A courtesy of Walt Disney Productions.
From Child Actor to Legendary Star Julie Andrews Has Done It All
If any actress deserves to be called a Dame, then 85-year-old Julie Andrews qualifies to be a Dame of the British Empire. She would deserve such an accolade if only for her singing in Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. That alone made Andrews made a cinematic icon. But with her four-octave voice and majestic style, she lent her style to so many other films and Theatrical productions such as The Americanization of Emily, Hawaii, Torn Curtain, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Victor/Victoria.
Born Julia Elizabeth Wells on October 1st, 1935, the English actress, singer, and author has had a long career spanning seven decades, been the recipient of long list of honors including a British Academy Film Award, an Academy Award, two Emmys, and three Grammys. She was made a Disney Legend in 1991, and has gotten an Honorary Golden Lion as well as the AFI Life Achievement Award. In 2000, Andrews was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II for services to the performing arts.
A child actress and singer who first appeared in the West End in 1948, she made her Broadway debut in The Boy Friend in 1954, and then rose to prominence starring in Broadway musicals such as My Fair Lady (1956) playing Eliza Doolittle and Camelot (1960) playing Queen Guinevere.
In 1957, Andrews also broke ground starring in the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s written-for-television musical Cinderella, a live, CBS network broadcast seen by over 100 million viewers.
Andrews made her feature film debut in 1964’s Mary Poppins and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the title role. She starred in 1965’s The Sound of Music, playing Maria von Trapp and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Comedy or Musical.
Married to director Blake Edwards since 1969, they were the classic Hollywood power couple. She acted, he directed and sometimes they worked together. Comedies were his forte and they made the film Victor/Victoria, a comedy which they eventually brought to Broadway as a musical. Around that time, Andrews was operated on for vocal nodes. The operation was botched and she could no longer sing like she once did. Nonetheless, her romance with Edwards continued until his death in 2010.
After recovering, her career changed. After the turn of the millennium, her career has had a revival, with her cast in central roles in the Shrek series (as Queen Lillian), The Princess Diaries and its sequel (as Queen Clarisse Renaldi) and in the Despicable Me series (as Gru’s mother Marlena). She has also hosted shows such as Great Performances and narrated documentaries. And most recently in 2020, Andrews started voicing the narrator Lady Whistledown in the hit Netflix series Bridgerton.
After recovering, her career changed. Upon the turn of the millennium, Andrews has had a revival, with her being cast in central roles in the Shrek series (as Queen Lillian), The Princess Diaries and its sequel (as Queen Clarisse Renaldi), and in the Despicable Me series (as Gru’s mother Marlena). She has also hosted shows such as Great Performances and narrated documentaries. Most recently, in 2020, Andrews started voicing the narrator Lady Whistledown in the hit Netflix series Bridgerton.
Here’s the Q&A with actress Julie Andrews.
(Q) : Julie, “That’s Life” was the last film that you and Blake made together, what are the circumstances? How did this film come about?
(Julie Andrews) : I think probably if you knew Blake or studied Blake, you knew that he was the most charismatic man with the most sense of humor. Wicked, Hollywood’s bad boy. But he also did occasionally go to deep depressions and it was very, very difficult for him. And then when he was in that kind of a mood, we all tried to do everything, jolly him out of it. But if it was true depression that he struggled with, he was just sort of at the end of a very long spell of it, and I remember we were sitting in the Jacuzzi at home with myself and his eldest daughter, my stepdaughter Jennifer. And Blake said, “you know what I’d really like to do? I’d like to do a non-union movie. God knows I’ve done nothing but union movies, but I think I owe one in my life. And I’d like to make it here on the property, and I’d like to just use all my friends and some of the family and sort of tell a story about a guy who is very depressed,” and so on and so on. And of course, Jack is playing Blake Edwards in the movie, as you probably guessed.
And at the time when we were all in the Jacuzzi, I thought, “oh, yeah,” because he had six ideas a day. And lo and behold, six weeks later, people were all over my house, cable news and camera crews and trucks were everywhere. And I was cooking scrambled eggs at 3:00 in the morning and bodies were sleeping on the sofas. There are a lot of funny stories about it. But the film was an interesting one, if I may go on. He said, “you know what I’d like to do?” He was always very experimental and he’d done the party in a similar way, just following along on an improvisational thing and going from there and seeing where that and going from there.
But in this case, he wrote a 13-page outline for all the actors and actresses and said, “OK, now you know your characters and you know the arc of the story, I want you to contribute as much as I may, and you can make it up as you go along. I will edit as you go along.” You would think that some of the actors, as we sometimes do, would pull rank and go on with their roles and over-pad them. But far from it, everybody seemed to want to make the movie work. It was amazing to see that you come in the next day and somebody would say, “I must remember to say that!” and “No, that that would be going too far, but let’s do this,” or “do you think this is great?”
And Blake would say, as we rehearsed the scenes, “keep that note, delete that, keep that.” And then he had been one of the first people in Hollywood, along with Jerry Lewis, also to use the hidden TV camera that gave you instant playback. Now it’s everywhere, but in those days, you’d have to wait until the dailies came in two or three days later, to see if there’d been a mistake or if it hadn’t been filmed properly. This way you can fill the scene play it on the television camera instantly. So much time was saved. So many scenes were saved. If there was a costume malfunction and you didn’t notice it, or if you said, “may I just do another one? I know I can do that one a little better,” it could be done. And so, he would watch the rehearsal and of course, the takes, on the television camera and, again, say, “fine, bring that down a little bit. Enlarge that if you want to.” And the actors did. You felt so contributed and so special and it was a great pleasure, but it was biographical. Ninety per cent of it was biographical. And I’m not sure about the fortune teller.
(Q) : Did you have any hesitation about opening up your house?
(Julie Andrews) : No, no. That was Blake, that was his character.
(Q) : Did the Union protest the film?
(Julie Andrews) : Oh, I’ll say they did! We had people picketing, banging on garbage cans and cymbals, and anything else to distract us. Quite often we changed what we were going to shoot to, so that we would avoid the problems. They were not happy at all. About a quarter of the way through, a very lovely camera man was asked to leave the film because he was a union guy. We finally got a new young man called, Rich, who came in and did a beautiful job for us. But that was a big gamble, and it’s something serendipity and good fortune were with us. It was a joy.
(Q) : As a dancer and a singer and someone that used to rehearse a lot, where are you comfortable in having to improvise and making your own lines?
(Julie Andrews) : Yeah, not at first, but then he gave us so much freedom and encouragement, and of course, he suggested things. The crazy thing was we’d be shooting the bedroom scene and they had the lights up in the rafters of our bedroom. It was our bedroom. And then, they have to put it all down at the end of the shoot sometimes late, late at night. Blake and I would say, “well, you don’t mind, fellas, if we just climb into bed because it is rather late.”
And they would still be taking down the wires and the lamps and things like that. I’d been making food and soup for everybody, and sometimes they spent the night on the couch.
(Q) : What was it important for you to have your kids at home?
(Julie Andrews) : Well, he wanted it to be as close knit as easy as possible, and that gift he gave us as a family was huge. The idea of working with my stepdaughter, Jennifer, my lovely Emma, who flew in from New York City and turned down something in order to do this instead, it was a gift. It really was Blake saying, in essence, that the film for him was a remarkable catharsis. He was much better after the film was finished and it kept him so busy and occupied and the depression disappeared. It was a huge relief. But some of the things that I say in the film, that end scene for instance, when I hold him over the coals, and I said, all the things that as a wife, I have wanted to say when he was so depressed, when I didn’t know what was the right thing to do. But for the film, I could. My family and I did it.
It was interesting to watch him coaching Jack Lemmon. He must have been observing himself in his misery. He knew very well where he’d been and what had happened, and laid it on Jack, and showed him. I was stunned. We were all very fond of and loved the film. And of course, for me, working with Emma was a great gift. Blake and Emma had such concerns about my daughter and my taking too much time away from him sometimes, and this was his way of saying, “I’m sorry. Let’s just all get together and be a family.” And it worked. So, talk about a personal film. It truly was a joy.
(Q) : Well, first of all, it was produced independently. Lemmon was one of his favorite actors you said.
(Julie Andrews) : He was one of Blake’s favorite actors. He loved working with Lemmon. And Jack had such a gift of improvisation and Blake said over many films like The Great Race that Jack was in, and so many others, that Blake would say, “Jack!” Lemmon would look up and whatever it was he’d say, “got it, got it.” They were great friends, laughed together a lot. Well they at least three films together, maybe four.
(Q) : And is it true that it was Lemmon who suggested Blake for Days of Wine and Roses, because he thought that the film would have been part of that?
(Julie Andrews) : I don’t know that. It was before I met Blake. That film was made, and he dropped it. He talked very interestingly about Lemmon in the Days of Wine and Roses, because Lemmon drank quite a lot in those days, and Blake said to him one day, “you know, Jack, that’s us on the screen.” Blake drank too. Lemmon got it but ignored it, and Blake got it and didn’t drink any more. And he said he wished that Jack had. But I’m not in any way knocking him because while we were working together, he was superb to work with, easy and loving and wrote me the most beautiful fan letter in the movie. I never had that from another actor. And it was such a warm, lovely thing. He said he so enjoyed it.
(Q) : You said it was one of the happiest sets?
(Julie Andrews) : Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, great sets were happy. That’s no secret. Hollywood hated his guts because he was a bad boy, he tilted at authority and really despised the studio moguls who made it a business rather than an art form. They were not happy with him, and at one point when he didn’t have the final cut of the movie, they ruined a couple of movies. He was heartbroken because it’s like giving birth to a child, you can imagine it’s your baby up there! People would just flock and be natural craftsman on the movie, like hair and makeup cameramen, designers, anybody. They would want to be on the film with Blake because it was such fun. And Blake said to me, he said, “nobody said, you couldn’t have a good time while you’re working hard!” The big wigs up in the studio, you know, in the head offices didn’t quite get that.
(Q) : We were talking a little bit before, and I noticed that this is very clearly a very explicitly personal film, but it feels to me that the films that you two did together, they do all have a degree of autobiography. There is always something that is very related to your life. Talk a little bit about that.
(Julie Andrews) : Yeah. For me to watch Blake work and write. He was first of all a writer and always felt that he was a writer first and foremost, but then, having written the script, he completely discard what he felt he didn’t need as a director, and then when he was editing, he would complete discard what he didn’t feel he needed as an editor. Sometimes as a family, we would say, “Oh, please don’t cut that scene! It doesn’t work. It’s going to drag.” He had very good instincts for each separate piece of the work that he had to do.
The next film today is a film called The Wild Roamers, and I’ll talk a little bit about that at some point. It was very biographical. The dialog in the movie is so typical of the way Blake was in life. And then following that, I mean, 10 was really biographical, S.O.B. was certainly biographical, and is sort of revenge against those Hollywood moguls and then came Victor/Victoria. I think there were about five in a row that were truly, absolutely, 100 percent Blake and his character.
(Q) : I think of the work you two did together was an artistic collaboration to create with a great, great friend. Where you involved with his writing? He was very generously.
(Julie Andrews) : Once he learned to trust me, and all that would ask me to read the pages, and it is very flattering that he did. I have to tell you a funny story. The first film we made was a film called Darling Lili, which was a huge drop. It was a flop, though because the studio got dollar signs in its eyes and kept padding it and padding it, and it wasn’t meant to be that way. But nevertheless, it didn’t succeed, partially because of the Hollywood timing of when it came out and so on. But somebody said, “what’s it like working with Julie?” and he said, “It’s fine accepting that, you know, I’m outside of her when she’s doing a love scene saying, ‘well, that was fine, darling, but I know you can do it better.’” Oh, God. Doing that in front of your husband is not easy.
(Q) : S.O.B. was also on you really?
(Julie Andrews) : It was, it was laughing at my image at the time and I took a gamble and hoped that it would work. And it was again, such fun to do and such a great company. I mean, Brother Christian, Robert Loescher, William Holden and just so many people in that movie that just all loved making it because it was such fun to rip and knock the system just a little bit.
(Q) : It’s one of the things that immediately impressed me, is how much you love and how much you know about the making of the films, the behind the scenes, you know?
(Julie Andrews) : Well, it’s hard not to when you’re married to the guy who’s making them. Although I think he’s become so involved in the film that you’re doing at the time, and it is so interesting. For me, in the early days was such a new…I’ve never made a movie before Marry Poppins so I was living on my feet as fast as I could. I knew Broadway and I knew how to belt out a song, but not Thompson Medium shots, and full-length shots, and over the shoulder shots, and just the amount of work goes into putting the film together.
(Q) : And you said that I think I read on the book that beside Blake, one of the filmmakers that talked to you a lot about making films was Hitchcock?
(Julie Andrews) : Hitchcock was one. Robert Wise was another. And I learned a lot from George Ray Hill, for whom I did two films, and they all taught me something, but Hitchcock taught me about lenses. And I said to him, “I wish I knew more about that.” His director of photography, came up and said, “what should I put on Julie? This or this?” I still don’t remember what he said. And Hitchcock said, “Oh, no, woman, no, you will use this lens.” I said, “I wish I knew more about the difference between the lenses you use.” I get you know, it’s a long shot, medium shot. He said “you don’t know? Every woman should know about the lenses being used on her. You come with me!” We went to the table and he began for 45 minutes to draw me diagrams and show me, and he said, “you see, when you use this kind of lens when you turn to profile, your nose will continue to grow and that’s not good.” Added He was very generous that way and very funny. He had a pride of ownership of his actresses, I think. He was very kind to me.
(Q) : This book is devoted to your Hollywood years.
(Julie Andrews) : The first book of my memoirs was about my early life, and that was called Home. And this is called Homework because it is about the homework that I was doing. Learning this new craft and doing the work on myself and so many other things. I entered therapy at the time because unfortunately, my first marriage had fallen apart and I wasn’t sure about this very charismatic man that I was trying not to fall in love with. I couldn’t help but fall in love with him. I needed some answers, and so, all that was one of the reasons for the title, which is called Homework.
(Q) : It’s partly based on diaries and journals. How long have you been keeping those?
(Julie Andrews) : I did it when I was a child, keep diaries, but they were full of fibs and lies and mostly what I ate at the time. But I think from the mid 60s, about 1965, when I made a film called Hawaii, to really write down everything was going around me, I had begun my therapy and I needed to clear my head. And so, writing down the amazing days on that film, it was a huge epic. It was either the storm at sea, or the fire, or the measles epidemic or something like that, and I just had to note it down. It was so amazing how they managed to pull it all together. So, I started keeping really in-depth daily diaries and I kept those diaries, and I pulled them. We used a great deal of some of the written things from those diaries because they were very real, and revealing, and I hope they entertain too.
People want to open it up to the audience because they probably would like to ask something.
(Q) : hat was the most rewarding experience in getting to work with your husband over and over again? And what was the most difficult experience working with your husband?
(Julie Andrews) : Gosh! The most rewarding would be, I suppose, was to ultimately to watch those screenplays unfolding. If you’re talking about the movies themselves, most rewarding was that he made me laugh like that. I would laugh so hard sometimes. And if he made me laugh at night, I didn’t have the best night’s sleep because I went with it sometimes, his antics which are in this book and you’ll have to read it, I guess. The daunting things were that there were so many times that he came up against union problems or studio problems or the fact that they wanted to put you in his movies, and when that happened, and by that, I mean, he didn’t have final cut in the early days, and so they said, “thank you very much. Now we’re taking your movie away from you and we’ll decide what to keep and what not to keep.”
And the next movie as a matter of fact that came up is, coming up this afternoon, The Wild Roamers was taken away from him. I can tell you that the film hinges on one particular incident and makes the rest of the film work, and it is these two adorable cowboys rob a bank once and it sets in motion so much and becomes this chase, this drama, this beautiful movie, which I think is really quite unusual for Blake’s work. But they took out the bank robbery and it just became a cops and robbers chase and meant nothing. Blake was so unhappy, I mean, it had been a concept, and why change what the author had in mind? Those kinds of things were painful to watch, because if you ever see S.O.B. and Richard Mulligan playing in a way, Blake, screams, “they stole my movie!” And it’s true, they did in those days, and they had a kind of ego, and a cool streak, some of them, unfortunately.
(Q) : You use a word when we’re talking about his work as experimental, if you will. Do you feel it was always experimental?
(Julie Andrews) : He certainly had that. Not always in the early years, I’m sure when he was offered Days of Wine and Roses and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But it was always somewhere in the back of his head, you always watched for be at the party scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is quite a unique scene. And he improvised it, used what he remembered and felt about his scenes that he’d been to, but later, particularly with a film called The Party that was completely improvised as was That’s Life. So, yes, he always had that in the back of his head and he used his own life and crazy, wonderful things that happened to him, to us as the routine of some.
(Q) : Hi. I was wondering if you were thinking about getting back into the movie business, either producing or directing or writing or anything like that?
(Julie Andrews) : Of course, I did quite a number of things from the time this book finishes. I don’t get into The Princess Diaries or any of the other movies that I that I did in the films that I made or television shows that I did, but yes, these days I’ve turned more toward directing, which is a great joy. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do it, and what did I think I could do when you lived alongside somebody is as tremendous as Blake. But of course, I pinched a lot of his stuff, particularly thinking comedically and but also, it’s the giving back in terms of directing. I recently about two years ago went to Australia to recreate My Fair Lady on stage for the sixtieth anniversary. Can you believe that? And oh my God, what a wonderful thing to do. It was the biggest thing I’ve attempted. And it was such a joy. The Australian company was so hungry for information and anything that I could give them in terms of my knowledge. It was a phenomenal production, as much like the original as we could make it. I was only a small cog in the wheel in the actual show on Broadway. I happened to play Eliza Doolittle, but now to direct the entire piece of that very important musical. It’s quite something.
(Q) : I think the first part of this question was about how do you collaborate artistically with Blake?
(Julie Andrews) : Well, at first, I watched a lot and I think he was nervous directing his new lady. I was certainly very nervous. I had to live up to what I thought he might want, and I didn’t know what he might need on film, but the more I knew him, the easier it became. There was a lot of laughter as well, but we didn’t take any of the stuff home at night if we could help it. We had a big family back home and once the filming was done for the day, it was done. There is one story which is a lovely story. Darling Lili was the first film we did do together and the opening of Darling Lili is one take that lasted seven minutes, maybe five minutes.
It starts in close up and out of darkness with a spotlight on my face, and I’m on the stage singing, and the camera follows me and begins to pull back, follows me across the stage, down the side of the stage, goes around behind me and then follows me across the stage. You can imagine, we had to light it, I had to hit my marks with a kind of precision. I didn’t dare not lip sync properly because it was prerecorded, obviously. Cameramen, had to pull cables out of the way. As the camera went around itself, the focus puller had to focus different lengths depending on what the shot was. If you goofed up, if anybody goofed up, you had to go right to the beginning. If you goofed up, it was heartbreaking, and the closer you got to the end, the more you thought, “don’t muck it up now!” It was one of those truly satisfying pieces of film at the end of the day with Black that he was again, sort of experimental, I think, with just a lovely concept. It worked and I’m very, very proud of him.