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Nanny McPhee Returns – How Emma Thompson creation is ageless and timeless

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Nanny McPhee Returns - Emma Thompson
Nanny McPhee Returns - Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) © 2010 Universal Pictures

Five years after the successful movie Nanny McPhee was released, Emma Thompson, who starred in title role as well as writing the screenplay, is back in both capacities for Nanny McPhee Returns.

This time the magical nanny turns up at the door of Mrs Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is trying to run the family farm while her husband, Rory (Ewan McGregor), is away at war. Her three children are constantly fighting, and on top of that her posh niece and nephew have been sent from battle torn London to stay with them, even though the village warden warns them that bombs could fall out of the sky at any moment.

Nanny McPhee realizes that these warring cousins need her assistance, teaching them to share, love and help each other. Emma Thompson spoke about the sequel recently in Los Angeles.

How does this sequel relate to the original movie?

Nanny McPhee Returns - Emma Thompson
Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) © 2010 Universal Pictures

In both films, there’s a prevailing sense of absence. In the first film, the absence is caused by the death of Mrs Brown who’s had too many children, which was very true for that era. In the second film, it is the father’s absence in a war, which was true of that era and, unfortunately, of the era we live in now.

In this movie, Nanny McPhee travels through time and space to visit a new family. Were you worried that would change the origins of the story?

Nanny McPhee is ageless and timeless. Who knows how long she’s been visiting families or how many families she’s visited? Once we made the decision to move her through time, I knew immediately where I wanted to put her: wartime.

I wanted her to visit a family in which the father was away at war, and the mother was home trying to hold everything together. (This story created) new problems for the children, new problems for the parent and five new lessons for Nanny McPhee to teach.

There’s a scene in the movie where the children are watching synchronized swimming by piglets in a pond – I hear you jumped into the pond to help out the young actors react, can you tell us a little about that?

In the synchronized swimming scene, the children were required to react with spontaneous and unbounded delight to an empty pond, and that’s a very difficult thing for children, or even adults, to act. So what you’re watching in that scene is children laughing with unbounded and spontaneous delight at me, drowning. That just shows you the kind of respect there was on that set!

I didn’t just jump in the pond, they were looking at me being dragged into the pond by the First A.D., and then I swam out into the middle and did a bit of synchronized swimming of my own. I believe there’s a little extra on the DVD that has that bit, because I think one of the cameras turned around and (shot) it.

In the movie Nanny McPhee has an animal companion, a jackdaw named Mr Edelweiss. How was your relationship with the jackdaw you had to work with?

Nanny McPhee Returns - Emma Thompson and Maggie Gyllenhaal
Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) and Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) © 2010 Universal Pictures

Nanny McPhee has a relationship with Mr Edelweiss that’s miles more normal than her relationship with the children she looks after. She gets very irritable with this bird in a way that she doesn’t ever get irritable with her charges.

We trained with the birds for months. I loved that. I really grew very fond of my jackdaws Al and Devil and Dorian – they were just great. I worked with six to start with, and then it was narrowed down to three – one was better at flying, another was a little more cheeky, one could dart out from under my skirt, and so on.

What was the challenge to write a family film that is set in the middle of a war?

It’s a good question, because when I said to Lindsay (Doran, the movie’s producer), ‘I think it would be good if there was a war background, but I don’t think we should be too specific. It is going to be the Second World War, but not so that you’d really know. I don’t want references to Germany.’ The idea being that I wanted a father to be absent.

We saw other people about the direction (of the film) and quite a lot of them said, ‘I’d really like (for them to) go into London to see all the bombed out craters.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think so. This isn’t about war, it’s about absence, the possibility of loss, but it’s not about war.’

It’s about the small war that occurs between the two groups of children. It’s a perfect backdrop to create another actual war between two factions, it’s a piece of territory where new people come and are not wanted and are regarded as invaders.

You got your star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood yesterday. How does that feel to you being British?

Nanny McPhee Returns - Emma Thompson
Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) © 2010 Universal Pictures

I was incredibly touched. If you do a piece of work and you think it’s good, there’s a possibility that you might be up for (an award). But with this you haven’t done anything, it’s not specific to a piece of work. It’s just someone rings you up and says, ‘We’re going to cement you into the city.’

I first came here when I was 14 years old, my dad was directing the play The Norman Conquests at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and he brought me, my sister and my uncle over.

It was the most surreal experience, because I’d never been to America, so Hollywood was this absolutely unreal world. The only place my dad had time to take us was Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to look at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I thought it was a lovely thing then to put the names of people who have made this city the legend that it is into the paving stones.

I thought that was just so cool when I was little. And the fact they’ve done it for me just seems quite unreal. Plus I’m right outside a pub, and not only outside a pub but literally it’s my name you stand on as you walk in and it’s my name you stand on has you reel out!