One of Britain’s most accomplished actresses, Gemma Jones is best known to American audiences as Bridget’s mother in Bridget Jones’s Diary and as Madam Poppy Pomfrey, the matron of the Hospital Wing of Hogwarts School in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and the upcoming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
In Woody Allen’s new movie You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Jones portrays Helena, whose husband Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) has left her for a young call girl named Charmaine. A devastated Helena tries to kill herself, then finding no consolation from medicine and therapy, seeks out the help of a fortune teller to guide her in every aspect of her life.
Can you talk about coming onto the project, and working with Woody Allen?
I’m amazed to have had this experience. In fact, it’s only just beginning to sink in. When I in Toronto I saw this poster for the first time, and I looked at it and went, ‘Wow, a Woody Allen film.’
I screen-tested, I didn’t meet him, and the tests were sent to New York. I had two little scenes to test with, and I heard that I got the role and the casting director said to me, ‘It’s a really great role.’ I said, ‘Are there more than just those two scenes?’ He said, ‘Yes.’
Then I got a bit worried because I’d heard that Woody Allen doesn’t hand out his scripts, he just gives you pages. But they did get me a script ahead of time and I was so thrilled when I read it. But I would have done two scenes for Woody Allen, no question.
Have you ever worked with Anthony Hopkins before?
I have worked with him, but not in the theatre funnily enough. We did a recording of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood together. We both come from Wales so they employed every Welsh actor in British Equity. We do share a background in the theatre and happily we have friends in common. We felt like we knew each other more than we did.
What’s he like to work with?
He’s lovely to work with, really caring and generous and he was so much more experienced that I am in film, I felt very safe with him.
The movie takes place in England, but Woody Allen wrote it, did you find that it was written in a British way or did you have to change anything?
Yes, we had great liberty to change (dialogue), there were American idioms in it, and he wasn’t precious about it. The tendency is for all the characters to talk like Woody, even the women. So he’s very keen that you make it your own.
Have you ever been to a psychic in real life?
I never have, no, I’m afraid I’m a skeptic. My major challenge was to play someone who believed that it was possible. I just used my imagination. My character was so desperate to believe it, that she does. And of course, it’s self-manifesting, she’s so keen for it to happen, that it does.
Woody Allen is apparently very quiet on set and doesn’t direct the actors very much – was that disconcerting?
Initially I found it very disconcerting, because I realized this was a big responsibility, and I wasn’t getting any feedback at all. I got a little bit worried. I didn’t know whether he thought I was good or bad, or would I last the course, because he is known to get rid of people. But then I got used to it. I thought, ‘Come on, I’m a grown up, professional actress, I can do the job.’
That actually gives you a certain amount of confidence, because he’s very trusting of his actors. He will tell you if he’s not pleased. He’s wonderfully honest actually, he doesn’t flatter unnecessarily. I enjoyed it once I got used to it.
How does this compare with doing a massive production like the Harry Potter movies?
That was a great pleasure to be a part of, but I don’t have a very big role. It couldn’t be more different. It’s a wonderful repertory company of British actors in those roles, and lot of people I know. (There’s) a hell of an amount of hanging about, because the structure is so huge. So a lot of time was spent in each others’ trailers having a jolly good gossip and a very nice time – and fighting the Death Eaters with my wand, so I had a good time.
I’ve done three of them. I did the second, fourth and the last film, so I’ve watched those children grow up. I talked to Emma and Daniel on this last film, because I was kind of maternally concerned for them, because it’s such a huge experience and it was going to come to an end. I wasn’t there on the last day of the last shot, but I think they were finding it very hard to take in that it was coming to an end.
Anything you can tell us about the final film?
I do a lot of fighting with my wand. And at my age and stage it’s a very good workout. I was like, ‘Oh not again,’ (demonstrates fighting with her wand).
Did you get to keep you wand?
No, I didn’t. That wand had to be handed back religiously every day.
In your entire acting career is there a moment that stands out for you?
Oh golly. I’ve always enjoyed doing things that stretch myself. I did play Sally Bowles in Cabaret which I absolutely loved and I worked so hard on my dancing and singing. I really enjoyed that. That is definitely a highlight. And the other was being a part of Peter Brooks’ original production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that toured Europe, America, Japan, Australia, and that was a great experience.