BEVERLY HILLS - Call it unusual casting.
No, not the choice of Tom Hanks, for the mustachioed Walt Disney. But the method.
"I got the call from (Disney CEO) Bob Iger, which is a weird call to get," Hanks says. "'Hey listen, we sort of have to make this movie and we'd like to have someone well known playing someone who is well known. So would you do it?' I said, 'Well, I get it, OK. All right. Thanks,' says Hanks, settling into a couch at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "But immediately it just becomes this burden, the quest for authenticity."
In Saving Mr. Banks (in select theaters Friday), Hanks plays Disney in 1961, a time when the corporate visionary is reveling in a decade of box office smash hits and the uproariously successfulDisneyland.
But first he's determined to turn a 20-year quest to adapt the beloved children's taleMary Poppins into his next cinematic triumph. "He was at the apex of everything -- he was also very near the end of everything as well," says Hanks (Disney died in 1966). "Mary Poppins was the last movie that he was truly hands-on."
There was only one thorn: the resistant British Poppins author, P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson).
"I loved the fact that she was so rude to everyone," says Thompson, gorgeous and chatty. She casually pulls off her clip-on earrings as she talks, intimate and entirely unlike the testy, tightly curled Travers, who once occupied a room at this very hotel for two weeks as Disney tried valiantly to sway release of her infamous nanny. (It's these two contentious weeks Saving Mr. Banks focuses on.)
"I like unpleasant people very much sometimes, especially difficult, strong women," she continues, settling into her oversized armchair. "If you're not threatened by them, if they're not using you as a whipping person, they're often terribly interesting underneath."
Saving Mr. Banks finds Travers in her 60s, strapped for cash and grimacing as she travels to Los Angeles, nauseated at the stuffed and candy-coated trappings of Disney's empire. His composers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman, as the Oscar-winning Sherman brothers), she finds coddled and repellant. The idea of turning her tale into a musical? Abhorrent. Her common refrain? "No" -- particularly when it came to the casting of Dick Van Dyke. (Julie Andrews passed muster.)
Disney's and Travers' friction was a duel for the ages, with nary a viable spoonful of sugar within reach. "It felt like such a good balance, these two artists at the top of their game, really, and both rather ruthless," says Thompson.
"Oh yeah," says Hanks. "In very different ways. The charmer and the harpy."
"I've never seen that played out," says Thompson. "Especially between the male and the female."
"We only hint at the fact - we don't even know where they stand," says Hanks. "Do they get along or do they still hate each other? The fact is, they still hated each other. But they also got along in order to make the money and sign the checks."
Saving Mr. Banks simultaneously digs into Travers' painful childhood, revealing how the loss of her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) gave root to the story of an assured nanny who arrives to magically lift children from an unhappy home. Rewriting an unsteady youth was something she and Disney unknowingly shared.
"When he died (Travers) swallows him whole, I think," says Thompson. "She spent the rest of her life trying to metabolize that inhalation. And Mary Poppins was one way of dealing with it. Because Mary Poppins is quite hard sometimes. She's quite hard-edged, she's quite cruel. But, what she does, inevitably and always, is make magical situations arise for the children where the children just are free."
Disney, too, cast a Mouse-shaped wand over his childhood "over and over," says Hanks. "Main Street U.S.A; he made the most idealistic version of small-town Missouri, which is where he lived for so much of it - where everything is welcoming. Candy shops and newsstands and magic stores and emporiums and penny arcades and a place where you can get ice cream.
"All that he did was going back and saying that the imagination can always transport you out of whatever gully you are living in. and I think that's the way he lived his life."
Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) compares Hanks and Thompson's on-screen chemistry dueling to Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
"There were times when I would forget to yell cut because I was so busy watching Emma Thompson act," says Hancock. And Hanks "makes everything look so easy that sometimes you take for granted the work that goes behind it," says the director. "He worked very, very hard."
After years of acclaim, what does Oscar mean to these two heavyweights?
It's still "a delightful thing," says Hanks, who may well be up for two nominations, withBanks and Captain Phillips in contention. "It's fabulous."
Thompson, too, has momentum; she was just named best actress by the National Board of Review for her portrayal of Travers. She admits there's "just something about Oscar. It doesn't, I don't think, feel the same as any of the other awards ceremonies. And I don't mean to be disloyal to BAFTA or the Cesar, or anything like that. But there's something about Oscar because of the people you've seen holding them, actually."
And watching Mary Poppins now, having played those who powered it?
"It's a little bit like when you walk down a familiar street and you know who lives in the houses," says Thompson. "It makes it more interesting, not less."