In the Disney film "Saving Mr. Banks," Colin Farrell plays the inspiration for the title character. He portrays the alcoholic real-life father of Mary Poppins creator, P.L. Travers, played as a young girl by newcomer Annie Rose Buckley and as a deeply damaged adult by Emma Thompson.
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The woman who dreamed up the world-famous nanny had a troubled childhood with her wildly imaginative but irresponsible father, Travers Goff, in rural Australia. Years later, in England, she took her father's name as her pseudonym and the character of Mr. Banks, on whose doorstep Mary Poppins magically appears, was loosely drawn on her beloved but tragic father.
Farrell talked with Moviefone about his own experience as a young lad working at (and getting fired from) a bank and why his own children have no idea that he's an actor.
Moviefone: Have you ever had a job as soul-deadening as Travers did at the bank?
Colin Farrell: Have I? I worked at a bank. Yeah. I didn't work as a teller. I certainly didn't work as a bank manager. I wouldn't have had the education. I worked as a "check detective." And in Australia! National Australia Bank. That's funny. I'd forgotten that.
How old were you?
I was 17... I'd just turned 18. I was living in Sydney with two friends from Dublin. We got this job in a bank. We went to an employment agency and they put us in this vault. If your account was debited $50 and you didn't know why and it was by check, we'd have to go into this vault of millions of checks and find the particular number. For an eight-hour shift, your allotment was 12. You had to find 12 checks a day, so that'll tell you how much time they gave you to find each check. You had 40 minutes to find each one. That was pretty deadening. And it took me three months to paint a warehouse one summer.
How long did you work at the bank?
It might have been only a month or two before we were fired. We were all fired the same day, three boys. [Grins] We took a "standard lunch" in the pub. I'll never forget, I swear to God, I remember seeing the door open and a shadow cast like John Wayne and it was her, in her red National Australia skirt and blouse. And she said [snaps fingers] and the three of us got fired that day.
Why did you want to play this part?
This, as far as period and as far as what Travers goes through in his life, as far as the sensibility of it and the emotionality of it, it felt very particular from anything I've ever done. He was just so well-written. [Kelley] Marcel just wrote such a gorgeous script, you know? I wanted to be part of the script as much as I wanted to play the character, which isn't always the way. Usually one kind of outweighs the other. There was a tandem, a harmony in the script where, regardless of the size of the character, no character seemed less well-drawn than the complete script.
When you realized you didn't have scenes with most of the cast, you threw a party for them all.
Yeah, yeah. It was fun. They all came over to the house. It really was, it was cool. Emma and B.J. [Novak] and Paul Giamatti and Bradley [Whitford] and [director] John [Lee Hancock] and his wife and kids. We ate at the back of the garden and then I put on "Mary Poppins." I felt like a nerd going, "C'mon, everyone, we're going to sit down," because everyone was talking. So I just put it on in the living room with the door open and I kind of turned it up a bit. And, people were like "Oh, is the film on?" They all made their own way in like moths to a flame, so we all sat around and watched it. It was cool. It was a really lovely evening. I'm glad I had that night out, actually, for myself. It's a bunch of actors whose work I really respected that I knew I wasn't going to get to be around.
When did you first see "Mary Poppins"?
I can't remember. But it was certainly way back into my single digits. It doesn't register as a significant part of my upbringing or childhood like it does for so many. "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"? Yes. "Mary Poppins," not so much. But I've seen it since and it's an extraordinary film, really.
You'll never look at it the same away again now.
No. Yes, we hang onto its coattails a bit, and way after the fact like a fair-weather friend, but I feel part of it in a way now, which is lovely. I'll play it for my boys. I wonder what they'll think of it.
Oh, they haven't seen it yet?
Nope, not yet. I think this Christmas we'll watch it.
Travers is such an imaginative, if irresponsible character. How important would you say imagination is to you, as a father and an actor?
I think imagination's essential. I don't think there's a lot of beauty or joy that comes from life, true joy, without some sense of imagination. As a child, that's the most astonishing thing about children and the most moving, profound thing about children; they haven't been formed or shaped by the hardened rules of the physical world yet. They come to the external world from a place of their eternal life and their eternal emotion and their eternal intellect. I think it's something that we, understandably, lose touch with as we go through life. We can't just exist from there, I don't think. You can, if you go off and live in the desert on your own, maybe. I think that's one of Travers's big downfalls. He doesn't know how to harmonize between the child within him and the adult who has a world of responsibility and chore.
But for me, as a man, as an actor, it's essential. It's really just experience, multiplied by imagination. The experience of somebody else whose story you're trying to tell, the experience that you've been through in every moment of your life and the imagination of what it might be to meld the two and create something completely new. As a dad, I'm having to reacquaint myself with my own imagination because I don't want my sleepiness to infect my kids. I don't want my jadedness with the physical world, I don't want that to hinder my children's ability to stay alive in the world of their own imagination and their own truth. I think there's a lot more truth in imagination than there is in the physical world. That's why dreams are so profound. Dreams are a perfect representation of imagination, unbridled. They hold truths that our waking minds won't even allow us to even broach. Imagination's just the same.
Will you show your kids this movie?
Nah. In years to come, maybe. If they want.
Which of your movies have they seen?
None. They don't know I'm an actor! I must get on that. They saw a cartoon, "Epic," that I did. They were kind of like, "Whatever."
Did they even realize you were voicing a character in it?
No. And I said a line in the movie and then I said the line to the little guy, and I felt so dirty as soon as I did it. And he didn't get it.
How old are they now?
Henry's 4 and James is 10. James has a very particular way of processing and understanding the world. He's special needs. So I completely fry his brain if I showed him this. And Henry as well. It hasn't come up, really.
Would you like to do a movie that they'll enjoy more?
That would be cool, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, for years to come. I think that'd be fun. Would it be fun? Yeah, it would be nice. They could enjoy it with me. They'd ask, "What are you doing up there in those silly tights?" As a dad, you want to do things that impress your kids, things that make them like you. And there's trouble in that as well.
"Saving Mr. Banks" is in theaters now.