In Despicable Me, Julie Andrews plays Gru’s unloving and evil mother – typecast she was not. In real life, this awe-inspiring mom of five and “Granny Jules” to seven (plus one more on the way) is all about the kids. Andrews dishes about becoming a villain, the book every child should read, and the moment her grandson realized she was Mary Poppins.
You play Gru’s evil mother. How was it channeling your inner villain?
It was great fun. I saw the original drawing of her, and I thought, “What I can do? What can I contribute?” It was such an emancipating feeling to just go for it.
Was it hard to think about being a diabolical mother?
At first it was. Oh God, I don’t want to disappoint any sweet young children that might be coming to see it because they think I’m still Mary Poppins. I [realized] my character has absolutely no idea she is as appalling as she is. She is totally self-involved and has no idea that she is this terrible woman. [Once I realized that], it was okay; it was great fun.
What was the inspiration for her voice?
The producers wanted me to just come in and play. They wanted me to go against type. They didn’t want a Mary Poppins British voice. A lot of people said that they didn’t know it was me until about a third of the way through. When I looked at her, I figured her voice would have to be somewhat gravely. Then I heard a snippet of what Steve Carell was preparing for his character, and it was so brilliant, I thought, “If I’m playing his mother than I would have influenced his voice.” We both settled on a slightly Eastern European mish-mash.
You seem to be quite invested in children. What do you find compelling about entertaining children, whether through books or movies?
I fell into writing books for children quite by accident. I found it was something I really loved to do. There’s something about children’s publishing and books that’s a whole world unto itself. If you go into a publishing house, it’s all very appropriate and somewhat sober. But the children’s publishing department is full of riotous color and fabulous art and it’s cheerful. Something about it just resonates with me. I read a lot to my kids when they were children when I was writing and they were very patient. You can tell instantly if it doesn’t work or if they’re slightly bored or getting restless.
Have you done any writing for film? Have you ever thought of marrying the two?
Yes. From your lips to someone’s ears would be great. There was a book I wrote many years ago, right after Mandy, which was called The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. And I’d love to see that go to film, especially as a musical because I wrote it with that in mind. And when I write, I either write musically or scenically. For instance, what kind of opening should this book have if I was watching it? What would I want to see? And my daughter is great to work with. I’ve written individually, and she has too, but when we work together, it’s so fun. As a mom, I’m sure you can imagine, I never realized what a pleasure it would be when she was this high (motions to kid height), that one day we’d be facing each other as two equal women. And she has very different strengths from me, and we complement each other.
What books did you read to your children when they were little?
Oh god, everything! The Phantom Tollbooth, all the classics. There’s a book called The Little Gray Men that my father bought for me when I was about eight, and it’s enchanted me ever since. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but I urge you to go out and buy it. It’s a nature study, a little like Watership Down, really pastoral and beautiful. It brings you down to the level of the four little men, the last four gnomes in England. It’s about their life and the adventure they go on. It’s a great nature study book because it teaches you at the same time. My daughter and I are huge, huge advocates of reading to kids.
Can you pick one film role that you like the most, that spoke to you the most?
Not really, because every single one becomes beloved. You learn something, you enjoy the location, or the director or someone you’ve worked with or the script. I’ve been told the one that’s most like me is probably The Sound of Music, but I really don’t know. I often say, if you had a basket of adorable puppies you couldn’t say which one you loved the best.
How have your grandkids reacted to your animated films?
I’ll tell you a sweet story. When my young grandson, Sam, was about 2 ½ or 3 (he’s now 14), my daughter said, “Mom, I haven’t let him see Mary Poppins yet because I want him to know what he’s seeing and who he’s seeing.” But he went to a birthday party and they were, of course, showing Mary Poppins. And she came to fetch him after the party and found him close to the screen looking terribly puzzled. So she knelt down and said, “Sam, do you think you know who that lady is?” He shook his head. And then she said, “But you think you recognize something?” He said “Umm: ” “It is someone that we know very well?” “Umm, umm: ” “Do you think maybe it’s Granny Jules?” He said, “Ohhhhhh!” It was so sweet. She said, “Mom, you should have seen it.” And I was in the neighborhood the next day, and he said, “Hi Granny Jules, I know something about you!” It was priceless.
Do you think motherhood has changed much since you raised your children?
I don’t think anyone feels like they do it right. You just fly by the seat of your pants, and I don’t think that has changed that much. I think that as long as you give a child love, you probably can’t do too much harm. As long as you mean well and are as loving as you can be.