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The Ladies of the Castle: Penelope Wilton and Rebecca Hall from The BFG

Thank you to Disney for sponsoring my attendance at #TheBFGEvent!

Penelope and Rebecca

Coralie Seright –

I’ll confess that one of the reasons I was excited to interview Penelope Wilton was her role in Downton Abbey. Not to mention, she was just made a Dame by the Queen of England. That makes this a lovely counter-balance to my The Jungle Book interview with Sir Ben Kingsley. And Rebecca Hall? Who doesn’t want to interview a member of the Extremis team? (An Iron Man 3 reference, in case you missed it.)

How did they get involved in The BFG?

Penelope: Well, I got a phone call and my agent got a phone call and said Steven Spielberg wants you to do this film, The BFG, and I said yes. It’s as simple as that. If Steven Spielberg wants you to do a movie, you do it. Wouldn’t you say?

Rebecca: Yes, I would. I had exactly the same thing. I got a call saying it’s not a very big part but he has asked specifically for you to do it. It’s very flattering. So I’m like well, I’ll do it, of course I will. Also, BFG is, you know, a book that as a child I loved, so even before I’d read the script or knew what the part was, I was like, yes, certainly I want to be a part of that, of course.

Penelope: So that was quite a simple answer.

Director Steven Spielberg, Penelope Wilton, Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall on the set of Disney's THE BFG, based on the best-sellling book by Roald Dahl.

Director Steven Spielberg, Penelope Wilton, Rafe Spall and Rebecca Hall on the set of Disney’s THE BFG, based on the best-sellling book by Roald Dahl.

Did Penelope’s work on The BFG and Downton Abbey overlap?

Penelope: I hadn’t started the last series, so they were very accommodating. Because Julian hadn’t written it all, he sort of worked around me a bit, for just over a month and then that was fine.


Coralie Seright –

What is it like being a Dame?

Penelope: Well, it’s rather surreal, actually, to be quite honest with you, being a dame. When I found out about, when they asked me to do it about seven weeks ago, they write to you and they sent it to the wrong address. Then another one went out to my agent and then it said priority, because obviously they hadn’t heard. They asked you if you would-if they put your name forward, if the Prime Minister puts your name forward to the Queen-would you accept it? So, I said I would. And then they said you must not tell anybody until it’s released, which was six weeks after. And then there was a total silence and of course then I thought I dreamt that. That didn’t happen. I made that up. I just had a dream. And then it wasn’t until a week last Sunday, then it came. Saturday it came out on papers and it did actually say my name so then I thought, “Oh, thank God.” I hadn’t told anyone but my daughter and my sisters. They would have been a bit disappointed as, indeed, I would have been.

What was it like working with Ruby?

Penelope: Oh she’s a darling. Well, we both loved working with her and Rebecca will tell you, she’s got the most wonderful sense of humor and she’s a lovely girl. She also takes direction very well, doesn’t she? And she concentrates, and when you’re young, repetition is really boring. I mean, you do it twice and then why would you ever want to do it again? And she sort of managed it, didn’t she?
Rebecca: Yeah, no she was a consummate professional. But I also remember it was all of that sort of stuff, the acting, the repetition and what-she was brilliant-but she was also brilliant at just being a person on a set. I remember her knowing everyone’s name, the crew and the like coming in in the morning and being, “All right, how are you doing, Jim, all right?” You know, that sort of thing. I remember her being…
Penelope: Very professional.
Rebecca: Astonishing. And she just really, really made me laugh all the time. She made me….work out dance routines and she gave me a nickname because of my purple dress. I was Purple Swan for some reason. And she called Rafe something else. I can’t remember what it was.
Penelope: She called me Queen.
Rebecca: Queen, Queenie.
Penelope: But she was wonderful because also she worked…Steven worked tremendously well with her, and worked very fast when it came to-the scenes took a while to set up. Once the scenes were setup, he worked very fast, didn’t he? So, you know, the boredom level is minimized because otherwise it becomes…you have to be spontaneous, especially if you haven’t…if you’re young, you haven’t learned about repetition and that is a difficult thing. I find it pretty hard.
Rebecca: Well, because acting is quite close to sort of games you play in the playground, but you don’t have to do it again and again and again. I mean, you have everybody believe once in the playground that you’re the Queen and I’m the thing, you know, then it’s great.
Penelope: It’s on to something else.
Rebecca: And it’s on to something else.


Coralie Seright –

Do they have a favorite scene from the movie?

Penelope: I like the dreams, because it’s written in the book that they catch the dreams but Steven made the dreams so beautiful and then the angry dreams, the red dreams, when they get caught in the bottle, when they go under the water, I loved that. I thought that was a lovely sequence but there were so many. I mean, I loved the giants.
Rebecca: Yeah, I did too. Actually, I’ve got to say, it’s when you have a problem with wind, is probably my favorite.
Penelope: Very basic.
Rebecca: Very basic. It’s brilliant. It’s so funny.
Penelope: And we had fun playing that scene because Rafe had to do his proper moment before we did ours, so we all gazed at him while he did his. It would come in silence, then all right, Rafe, the camera is on you and then he had to do whizpopping, but you know, it’s a private moment that you don’t often see.
Rebecca: Well, at least we’ve all experienced it.

Disney's THE BFG is the imaginative story of a young girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the Big Friendly Giant (Oscar (TM) winner Mark Rylance) who introduces her to the wonders and perils of Giant Country. Penelope Wilton is the Queen. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film is based on the beloved book by Roald Dahl.

Was there a hint at the end of the movie that Mary becomes a mother figure for Sophie?

Penelope: It could be.
Rebecca: It could be, yeah, you’re right. I mean, you know, put it out there, yeah.
Penelope: A very good idea.
Rebecca: Very good idea.
Penelope: Actually I think the water hints at that. There was a window of opportunity there.
Rebecca: Yeah, set it up.

What do they want people to take away from the film?

Penelope: Well, I would-on the very basic level-I want people to enjoy being taken to that world because it’s a wonderful story written by a great storyteller meeting another great storyteller and a visual storyteller, so if you get those two together, it’s a wonderful combination. But, also, it-like all these stories-it is people learning to understand themselves and learn that you have to just believe in yourself. And little Sophie, who doesn’t have much, but when she meets somebody who has even less than she does and he’s 20 foot tall, they sort of work as a good team and they-both of them-understand that they are outside the norm and they give each other confidence. And when you have confidence in yourself, you can take on the world. And I think that’s the overall message of the movie, which is the message of a lot of very good children’s literature. There’s always a pursuit and a pursuer and in the end you have to turn around and face the bully and if you do that, the world opens up, I think, in a very, very wonderful way. Not in the sort of preachy way. The magical way, that’s what the movie is saying.

Disney's THE BFG is the imaginative story of a young girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the Big Friendly Giant (Oscar (TM) winner Mark Rylance) who introduces her to the wonders and perils of Giant Country. Penelope Wilton is the Queen and Rebecca Hall is Mary. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film is based on the beloved book by Roald Dahl.

Did they take inspiration for their character from the children’s book?

Rebecca: I couldn’t, because actually Mary in the book is very much a maid. I mean, she’s drawn by Quentin Blake in a maid’s outfit and…even a feather duster. So it’s a very different sort of character that Melissa Mathison and Steven sort of created and I think that it was conscious…to create something of a potential mother figure for Sophie at the end and the sense that also that she’s more of a P.A. than a [maid]. You know, the sort of right-hand woman. And that gives her a bit more authority, I suppose. Yeah, so I couldn’t basically.
Penelope: Well, I think that’s true. I think that you can’t always do exactly what’s written and it’s a disappointment to some people because they have made up their own minds as to how they see that person when they read the book. Children, they do it in pictures in their head. I know I do. But I thought the best way to play the Queen was to try and be the Queen-our Queen-as best I could. Because if I had made a fantasy Queen in a fantasy [story], they would have cancelled each other out. But if you have a real Queen in an extraordinary situation, then it’s a much more interesting story, wouldn’t you say? So that’s what I….and I think Rebecca, we’ve played them very straight and then we were put into this extraordinary situation and then it works better because then this is sort of…then there’s a change. Something happens, it’s not…
Rebecca: A contrast.
Penelope: A contrast exactly.

What makes this film special to them?

Penelope: I’m lucky. Steven Spielberg has done great things in my life, in my career, actually. So that was special. Also, this is a wonderful story, it’s wonderful to be part of something that, I hope, a whole generation of young children will remember like they did E.T. Because it will be a stand up moment in film. So for all those reasons. Also, I met and worked with Rebecca here, so that was lovely, too.
Rebecca: I think we probably met when I was a child.
Penelope: Yes because I worked with Rebecca’s father, Sir Peter Hall, when he ran the National Theater, so I remember when she was born.
Rebecca: And I remember a figure who I’ve always admired and loved from a far, so it was a real treat to get to work properly with you. But yes, I think, I very much second what you said. It’s a combination of, for me personally, it’s the combination of two such hugely influential people in my childhood, Roald Dahl and Steven Spielberg. As a child those were…the creative output of both those people really influenced me and I loved and so it was sort of the opportunity to have both of those together was wonderful.

Penelope and Rebecca Bloggers

You can find full coverage of #TheBFGEvent right here on As The Bunny Hops!

The talents of three of the world’s greatest storytellers – Roald Dahl, Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg –finally unite to bring Dahl’s beloved classic The BFG to life. Directed by Spielberg, Disney’s The BFG tells the imaginative story of a young girl and the Giant who introduces her to the wonders and perils of Giant Country.

The BFG opens in U.S. theaters on July 1, 2016, the year that marks the 100th anniversary of Dahl’s birth.

As The Bunny Hops®