Listen, I watched Murder She Wrote faithfully, too. And Beauty and the Beast? Hello! It was a treat to get to meet Angela Lansbury and while with her I couldn’t help but wonder ‘who done it’… Sitting in a room with the actress and an amazing group of mom/dad bloggers, we got to talk her infamous TV role as Jessica Fletcher (“it did not require any great artistry”), whether Jim Carrey got out of hand on the set when filming with him in her role as Mrs. Van Gundy in Mr. Popper’s Penguins in theaters June 17th, and her feelings on how movies for kids have changed.
You’ve done a whole range of acting, whether it be villains or even the voiceover for Disney. But, I think most people remember you for Murder She Wrote.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Well, on the one hand, it has been a blessing because it made me known worldwide. I have to say that, even though the role of Jessica Fletcher was one that one almost walked through. I say that with love and appreciation of the character that was given to me to play, but it did not require any great artistry to play Jessica Fletcher.
But, I loved her because she was such a straight on woman with charm and with a good brain and a wonderful liberal outlook on life. And I just felt that she represented women in the best possible way. And that intrigued me.
I think that was the reason the character was such a successful person in television, even though she wasn’t a pop heroine by any manner of means. She wasn’t Mary Tyler Moore. She was Jessica, and that’s okay. She’s still out there all over the world.
And you were a role model to me and to so many women. Were there any role models for you when you were first starting out in this business?
Well, I would say that when I was growing up, this was in the 1940s, it was wartime, you know? So, the women who really kind of grabbed me as a young kid, as a student, were women like Katharine Hepburn and certainly Bette Davis and Jean Arthur. Jean Arthur was very unique. I just loved her. She had a kind of a wonderful funny way of talking like this. She says, “Well, I don’t know what’s going on here.” There were some great movies that she was in with Joel McCrea. And I’m talking about people you’ve never heard of, but these people were the heroines and heroes of my era as a youngster who were a lot younger than you are today. But, you’d asked me who were the role models.
You’ve been in some of the biggest and most popular kid friendly movies out there. Bedknobs and Broomsticks, my kids love that movie.
Oh, it’s wonderful, funny stuff.
I was curious how you feel about being in a movie like Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Is it still that kid friendly movie — does it feel the same now as it did when you were making Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Beauty and the Beast?
Not really. It’s a different category, I think. It’s certainly kid friendly. And Popper, because of the children in it and because of the penguins, which are the catalyst for the father and the children, that is something that’s universal.
And I think that makes it very appealing from a point of view. Whether children will take to it with the same crashing devotion that they did for things like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which incorporated a cartoon as well, if you think about the special cartoon stuff they did in that, and it’s underwater and that wonderful football game in that. I mean, there’s tremendous humor in that.
There’s intrigue with penguins in the penguin movie. But, I think they’re slightly different. I don’t think that they’re the same. I shouldn’t probably say that. But, nevertheless, I mean, how many years later are we talking about here? Fifty? Thirty? Forty? Forty, yes.
We won’t let on. But, anyway, I think you know what I mean. Things are done so differently these days, where in those days they were done by the book. We used to have storyboards, little pictures of each shot that we were going to make.
For instance, in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, I was amazed because, being a kind of rather serious actress, I thought, “Oh, but I don’t want to turn around and talk to him there. I want to do something different.” “No, no, no, no, you turn around and you say that line to him there.” And so, you were kind of caged into a style of acting, really. That’s what you did. It was quite different, but it was effective.
So, you had a little more freedom then, this time around?
Oh, much more, except you don’t.
You do but you don’t?
No, you don’t.
But, are the directors more willing to let you offer your interpretation or vision now than they were back during the storyboarding?
Yes, certainly. Although there’s not much room for that, because these days you’re always working on a schedule, a time schedule which is cut and dry because every minute costs.
And if you’re shooting in a very famous gallery like the Guggenheim in New York and you have eight hours of night shooting to manage to shoot X number of shots, there isn’t much time for fooling around.
And there’s no time to rehearse. That’s one of the drawbacks of movies, for my money, is you never really get to rehearse, because they can’t spend the time they have not putting it on film.
You mentioned about role models for women, and that was one thing that I was curious about. Do you see a lot more opportunities for older actresses? Male actors normally get much more work. Do you see a lot more roles opening up for older female actresses?
No, I don’t. I really don’t. I’m sorry to say I don’t. I don’t see it at all. Do you?
Can you name any recently?
Even being a female actress is a tough part, because I think a lot of the time you’re playing the romantic lead of somebody or a sidekick to somebody.
And once in a while when it is this, then it’s normally an action figure or something. But, I don’t see it much in regular females, so I was just curious about how you see it or whether there’s a future, or whether it’s a short lived career for females.
I’m afraid it is. It is a short lived career. And I’ve said recently that’s one of the reasons that I haven’t really gone back into movies is because there weren’t any roles. There weren’t any roles that I would really want to play.
This [Mr. Poppins] role, yes, I can play this because she’s a character and that’s good. I kind of specialize in those kind of weirdos, you know? I’m really not that way at all. I’m more like Jessica, really.
So, it’s not easy. But, those are the only things that are forthcoming. There’s this movie out called Beginners— have you been reading about it?
What is that great actor who’s in that who plays a man in his 70s who’s dying who comes out, right?
Thank you. What a great role, and he’s a man. You know, he and I are about the same age. And he gets to play that part, you know? There aren’t many women who’d get to play that kind of role. Not just because he comes out. I’m not talking about that — I don’t want to play a woman who comes out necessarily, although that would be interesting. Nevertheless I think it’s great.
Was there a lot of ad libbing on the set with Jim Carrey when you were working with him?
No, I wouldn’t say so. He’s all business. He really is. He’s totally immersed in what he’s doing. And he’s very thoughtful, very considerate, and works with you.
Our director certainly was very strong about what he was going for and how he was going to set the scene up. And certainly Jim worked very closely with him. They would shoot the scene and Jim would run by and look at it on the monitor, and they would try little slightly different things.
Is there a role in your career that you’d like to revisit?
That’s a good question. I don’t think so. I tend to kind of shut the door on roles. There’s been such an enormous variety if you think about the work that I’ve done in film. Nothing that I’ve ever done in film has been enough for me to show what is really there. It’s always been fragmented, in a curious way. I’ve never had the opportunity to play a role which began and then went to a middle and then culminated in the end. I don’t know who has, but I’ve always felt there was something that I wished I could have acted that I’ve never had a chance.
What drew you to this [Mr. Popper’s Penguins] role? Did you want to do this movie because of the story or the people that you were working with?
Well, I was kind of coerced into doing it, quite frankly because I didn’t think there was really a place for me in it in the first place. But it suddenly became an interesting character. And when it became a woman who had a warmth buried under all those layers, I thought, “Well, yes, I can do something with this.”
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