physical justice. She did.
Has being a woman ever been a negative in her acting life?
Theatre has always been pretty inclusive, says Walters. “In terms of class, race or gender. It’s open. I have not come across attitudes that are negative towards me as a woman. They’re probably there, but no one would dare.”
Julie Walters is definitely a woman’s woman. Her greatest achievement, she says, is her daughter Maisie, and she has wise, supportive things to say about the menopause.
“I think it needs to be talked about, as it’s an important time in a woman’s life and the healthier you go through it, the better it will be.”
In another breath she praises Saoirse Ronan, who she says is a perfect actor who doesn’t need any advice.
What advice would Walters hand out to her younger self?
“I’d say you’re good enough. You’re good enough. Know that down to your marrow. You are good enough.”
With that, she takes her leave to get back to the set. We suggest she deserves a Pimms.
A cup of tea will do, she laughs. The perfect beverage for a national treasure.
- Brooklyn opens November 6th