WILLIAMS, OLIVIA: PETER PAN
Breakfast in Australia was a symbolic joy for Olivia Williams, who plays Wendyís mum Mrs Darling in P.J. Hoganís Peter Pan, shot in Queensland. And her challenge was to make it a good thing for the children to come home from their amazing adventure, she tells Jenny Cooney Carrillo.
Olivia Williams made her film debut opposite Kevin Costner in The Postman (1987) but when the film died at the box-office, the English actress returned home and buried herself in theatre work. Now, after credits including A Knightís Tale, The Man From Elysian Fields and The Sixth Sense, sheís in the big-budget live action Peter Pan, directed by Australian P.J. Hogan, playing Mrs Darling, the mother of Wendy. The 35-year-old actress is also expecting her first child next April with husband Rhashan Stone.
In Peter Pan, Wendy is afraid of becoming a woman. What was your own experience?
Iíd never go back to those times. It was terrifying and that combination of curiosity and fear and not understanding the power of eroticism in our culture and just as you begin to understand what it is, you also learn you have no idea what to do with it. Iím already afraid for my child who hasnít been born! I do remember the first time I got wolf whistled in the street and this mixture of pride and fear I felt at thirteen or fourteen and until then I was a tomboy with short hair and no boobs and every time I went to the loo, people said, Ďthe gents is down the hallí and Iíd say, Ďbut Iím a lady!í I think P.J. has captured that cuspy age which is perfect for Wendy, where you can see a completely innocent and entirely beautiful kiss that doesnít mean anything else. I donít know many other directors who could capture that combination.†
What did Peter Pan mean to you growing up?
I was obsessed with being able to fly when I was little and I think I would have committed any crime to lay my hands on fairy dust back then. So itís rather ironic that I get to be in Peter Pan but not do any flying. There was a wonderful production of the play in London not so long ago which I loved, and I loved the surreal idea of the dog being the nanny in the film too.
Were childhood stories important to you?
My father read to me and my sister every night and I still canít go to sleep without reading a page of a book. He read Jungle Book and introduced me to lots of great literature and I went to university because of that early influence. In the film, the kids donít have gameboys but they are playing with toys and imagining their father as Captain Hook and I loved that.
Do you think audiences will accept some of the changes made in the film?
Ian McKellen played Mr. Darling in the play Barrie wrote and one of the only deviations is that he filled the role alone of being a disciplinarian father but in order for it to be a happy ending for the children to come home, P.J. Hogan brought in Lynn Redgrave as the disciplinarian aunt so that the father wouldnít have to be so tough that the children really would not want to come home to him. I think the point about this Mr Darling is that heís very strict and mean when he drags Nana the dog out to the dog house and the children fear him and donít respect him, but when they come back they are moved by his tears at their arrival and itís a beautiful family reunion. One of the challenges for me was to make it a good thing for them to come home. Kids love to stay the night at a friendís house, eat too much candy and not get enough sleep but coming home and getting your mum to tuck you into your own bed at night with a kiss should be one of the greatest joys of childhood and that was the great challenge for me, making people want Wendy to come home and not stay with Peter Pan.
How was your experience living in Australia while making Peter Pan?
There is this wonderful expression when you arrive on the set and on every production there is a person whose job it is to ask you what you want for breakfast. In England they are asking with resentment because of the class thing and they want you to be absolutely aware of the fact that they donít think they should have to wait on you but they are being forced to do it. In the United States they are very service oriented and enthusiastic about getting you whatever you want. In Australia, whatever I told them I wanted for breakfast, theyíd just smile and say Ďtoo easy!í and that was a term that really described them on the set. Nothing was too difficult. Nothing was a drama. We got a great welcome and all of the crew were amazing. I also got to go on some crazy expeditions when I wasnít working and the other thing I loved was that it is clearly a culture thatís aware of children, as there is always somewhere for them to play and restaurants and hotels looking out for them.†
You are now based in London. Did you ever move to Hollywood after The Postman to pursue your movie career?
I never lived there. Iíve always spent three months of every year there and I made The Man from Elysian Fields there but Iím entirely open and willing to live there if someone will hire me!†
Looking back on your experience on The Postman, how did it affect your career?
It taught me to take every single thing as a treat and an experience. The Postman was a wonderful experience to make but it bombed horribly. If Iíd set my heart on being enormously rich and successful, I would have been devastated with the end result but at the time I was just amazed that they fed us for free. On stage you bring your packed lunch with you and I remember working on that movie and getting caught by someone while I was sliding a dish full of cookies into my bag and they said, Ďtheyíll be here tomorrow!í What Iíve learned about my career from that experience is that - the cookies will be here tomorrow!
Why donít we see more of you in films?
I didnít know box office was a thing you could possess but I donít have it. I go up for lovely roles and people with this nebulous thing called box office get them so there isnít much I can do about that unless you know where I can get some box-office myself! Iím now reproducing a species so you wonít see me for a year or so and then I hope Iíll be asked back. As an actor you donít choose your career, unless you are one of the five actors who do, but I just take the best roles on offer and I felt very blessed that I got the opportunity to make Peter Pan and work in Australia.
How do you feel about pending motherhood?
Iíve always wanted to have children. I didnít spend years doggedly pursuing an acting career and then decide to be a mother. I was hoping to be a mother years ago and met a man eight years ago who waited all this time to say he loved me. I said, Ďnow you tell me! You could have saved me from all those other men, or the real Peter Pans who never grew up!í So with all my friends who have children, Iíve learned from them that all your plans have to be thrown out the window and you just have to wait and see what kind of child you have and how that will dictate your life. Kate Beckinsale breastfed on the set of Pearl Harbor but another friend of mine who was a career lawyer before she had hers now wants to do nothing but stay home, so I guess Iíll have to wait and see.
Published December 18, 2003
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