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Julie Walters - Biography

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Julie Walters

Personal details

Name: Julie Walters
Born: 22 February 1950 (Age: 65)
Where: Birmingham, England
Height: 5' 3"
Awards: 3 BAFTAs, 1 Golden Globe and 2 Oscar nominations

All about this star


Though consistently voted the UK's most popular female light entertainer and comedienne, Julie Walters is a far more rounded artist than that. A successful stage performer of longstanding, she's been involved in many of the most important theatrical progressions of the last 25 years, as well as being a best-selling author and an award-winning screen actress. She also took part in one of the most successful franchises in screen history, playing Mrs Weasley in the Harry Potter movies. Worldwide fame and critical respect - really, she has it all.

She was born Julia Mary Walters in Smethwick, Birmingham, on the 22nd of February, 1950. The youngest of three children (she has two brothers), she hails from an Irish Catholic family, her parents being Thomas and Mary Bridget (nee O'Brien). She did not have an academic background, there being no books kept in the house, and Julie was not a good student. By the time she reached Holly Lodge Grammar School she was an habitual truant, her misbehaviour made easier by the fact that both Thomas and Mary worked full-time. Eventually she was given a letter to take home, a letter asking her parents not to send her back to school. Canny Julie opened it and binned it, instead telling her parents she'd decided to leave the Lower Sixth and find work. To her mother's delight, she'd begin training as a nurse at Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

Mary was keen for her daughter to find stable employment and there'd been many an argument over Julie's longstanding desire to act. Consequently, there was a ferocious fight when, just halfway through her course, Julie decided to leave nursing and study English and Drama at Manchester Polytechnic, where her current boyfriend was a student. Thomas and his sons would have to step in to prevent Mary from attacking her wayward child. "She'll be in the gutter before she's 20", Mary claimed, but she'd be secretly proud of her daughter's subsequent achievements. When her mother died, in 1989, Walters was deeply moved to find amongst her possessions a box stuffed with newspaper clippings recording Julie's many successes.

Julie's path through Poly was smooth, she'd found her path. She loved drama and was increasingly politicized, particularly by the boyfriend who'd encouraged her to enrol. These were times of political ferment and students were prime movers in the ongoing change. As she came towards the end of her course she'd show around a visiting student hoping to enrol on the drama course. It would be 8 years before anything came of it, but a long and extremely fruitful relationship would eventually be forged between them. The stripling student's name was Victoria Wood.

On leaving college, Walters' first professional engagement would be with Van Load, a raucous touring offshoot of Liverpool's Everyman Theatre. Under the leadership of RADA grad Jonathan Pryce, the Everyman was in full bloom, gaining worldwide respect for its inventive updates of the classics and its brave focus on a new, earthy, realist theatre, house writers including both Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell. The venue, a converted chapel in Hope Street, was funky, with gas lighting, props scattered all around and the walls bedecked with graffiti by the famed Liverpool poets. The downstairs bar was funky, too, serving such exotic delights as chilli con carne, Newcastle Brown ale and Italian ice cream. The whole operation was intended to smash the elitism of theatre and bring new experiences to the common man, all the actors mucking in with behind-the-scenes work, even tending bar. At night, they'd enjoy a wild time in a vibrant city, Everyman players getting free entry to clubs out of respect for their efforts on Liverpool's behalf. And what players they were. Aside from Pryce, there was Anthony Sher, Alison Steadman, Bernard Hill, Trevor Eve, Nicholas Le Prevost, Barbara Dickson, several McGann brothers, and Pryce's partner Kate Fahy.

As said, Van Load was a touring offshoot of the theatre, designed to take theatre right into the heart of the community. Thus Walters would start her career playing in schools, borstals, clubs, pubs and prisons, speaking to the people in their naked tongue as she performed the works of Bleasdale and Russell. One show was visited by the vice squad who'd been warned that foul language was being used - and indeed it was. In the van with her, unbelievably, would be Peter Postlethwaite, Bill Nighy and Matthew Kelly. Two future Oscar nominees and two future Golden Globe winners taking live theatre into Liverpool borstals - amazing.

The Everyman would provide a great learning experience for Walters, and give her an outlet for her political opinions, forged among the northern working-class. It would also introduce her to a far wider audience as the company, both collectively and individually, began to spread its wings, producing pieces for both TV and the London stage. 1976 would see Walters appear, alongside Postlethwaite and Kelly, in Mike Stott's risque comedy Funny Peculiar, first at London's Mermaid then, once the play had proved a big hit, at the Garrick. It would run for 19 months, earning Olivier nominations for Stott and Richard Beckinsale, who starred as a promiscuous Northern grocer. Walters would also develop an act of her own, becoming a bawdy performer on the cabaret circuit.

1977 would see the Everyman continuing its assault on the national consciousness, with Walters appearing as Vera, alongside Postlethwaite, in Russell's council estate-set Breezeblock Park, again at the Mermaid, then the Whitehall Theatre. The next year would be her busiest yet, with several TV plays, including Stott's Soldiers Talking, Cleanly in which she starred with Bernard Hill and Bill Nighy, and Alan Bennett's Me! I'm Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. But it was theatre that was driving her. She'd perform at Bristol's Old Vic in As You Like It and The Changeling (with Joseph O'Conor) and, at London's Royal Court, there'd be Snoo Wilson's hugely inventive The Glad Hand, where Anthony Sher would play a crazed South African tycoon who hires a troup of actors and attempts to sail a tanker through the Bermuda Triangle in the hope of summoning the Antichrist and shooting him in an OK Corral-style gunfight.

For Walters, though, the most important show of 1978 was a revue at London's Bush theatre called In At The Death, which ran between July and August. This saw writers such as Wilson and the notoriously out-there Ken Campbell invited to write sketches on the theme of mortality. Also invited was Victoria Wood, Walter's brief acquaintance some 8 years before. Since then Wood had won the talent show New Faces and was penning topical ditties for the consumer rights programme That's Life. In At The Death would see her add some levity to the grim proceedings, one sketch seeing Walters and Woods discussing surprise pregnancy in a Manchester library. The sketch would go down a storm, prompting Granada's David Leland to commission Wood to write Talent, a play which she'd put on at Sheffield's Crucible and which would then be screened on TV. As a clearly brilliant performer of Wood's work, Walters would be invited to star, as she would in the sequels, Nearly A Happy Ending and Happy Since I Met You. They'd also collaborate on Good Fun, also produced at the Crucible, where two women would be forced to hastily organise a rally for 300 sufferers of cystitis. Beyond this, Wood would be asked to deliver her own TV series, and again kept Walters with her. Recognising Walters' importance, she even demanded that the pair receive equal billing. So, The Wood And Walters show it was.

In the meantime, Walters was enjoying success away from Wood. 1979 saw London's arty ICA embrace the Liverpool avant garde, Ken Campbell's Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool putting on the monumentally excessive The Warp, as well as an adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Come November the theatre would present Snoo Wilson's Flaming Bodies, Walters appearing as Irene Goodnight alongside Miriam Margolyes. The same year would see Walters remain on the hard-hitting fringe when she starred alongside Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea in Mike Leigh's Ecstasy at the Hampstead Theatre.

The next year, 1980, would bring Walters' biggest stage hit yet. This was Educating Rita, again penned by Willy Russell, where Walters starred as a brash and earthy Scouse hairdresser who discovers a passion for education, hoping to better herself and escape the financial and intellectual poverty of her surroundings. A cash-strapped professor, played by Mark Kingston, agrees to be her tutor in her Open University studies and he helps to expand her mind just as she destroys his pretensions and draws him out of his dusty academic hermitage. Commissioned by the RSC and premiered at their Warehouse Theatre in June, the play would be a mighty hit, transferring to the Piccadilly in September.

Sticking with the Everyman writers who were serving her as well as she was serving them, Walters would, in 1981, rejoin Postlethwaite in Alan Bleasdale's Having A Ball at the Lyric in Hammersmith. And it was with Bleasdale that Walters would enjoy her first dramatic TV hit, 1982's Boys From The Black Stuff. This would spring from a Play For Today screened in 1980 called The Black Stuff where Walters would play the tough, long-suffering wife of Bernard Hill's Yosser Hughes, a desperate scally dealing with life on the dole in the early years of Margaret Thatcher's worker-unfriendly regime. It was powerful, painful, angry stuff and, expanded into a series, it would be immensely popular, launching the catchphrase "Gi's a job", and earning Walters her first BAFTA nomination.

With Boys From The Black Stuff and the Wood And Walters show, 1982 was a real turning-point. It would get even better the following year when Educating Rita was adapted into a movie, with Michael Caine taking the place of Mark Kingston. The film was a screaming hit, and both leads were Oscar-nominated, Walters finding herself on a list including Meryl Streep, Debra Winger and Shirley Maclaine. Maclaine would win it for Terms Of Endearment, Walters having to make do with a Golden Globe.

Throughout the Eighties, Walters would continue to balance her work in film and TV, and onstage. 1984 would be a typical year, seeing her in She'll Be Wearing Pink Pyjamas, where a disparate group of women would bond on a survival course, then the TV series Love And Marriage. Onstage there'd be Tom Stoppard's Jumpers at Manchester's Royal Exchange, directed by Nicholas Hytner. Here Tom Courtenay would be a philosopher lost in a maze of words and ideas, Walters playing his wife, a neurotic former singer grieving for the romance and sexual relationship they've lost. At the end of the year, at the Cottesloe, she'd be directed by the renowned Peter Gill in Sam Shepard's Fool For Love where Ian Charleson would play a mysterious drifter in a New Mexico hotel room, Walters being his lover and, perhaps, his sister. The production would then move on to the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue.

And so her profile was maintained, her popularity gradually increased. On TV she'd mix it up, reuniting with Ken Campbell for Unfair Exchanges, play Adrian Mole's mother in Sue Townsend's hit show, and experiment with Pinter alongside Joan Plowright and Pinter himself in the Birthday Party. She'd also hook up with Victoria Wood for the series As Seen On TV, part of which was the ongoing soap spoof Acorn Antiques (Walters would be BAFTA-nominated again for her efforts), and with Alan Bennett (with whom she'd earlier appeared in hospital drama Intensive Care) for Talking Heads, a much-lauded series of monologues that would see Walters as a small-time glamour girl finally given a big break.

On the Silver Screen she'd provide the voice of a Jim Henson-created dormouse in Dreamchild, which examined the life of Alice Hargreaves, inspiration for Lewis Carroll's most famous work. Then there'd be the comic Car Trouble, where she'd again star with Ian Charleson, Charleson this time being in mid-life crisis and buying a Jag while Walters, his wife, prefers the man who sold it to him. Next she'd put in a cameo as the mother of Gary Oldman's Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, again written by Alan Bennett, and then would come Personal Services (writen by David Leland, who'd spotted and boosted her and Victoria Wood years before), the true-life story of Cynthia Payne, a waitress-turned-madam who provided kinky thrills for repressed middle-class Englishmen, a role that gave Walters yet another BAFTA nomination. In Buster, she'd be another doting but suffering wife, this time that of Phil Collins' Buster Edwards, a loveable crook on the run after the Great Train Robbery. And there'd be more black comedy with Killing Dad where she'd play the aging but glitzy girlfriend of a drunken Denholm Elliott, their relationship being complicated when Elliott's son, Richard E Grant, turns up in their sleepy seaside town aiming to take his father's life. A higher-budget affair would be Mack The Knife, an ambitious take on The Threepenny Opera where crime overlord Richard Harris took on Raul Julia's titular young turk, Walters playing Harris's wife and old mucker Bill Nighy the cop who must set Julia up.

The 1980s would also see more stage success. In 1985, she'd appear alongside Bernard Hill's Macbeth at Leicester's Haymarket and, at the end of the next year, she'd take the lead in When I Was A Girl I Used To Scream And Shout at the Whitehall Theatre. This was the first play by Sharman Macdonald, who'd been told by her actor husband that they couldn't afford to have another child unless she managed to sell a play. This was the one, and the child that came from it would be Keira Knightley. Walters' last stage appearance of the decade would be in 1989's Frankie And Johnny At The Clair De Lune, where she'd play a down-at-heel waitress in a sweet romance with Brian Cox's cook. The play would become a movie two years later, with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer taking the leads. That same year, 1991, Walters would make her first and only stage appearance of the 1990s, starring in Peter Hall's production of The Rose Tattoo, first at Bath's Theatre Royal, then at London's Playhouse Theatre. Here she'd be Serafina, mourning her dead truck driver husband, then comically coming alive as another trucker, Ken Stott, comes onto the scene.

Throughout the Eighties, Walters would later admit, she was having a wild old time, working hard and drinking heavily (much like she had in the Seventies, really). Yet still love would find her. One day in 1985, having caned it all afternoon in a posh Fulham bar, her working-class roots surfaced as she shouted out "I bet there's no one in here who votes Labour, is there?" In fact, there was, a sociology student called Grant Roffey, some eight years her junior. They began drinking together then went to Walters' flat, where he fixed her washing-machine and she literally jumped on him. They'd be married in 1997, having already gone through the trauma of their daughter Maisie suffering lymphatic leukaemia at the age of 3 and undergoing three years of chemo, a period that inspired Walters' 1990 book Baby Talk. With Maisie happily recovered the family would live on a 70-acre organic farm in Sussex.

1991 would see Walters piled with prestige when she was given the TV show Julie Walters And Friends. The friends, who wrote the show for her, would be Alan Bennett, Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale and Victoria Wood. All of them were now massively esteemed voices in the worlds of theatre and TV and all of them owed much to Walters' lievly and convincing performances of their work. Naturally, they would all work with her again, first up being Bleasdale who cast her in his notorious series GBH. Here Robert Lindsay would be a northern Labour councillor, drunk on power and confronting Michael Palin's old-school socialist headmaster, Walters playing Lindsay's idealized and idolized mother in an ugly world of corruption, hypocrisy and increasing madness.

Walters' next release would be Stepping Out, a kind of tap-dancing Dirty Dozen where Broadway hoofer Liza Minnelli tried to turn a motley gang of amateurs into a crack troupe. This would see Walters reunited with Lewis Gilbert, director of Educating Rita, and he would draw another fine performance from her, her hygiene-obsessed housewife earning another BAFTA nomination. She'd then move back to TV with Clothes In The Wardrobe, also known as The Summer House. Based on a novel by Alice Thomas Ellis, this would see young Lena Headey about to marry a wastrel, with Walters playing her increasingly fraught mother. Extra weight would be added by former Pinter co-star Joan Plowright as the wastrel's mother and Jeanne Moreau as Walters' glamorous visiting friend.

Still keen to deal with social and political issues in her work, Walters moved on to Just Like A Woman where she played a lonely landlady helping a young American tenant comes to terms with his transvestism. Wise and saucy, she was much like Rita. Following this, she'd be back with Jim Broadbent in the tough but funny and moving Wide-Eyed And Legless, where she suffered an extremely painful and debilitating but apparently undiagnosable disease. Hubbie Broadbent would do all he could to help, but would need some himself, complications arising when he forms a relationship with a female novelist. Broadbent and Walters would be brilliant together - soft, fun and loving - and Walters would receive yet another BAFTA nomination.

1994 would bring a string of interesting releases. First she'd help out Alan Bleasdale by popping up in Requiem Apache, one of a series of shows he produced to promote the work of new writers. Then would come Bambino Mio, written by Colin Welland, another scriptwriting champion of the working classes. Here Walters would lose both her husband and their unborn child then, driven on by a nagging desire to be a mother, she'd seek a baby in Venezuela, her methods becoming increasingly dodgy. Next she'd be back with Victoria Wood (and director Gavin Millar, with whom she'd earlier made Dreamchild and Intensive Care) for Pat And Margaret. This would see the two actresses as long-estranged sisters reluctantly reunited on a nostalgia-mining TV show, Walters playing a star of American soap operas and Wood a dowdy homebody. Their differences would gradually be overcome as they joined in a search for the mother who abandoned them, support coming - as so often before - from Celia Imrie and Thora Hird. Actually, it's interesting to see Walters and Hird together. Where Walters had often been cast as much, much older than her real age, Hird many times represented a former generation of northern cussedness - Walters was the tough but loving (and occasionally batty) mum, Hird the feisty grandmother.

After Pat And Margaret, Walters would make a return to sexual politics with Sister My Sister, based on the same short story as Jean Genet's The Maids. Set in a French provincial town in 1932, this saw Walters as the strict head of the household, dominating her daughter and the staff, demanding cleanliness and respectability at all times. As her rules and the force of her will repress the girls - including Joely Richardson and Jodhi May - so they are drawn together, politically and physically, the tension building to a violent climax.

1995 would see Walters back with Alan Bleasdale, and other Bleasdale regulars such as Robert Lindsay and Lindsay Duncan, for Jake's Progress. This would see Lindsay (Robert) as a perennial teenager rocked by the birth of son Jake, harassed wife Walters becoming the main breadwinner. Confusion and resentment would increase for the growing boy as his parents make their mistakes, then thoughts become darker as a new child is on the way. Walters next feature, Intimate Relations, would start out very differently. A black comedy, this would see her as another saucy landlady, this time seducing young lodger Rupert Graves. However, matters would again descend into darkness as her young daughter discovers the affair and demands a piece of Graves, while Walters' crippled, drunken husband lurks in the shadows. A more conventional comedy would be Brazen Hussies, where Walters would be (yet another) saucy landlady. This time, though, she's running a pub and hopes to boost both her business and her marriage to Alun Armstrong by hiring male strippers, all arrangements to be made by a shifty Robert Lindsay.

Following the fine short Bathtime, where Alan Cumming would obsess over goldfish and suicide, Walters would be back with Bleasdale, this time in his adaptation of Francis Durbridge's thriller Melissa, previously filmed by the BBC in the 1960s. Then would come more Alan Bennett in Talking Heads 2, a quick panto with Jack And The Beanstalk, and then another winner in Girls' Night. Released in 1998, this had been made for TV the year before, but was considered good enough for a theatrical release. In it, Walters would star with Brenda Blethyn, the pair being lifelong friends who work in the same factory. Walters is brash, opinionated and sexually ferocious, while Blethyn is meek, a slave to her family. There is much learning to do when Blethyn is diagnosed with cancer.

Walters would briefly reunite with Victoria Wood for the short spoof Wetty Hainthrop Investigates, and the comedy series Dinnerladies, for which she'd be BAFTA-nominated for the seventh time. But she'd also stick with the issues in Titanic Town, based on a true story, where she played a Belfast mother attempting to negotiate a day-time truce between the Brits and the IRA. She wants kids to be able to get to school safely, but must deal with bitter accusations of treachery from her friends and neighbours. Ever-faithful to her friends, Walters would then move on to Alan Bleasdale's adaptation of Oliver Twist (again featuring Robert Lindsay and Lindsay Duncan), as Mrs Mann raising young Oliver in her orphanage and forging a fine comic partnership with David Ross's Mr Bumble. Another literary adaptation would be All Forgotten, also known as Lover's Prayer, based on the works of Turgenev and Chekhov, where she'd play a broke and drunken Russian princess, her daughter Kirsten Dunst bossing and bullying a posse of suitors, including poor neighbour Nick Stahl.

The new millennium would see Walters enter a quite extraordinary run of success. First would come Billy Elliot, the tale of a young northerner battling hometown prejudice to become a professional ballet dancer. It was perfect fare for Walters, dealing with working-class and sexual politics, and being both grittily dramatic and funny. As the strict but supportive dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson, she was brilliant, earning her second Oscar nomination and winning her first BAFTA since Educating Rita. Even better exposure would come when she scored the role of Ron Weasley's mother in Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, the franchise giving her employment for the best part of a decade.

Yet despite being touched by the wand of Potter, Julie continued to deliver excellent work in gritty working-class dramas. My Beautiful Son saw her touchingly attempt to build a relationship with Paul Reiser, a New York psychiatrist who, having discovered that he's dying of leukaemia, is informed that he's actually adopted and visits his birth-mum Walters in a down-at-heel area of Liverpool. Then there was the testing drama Murder, where Julie suffered all the torments of a bereaved mother. Both roles would win her a BAFTA, giving her three in consecutive years. She'd also pick up an Olivier when, in 2001, she made a triumphant return to the stage in Arthur Miller's All My Sons at the Cottesloe, clinging on to hope as her son goes missing in action.

Along with the second Potter instalment and Murder, 2002 would also bring Before You Go (originally titled The Memory Of Water). Directed for the third time by Lewis Gilbert, this saw Julie, Joanne Whalley and Victoria Hamilton as three radically different sisters reunited at the funeral of a mother none of them loved, old wounds being swiftly and painfully reopened. The next year would bring a brace of minor controversies. On TV there'd be a bawdy version of The Canterbury Tales, Julie appearing as Beth Craddock in The Wife Of Bath's Tale, driven to infidelity by husband Bill Nighy's antics (she'd take a fourth consecutive BAFTA). Then would come The Return, where she was an alcoholic jailed for killing her husband. On her release she faces the hatred of her son as she tries to rebuild her life, the reality of her dreadful married life gradually creeping up on her. Far more cheerful would be Calendar Girls, the true story of the Rylstone And District branch of the Women's Institute and their decision to release a calendar featuring twelve of their number involved in standard WI activities while stark naked. Julie would play Annie Clarke, losing husband John Alderton to leukaemia then plotting with rebellious buddy Helen Mirren to raise money for the local hospital that treated him so well. It was a typical Walters part, veering wildly between grief, mischief and joy.

Next Walters would return to the 1970s Troubles with Mickeybo And Me where she played a Catholic housewife struggling to bring up her brood while her son, obsessed with Butch Cassidy, goes on the run with a friend from the other side of the religious tracks. Then would come more real-life drama in Ahead Of The Class where she played headmistress Marie Stubbs, taking over and taming St George's School in Westminster after the murder of Philip Lawrence. After rejoining Victoria Wood and the team in Acorn Antiques: The Musical at the Haymarket's Theatre Royal, she helped out her Killing Dad co-star Richard E Grant by appearing in his autobiographical Wah-Wah. Set in Swaziland, this would see Miranda Richardson cheat on her diplomat husband, Gabriel Byrne, throwing family life into chaos. Walters would appear as their troubled neighbour, drawn into the mess as it's her husband Richardson has cheated with.

2006 would bring yet more fun. Teaming up with fellow Weasley Rupert Grint, she'd play a lonely, often inebriated actress who hires the boy to drive her around. Wholly hedonistic, she tries to teach him to enjoy his life, battling for his soul with his strict religious mother Laura Linney. Following this would be Philip Pullman's The Ruby In The Smoke where young Billie Piper, her father apparently drowned, is drawn into a world of cursed jewels, drugs, murderous gangs and all manner of Eastern mystery. Walters would have great fun as Mrs Holland, a repulsive old psycho who wears false teeth she's taken from her husband's coffin and attempts to rob and kill Piper. The year would also bring Walters' first novel, Maggie's Tree, drawn from memories of her career and involving three British women, all performers, in New York City.

Come 2007, with Harry Potter still going strong, Walters would make a rare foray into period drama with Becoming Jane, where Anne Hathaway's young Jane Austen would refuse an arranged marriage and dally with charming Irish lad James McAvoy. Walters would play Austen's mother, keen for her daughter to marry into money and viewing her own drudgery as the price you pay for following your heart. More hard-hitting would be Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story, where she'd play the prim old campaigner for decency, something of a turnaround as, years earlier, Whitehouse would surely have campaigned against Walters had she known what she was up to. Next on the cards would be Mamma Mia!, a film adaptation of the Abba-soundtracked hit musical, where Walters would at last play alongside Meryl Streep, a fellow Oscar nominee 25 years before.

Walters was awarded an OBE for services to drama in 1999, quite rightly as she has been on the cutting-edge of British drama for 30 years, breaking barriers in film, on TV and onstage. Unlike most of her fellow thespians, though, she's also carved a career in light entertainment that's often seen her voted the country's most popular female TV personality. Still possessing the charisma, energy and empathy that made her the actress of choice for writers such as Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell and Alan Bennett, she'll remain a popular favourite for years to come.

Dominic Wills


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