Interview with Angela Lansbury on Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Jun 17, 2011 at 10:37 a.m. ET

Angela Lansbury sat down with us to talk about her new role in Mr. Popper’s Penguins, as well as reflect on her wonderful career and aging in Hollywood.

Angela Lansbury is an Hollywood icon, appearing in movies (Gaslight), TV shows (Murder, She Wrote), Broadway (Mame) and has lent her voice to Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast – and now can add another feather in her cap with her most recent project, Mr. Popper's Penguins.

Garnishing an amazing 5 Tony Awards, 6 Golden Globe Awards, as well as 3 Academy Award nominations and 18 Emmy Award nominations, it was a pleasure to be in her presence and chat with her in a parenting roundtable discussion at the Beverly Hilton.

Lansbury discusses her role of Mrs. Van Gundy in the family film, Mr. Popper's Penguins, as well as working with Jim Carrey.

Angela Lansbury and Jim Carrey in Mr Popper's Penguins

Interview with Angela Lansbury

You were wonderful in the movie.

Angela Lansbury: Oh, thank you.

Had you ever read the books, or is this something they approached you about?

Angela Lansbury: No, actually I had not read the books. I had the book, but it was said to me that the story deviates quite a bit from the book. So, I thought, "Well, I'm not going to mess up my mind about"--because I knew she didn't exist in the book. So, that I did know.

Did you see Mrs. Van Gundy as a villain or kind of a hero in the movie?

Angela Lansbury: Oh, I think she's a hero. I think she's got all the right stuff. She's a tough old bird, but nevertheless she gives him his due when the time comes. She just demands certain levels of behavior.

I thought she was kind of wonderful, because of the fact that she obviously had never, never left the 1950s, and that was her time. But, she was a very worthwhile woman, certainly capable of doing all of the things that rich widows do in New York City.

What drew you to this role? Did you want to do this movie because of the story or the people that you were working with?

Angela Lansbury: Well, I was kind of coerced into doing it, quite frankly because I didn't think there was really a place for me in it in the first place. But, as it kind of [grew] like Topsy, it suddenly became an interesting character.

And when it became a woman who had warmth buried under all those layers of, I thought, "Well, yes, I can do something with this."

It wasn't going to take me a long time, either. I was going to do it in a very short time in New York City, and that made it very attractive. And also, working with Jim was a tremendous lure for me, because I love working with great artists and he is one of those. He's very special.

Mr Popper's Penguins

You've done a whole range of acting, whether it be villains or even the voiceover for Disney. But, I think most people remember you for "Murder She Wrote."

Angela Lansbury: True.

Is that a blessing or not to be seen as that?

Angela Lansbury: Well, on the one hand, it has been a blessing because it made me known worldwide. I have to say that, even though the role of Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote) was one, you could say, that one almost walked through. I say that with love and appreciation of the character that was given to me to play, but it did not require any great artistry to play Jessica Fletcher.

But, I loved her because she was such a straight on woman with charm and with a good brain and a wonderful liberal outlook on life. And I just felt that she represented women in the best possible way. And that intrigued me.

And I think that was the reason the character was such a successful person in television, even though she wasn't a pop heroine by any manner of means. She wasn't Mary Tyler Moore. She was Jessica, and that's okay.

I was curious how you feel about being in a movie like "Mr. Popper's Penguins." Is that genre in good hands? Is it still that kid friendly movie, does it feel the same now as it did when you were making "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" and "Beauty and the Beast?"

Angela Lansbury: Not really. It's a different category, I think. It's certainly kid friendly. And Popper, because of the children in it and because of the penguins, which are the catalyst for the father and the children, that is something that's a universal kind of given and it's a truth.

And I think that makes it very appealing from a point of view. Whether children will take to it with the same crashing devotion that they did for things like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which incorporated a cartoon as well, if you think about the special cartoon stuff they did in that, and it's underwater and that wonderful football game in that. I mean, there's tremendous humor in that.

There's intrigue with penguins in the penguin movie. But, I think they're slightly different. But, nevertheless, I mean, how many years later are we talking about here? Fifty?

Things are done so differently these days, where in those days they were done by the book. We used to have storyboards, little pictures of each shot that we were going to make.

You mentioned about role models for women, and that was one thing that I was curious about. Do you see a lot more opportunities for older actresses? Male actors normally get much more work. Do you see a lot more roles opening up for older female actresses?

Angela LansburyAngela Lansbury: No, I don't. I really don't. I'm sorry to say I don't. I don't see it at all. Do you?

It is a short lived career. And I've said recently that's one of the reasons that I haven't really gone back into movies, because there weren't any roles. There weren't any roles that I would really want to play.

This role, yes, I can play this because she's a character and that's good. I kind of specialize in those kind of weirdoes, you know? And I don't want to say that because, you know, I'm really not that way at all. I'm more like Jessica[Fletcher], really.

So, it's not easy. But, those are the only things that are forthcoming.

There's this movie out called [Beginners starring Christopher Plummer].

What a great role, and he's a man. You know, he and I are about the same age. And he gets to play that part, you know? There aren't many women who'd get to play that kind of role. Not just because he comes out. I'm not talking about that.

I don't want to play a woman who comes out necessarily, although that would be interesting. Nevertheless I think it's great.

Was there a lot of ad-libbing on the set with Jim Carrey when you were working with him?

Angela Lansbury: No, I wouldn't say so. He's all business. He really is. He's totally immersed in what he's doing. And he's very thoughtful, very considerate, and works with you.

And in this case, our director certainly was very strong, very strong indeed, about what he was going for and how he was going to set the scene up. And certainly Jim worked very closely with him. They would shoot the scene and Jim would run by and look at it on the monitor, and they would try little slightly different things.

But, in the main, it was very much preset on paper and in discussion, the little bit of rehearsal that we had. Certainly Mark was very prepared as a director and extremely good, very good.

Angela Lansbury: I've enjoyed talking with you. Thank you.

In theaters June 17! The summer movie season's first live-action family comedy event stars Jim Carrey, whose chilly relationship with his family heats up after he inherits six adorable, lovable and mischievous penguins.

Mr. Popper's Penguins is based on the award winning classic children's book.

Watch trailer for Mr. Popper's Penguins:

More on Mr. Popper's Penguins:

Jim Carrey ponders Mr. Popper's Penguins and fatherhood

Carla Gugino chats Mr. Popper's Penguins

Video interview with Jim Carrey