Now playing in theaters is Saving Mr. Banks, the new film from The Blind Side director John Lee Hancock. Based on a true story, the pic focuses on Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) twenty-year pursuit of the film rights to author P.L. Travers’ (Emma Thompson) novel Mary Poppins and the rocky relationship that formed between the two when she finally came to Hollywood. Loaded with great performances, a strong script, and the first time Walt Disney has been portrayed on screen, Banks is a likely contender for this year’s award season. The film also stars Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker, and Colin Farrell.
At the recent Los Angeles press day, I landed an exclusive interview with Schwartzman, who plays Mary Poppins songwriter Richard Sherman. He talked about how he got involved in the project, the way he prepared for the role, how nervous he was about singing on camera, and a lot more. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
Collider: You’re playing real people and it’s based on a real-life situation. Do you get more intimidated, as an actor, trying to do the real performance? Talk a little bit about preparing for the role.
JASON SCHWARTZMAN: I would say that there’s always a feeling of, “I hope this works.” Because at least from my standpoint is that, the actor, the first day or first few days are the scariest because that’s the moment when you start to say these words out loud and you start to wonder if people are like, “What the hell’s going on here?” It’s always scary but playing someone who’s real and alive, and knowing they’re going to be there every day, that was definitely really—that was heavy. The singing out loud part was heavy too, knowing I would have to sing a lot. I’ve recorded music and when I sing for this Coconut Records thing I’m in a studio and I can double track my voice. But Richard [Sherman] is singing out loud and really going for it and when I got the part it was like, “Oh man. It’s gonna come. It’s gonna happen. I’m gonna have to sing this thing. I’m gonna have to sing.” And Richard’s like, “It doesn’t have to be good.”
For me, it’s super scary and Richard is also beloved within the songwriting community and the Disney community. I’ve definitely felt like, “Man, I hope that I honor him.” When I went to his house, he was just so cool to me and kind to me, and he said, “Just love music and you’re going to be alright.” And then he said this thing which was kind of funny where he’s like, “Oh don’t worry, I’ve already done everything. You just be you doing the things I did.” And that kind of was really funny to hear because you could just see that he understood. He’s like, “We’re going to make this movie. It’s okay, you’re gonna be great. We’re gonna hang out, we’re gonna spend time together.” His kindness towards me alleviated a lot of stress but the main preparation for me was, I play these songs in the movie and I essentially felt that though no one’s really going to see it—it’s not gonna be a movie of my hands playing the piano—I want to be able to play these songs to the best of my abilities for real. If need be, I want to be able to play these.
I went and got a Mary Poppins songbook—I just ordered it—and when you look at it you realize it says “For piano, guitar, vocals.” It’s sort of what a novelization is to a movie, someone has listened to the final product of Mary Poppins and kind of generalized it so that anybody can play it. But I wanted to play the songs in the way that Richard would have in the room because those songs have strings and all that stuff but when Richard’s demonstrating a song, it’s a different style of playing. So, he gave me all of his early demos from 1959-1960 where he’s literally saying, “Jolly Holiday Take 1.” It’s just him with one microphone and his brother. I got those and the P.L. Travers, the hours and hours of—and he’s playing [5:48?] sing your songs and I gave those demos to my piano teacher—he’s this guy Elmo Peeler, he’s the greatest.
He sat down for days and days and days and listened to some very crude recordings—at times—and transcribed all of the music as it would’ve been played in 1961 as opposed to ’66 or ’65. I learned all the songs in that style, so they’re a bit more raw and they’re voiced differently. My feeling was, if Tom Hanks is going to learn how to talk like Walt Disney, this is Richard’s equivalent of talking. So I have to talk like Richard and I’m gonna do the accent, which in this case is the way he plays piano and that’s what I focused on the most. That was a great way into the thing because when he said to me, “Just love music,” what I got from that was, “Focus on the music.”
How early on did you get this part and how much time did you have to be able to do all this?
SCHWARTZMAN: I think I got the part in maybe July or late June. Then the movie started in August but I didn’t start until mid-September, October. I had the summer, it was a summer of just listening to Sherman Brothers music—living in L.A. you’re driving everywhere—always listening to some form of Sherman Brothers song. My daughter can sing every song, it’s such a sign that what you do for a living affects those around you. As far as I can say—I’m not a neglectful father—I’m listening to these songs and trying to pick them apart and then before you know it, she can sing every one of these songs. Actually, a very moving thing happened where we were at the D23 festival and she came and I said, “Marlowe, this is Richard Sherman. This is the guy who wrote all those songs that you love.” And then she just started singing them. She sang all of them, not even the Mary Poppins ones, like the Annette Funicello ones and the later ones. He started crying and that was such a beautiful moment, very moving.
I’m curious if spending this much time inside Richard Sherman has possibly impacted something you want to do with Coconut Records or changed a style you never thought to do now.
SCHWARTZMAN: Well, certainly I learned on the music side. There were a lot of chord progressions that are—there are some incredible changes that I made mental notes of. Like, “I have to remember this change, it’s very odd.” But there was interesting stuff like, he said to me, “If you look at all the music of Mary Poppins, I never start any of the songs on the tonic.” If the song is in the key of C, he never starts the first chord of any song on C. That right there is an amazing songwriting tidbit, he’ll always start on the 4, the 5, or the 6. Those are little tricks that are very interesting to me.
To me, musically the biggest thing I took away from it was—like I said earlier, I’m just not a singer and Richard will say, “I’m not a singer either.” But he comes from an era where the way you get a song across to somebody—like a demo—when he would go perform these for Walt Disney, he wasn’t emailing him a Garageband demo, obviously. You go into a room, you play simply and you sing clearly. And there was no way to get around that in the movie, I’m singing like 12 hours a day. I think that’s not something I would naturally want to do. I’m just scared of singing. I think doing that was a major, personal achievement. It’d be the equivalent of being afraid to fly and being forced to fly all day long for two months just to kind of really get into it. So, singing out loud in front of a lot of people, that’s not something that I wanted to do but I had to. I’m not saying—I’m not playing Vegas any time soon. But it was a really great thing for me.
There’s a lot of buzz that you could be in a certain dinosaur movie.
SCHWARTZMAN: I can’t say anything. Nothing to say here. Do you know Richard at all?
No but I think I’m meeting him today.
SCHWARTZMAN: You’re really in for something amazing.
He’s a legend.
SCHWARTZMAN: He’s so optimistic that you might think it’s like a thing, “Is he really this optimistic?” And he really is, it’s who he is. I think it’s something to think about when you go in there and meet him. Don’t ever for a second think that it’s a put-on. Whoever you meet today is the guy that I met every day at his house. You feel really great when you’re with him. He’s really that guy, he really is so excited.
Thank you for your time, always nice to see you.
SCHWARTZMAN: Nice to see you too, man.