At 66, Julie Walters leads a busy life – but that’s the way she likes it, whether she is glammed up for the red carpet or wearing mud-spattered trackpants on her farm. With a new series of her latest TV drama Indian Summers soon to be released, the much-l
why retirement didn’t last and how she loves being down on the farm
They say don’t meet your idols. But it turns out there’s absolutely no need to be afraid of meeting British treasure Julie Walters. Because she is exactly as you would imagine: kind, funny, indiscreet, no-nonsense, giggly. She somehow manages to be soft and hard at the same time, honest without being in-your-face, self-deprecating without being falsely modest. She is friendly and gossipy, and talks as if you’re sitting next to her in the GP’s waiting room, in black jeans and a really nice grey sweater from luxury label Mint Velvet.
What’s not so ordinary about Julie? An unusual mix of infectious self-confidence and touching vulnerability. Although perhaps that mix is not at all surprising for someone who was nominated for an Oscar for her first ever major role ( Educating
Rita in 1983), and who has gone on to win eight BAFTAs. From Acorn Antiques and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole to Harry Potter and Paddington via Billy Elliot and Mamma Mia!, every role she has played has been memorable.
Now 66, she had a short break from acting a few years ago and even considered retiring completely. She loves “normal life” and the farm she runs in West Sussex with her husband Grant Roffey, with whom she has a daughter Maisie, now in her 20s. But her retirement was short-lived and the past few years have been busier than ever. Her
latest role? Cynthia Coffin in TV One’s blockbuster period drama Indian Summers. Owner of the British Club, Cynthia rules over the cocktail nights of the last days of the British Raj as if she were the Empress of India.
With a fast-paced, addictive second series starting here in October, Cynthia’s one-liners are enough to give Dame Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey a run for her money. Retirement will definitely have to stay on hold.
ON HER CAREER
I think the ability to act is genetic. I remember my mother telling me that my Irish grandfather used to recite famous court cases. And my uncle used to direct plays in the west of Ireland. My brothers are teachers and there’s a very close link between acting and teaching – standing at the front, having to convince the kids that you’re telling the truth and trying to make it interesting.
Acting is where I got my confidence from as a child. I didn’t have belief in anything else so I protected it very fiercely. But the criticism in this business is hard. If I’d listened to everyone, I’d have given up.
I was lucky because when I started it was trendy to be a working-class actor. It would be much harder for someone like me now. There aren’t any grants for a start and my mother would have terrified me about getting into debt. Other actors like Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett couldn’t have done it either. But these things go in cycles and I think working-class drama will return. People will get angry and start writing about their experiences again.
I had no idea I’d end up with the career I’ve had. After I’d done Educating Rita, I thought, “I liked that, it would be fun to do a film every year.” But I didn’t dare predict anything more than that. All I hoped was to be able to keep going and do roles that I thought were good, whether it was in a film or in the theatre. Theatre was always my big love – there’s nothing like it, standing in front of an audience and telling the whole story.
I can count on two fingers – maybe three – the jobs I didn’t enjoy. I’ve loved my roles – my favourite was Mrs Overall. Oh God, how we used to laugh doing Acorn Antiques.
My character Cynthia in Indian Summers is complicated. In the way that people are complicated. I love the darkness of her and the fact she’s not defined by age. I get so many scripts that say, “There’s a group of OAPs [old-age pensioners]…” and I think, “Why can’t they just be people?” Cynthia is who she is and I love that.
There was a reason I felt I could retire and take some time off. I just thought, “I’ve done this for 35 years. I’m 60 now and I don’t have to go on.” So I took a year off. I was still doing things like Harry Potter but that was a couple of weeks at the most. At the time someone said to me, “Would you feel sad if you never acted again?” And I honestly thought, “I’m not that bothered.” During that time, even when things came in that were nice I’d think, “I’d rather be at home.” But then a script came from the National Theatre, for The Last
of the Haussmans, and I immediately knew, “I have to go and do this.” And I was back on. Although when I look at the roles now I still think, “Do I want to watch that, let alone be in it?”
I like being busy. But I’m busy with lots of things. Not just work. Now I’ll wait and see what comes along. That’s exciting. But there’s more to my life. It’s not that I don’t want to work again. But I only want to do what I really want to do.
When someone says, “You’re up for a BAFTA,” you immediately think, “Oh God, what am I going to wear?” Because it’s such a massive part of it. Everyone is photographed on the red carpet and their dresses are judged. If you don’t get it right, the papers print a big red cross underneath your picture, which is so humiliating. It’s more like the fashion BAFTAs than the film BAFTAs.
There’s no comparison with how I dress for the red carpet and how I dress at home. On the farm I’m usually in muddy tracksuit bottoms and I don’t even bother washing them any more! We live on clay so they’re solid with mud from the ankle to the thigh. One pair, which were given to me by the Miami Police Department, I’ve had for 25 years! I did a programme about being a policewoman in Miami called Julie Walters is an Alien. So they gave me them when it finished.
I do quite enjoy dressing up sometimes – and have loved wearing the fabulous clothes on this shoot. If I go out shopping on my own I rarely find something I like so it’s great to get ideas from expert stylists!
My favourite red carpet look was the Adrianna Papell dress I wore to the 2015 BAFTAs. It was long and fitted perfectly. And it got a tick in the papers rather than a cross – phew!
I don’t worry about what people think about me like I used to. I think that goes with getting older. I’ve let go of that self-consciousness.
I only started using moisturiser when I hit the menopause at 50! I do enjoy pampering myself a bit more now.
I’m never going to mess with my face. I’ve always felt, “This is who I am.” I think that it’s important for people to see the real thing. I love to see women who haven’t had anything done, which is unusual in my business. There are lots of people who have had “work”, yet the nation thinks they haven’t – I say just be bloody honest!
We should all be aiming for more wisdom – not a face without wrinkles.
ON HOME LIFE
I looked after my sister-in-law after she had a hip-replacement last year. It went wrong and she was in a lot of pain so I went to take care of her because her son was away working. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it – and the fact that I was quite good at it! I just instinctively knew what she wanted & and needed. She felt very safe with me and wanted me to come back. And I thought what a great thing to be
ABOVE: Julie Walters in her favourite Adrianna Papell red carpet dress at the BAFTAs in 2015.
able to have done that for her. Clearly I should have been a nurse!
To unwind I read and talk about farming! It’s a great relief to be away from acting and London and all that goes with that. It’s like The Archers [the long-running BBC rural radio drama] most of the time on our farm. We discuss what’s wrong with the lambs or start a conversation saying, “There’s something up with the turkeys.” And I’m convinced The Archers are based on us – they only started making organic sausages on The Archers after we did!
I’ve read some great books this year: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, Purity by Jonathan Franzen and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. They’ve all been recommended to me.
I do get recognised on the street and it’s a lovely feeling. People smile at me and it’s very sweet. But so many people also want to take selfies with me now. I feel really bad because I was walking up Guildford High Street the other day with about eight bags of shopping and this teenage girl, who was very sweet and well-mannered, came up and said, “Can I take a selfie with you?” And I just went, “Er, no,” because I was struggling with the bags and just thinking about getting back to my car. In hindsight I feel terrible. I should have said, “Yes. If you will carry my bags to the top of the hill for me.” In fact, next time I want someone to carry my bags I might just stand around for a bit and ask, “Anyone want a selfie?!”
ON LETTING GO
I haven’t had inner confidence all my life – and it still goes up and down. Sometimes I think, “I don’t know how to do this.” And sometimes I look back at what I’ve done and laugh at how dreadful my acting was.
Actors inspire me because that’s what I do. There’s my good friend Vic [Victoria Wood], of course. Vic was so clever. I’ve never known anyone to write a sketch so quickly. She’d go off and write one in literally five minutes. And it would be absolutely brilliant and everyone would be in stitches. I also admire Helen Mirren because she’s completely different to me and we get on well. I love the way she approaches things. I’m all over the place… I’m scattered. But Helen goes right in there and is brave. Meryl Streep is a phenomenal force of nature too. I know it’s a cliché but she is. I found her so inspiring.
As I’ve got older I’ve let go of wanting to be loved. Because all actors suffer from that – or at least I think they do. I’ve let go of it because I do feel loved. The most important thing is to love yourself and eventually you learn how to do that.
ABOVE: Julie as Cynthia in Indian Summers (left), as Mrs Overall from Acorn Antiques (top, with the show’s writer Victoria Wood), and as Harry Potter’s Mrs Weasley.