Hugh Bonneville interview: Paddington 2

Hugh Bonneville chats to us about Paddington 2, reshoots, Hugh Grant and the key to prison reform...

Rounding off our interviews for the delightful Paddington 2, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr Hugh Bonneville to talk about the movie. And here’s how it all went…

I did hear the other day that I shouldn’t trust what actors say, as they’re professional liars.

Absolutely. Some of the most devious people – what was it? Devious and dangerous people on the planet – absolutely. Spoken by Dame Julie Walters.

I’m curious how the experience differed for you from the last Paddington

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It was different in so far as, the family’s story is separate to Paddington’s really, and I thought that was interesting, and I wasn’t sure how it would fit together. And so in a way it was less technical because we weren’t doing as much interaction with the bear. We open with the bear and we close the bear, but we’re separate for a lot of it. So we did a lot of discussion and back and forth about how to keep the family energised, and what their roles were; how to keep them individual, but collective, and their purpose.

Paul and Simon spent a lot of time teasing away at the ethic of Paddington’s breakout from prison, because as he now says in the film, Aunt Lucy wouldn’t think it would be right to go against – if you’ve been banged up for whatever reason you have to accept your punishment, and do the right thing. They were worrying away about how you get that bridge so that Paddington does escape, and you don’t think he’s doing the wrong thing.

There were things like that, where I think teasing out the plot was something Paul and Simon were worrying away at for a long time, and even through production. So we revisited a quite a few things. As we did with the first film, it was built into the structure that we’d come back and do some pick up shots once they’d assembled it. There were things that changed when we did pick up shots, so for instance in an earlier incarnation we shot a whole sequence where, basically, I decked Phoenix Buchannan with a punch. And I think they felt that wasn’t very Paddington-esque, or Mr Brown-esque. So when we revisited it, it was all to do with this coconut shy, and Bullseye Brown, and all that. And that, I thought, actually came out much better. It was more charming, and funny, and quirky, and very much more Paul and Simon’s territory.

So what was different was, while the sense of family, and the sense of the bear, and the nature of the bear, and the look of the bear was now a given; while preserving those elements, how to make it fresh, and different, and bigger. And yet still pack an emotional punch. Which I think it probably does.

You’ve brought up a few things I’d like to get back to shortly, but while we’re focused on the difference between the two films, Mr Brown was ‘educated’ rather severely by a hard-staring bear in the first film. I’m curious how that informs your process as an actor, moving along.

Again, because Simon and Paul are very collaborative, and wanting to get the best out of the story, and find the best way of telling the story, I spent a day or so with them while they were writing, and we talked through the journey of Mr Brown. And I thought, if you’ve ended the first film in Mr Brown’s case, having found a resolution: having gone from being over protective, to being more balanced, and back to having a sense of fun about life, and not being quite so risk averse, and all that, so there’s a sense of completeness, how can you then – you can’t have him go back to being a neurotic parent again.

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So to give him this mid-life crisis, I think is a genius idea, so he’s been overlooked at work for Steve Visbee – Simon just roared with laughter when he invented the name, I don’t know why he found it so funny, but he did – so Steve Visbee gets promotion over me, and that triggers this crisis, and the fact that he’s feeling – his tummy’s popped out, his bones are creaking, he’s dyeing his hair – so we talked about all of that, and then we invented this idea of – Paul had already said he’d got this idea of Mr Brown doing the splits on the train, so how do we get to that point? – so we came up with this idea that he does this extreme form of yoga, known as ‘Chakrobatics’, as we called it, which made me roar with laughter.

So basically, it was just a lot of fun, trying to put Mr Brown – I always said I don’t want Mr brown to be a complete sap, there’s a danger as we try to balance our society, and our view of men and women that men are all puny weaklings, and women are all superheroes. So I said, I don’t want him to be a complete sap, but obviously there’s a fun journey for him to go from confused and conflicted, to being Bullseye Brown once again, to finding that he’s still got his mojo. So that was the arc of Mr Brown, and Paul would be very keen that I fight his corner.

Getting back to the pickups. I know that most films have a small number of pickups, but it sounds like quite an extensive reshooting process took place. Is that becoming more common on the projects you work on?

I haven’t done many films of this scale, and I don’t know whether it is, but it was definitely factored in. It might come across as ‘oh my God, we’ve got everything wrong, we’ll have to reshoot’, but it was factored in from day one that we would do the main shoot, and then we would revisit for up to two weeks, several months later. And that, I think, is a testament to the sort of risks, or the scale, that David Heyman is prepared to work on. That it was an ongoing process, that it isn’t just crammed into this one period. I mean, it’s a huge luxury, and also it’s a luxury that the cast were available, and up to working like that. I think if he had a director of less vision, and flare, and adorability than Paul, then you might not have had that, but I think everyone was onboard with the idea, because it was a big risk to try to get this bear onto a big screen and I think everyone understood that there was going to be a bit of ‘suck it and see’, and a bit of ‘how do we get this right’.

And it was a process that worked to everyone’s advantage on the first film, so it was factored in again on the second. So we knew it was coming. And of course, sometimes you think, ‘What do you mean? Those three days where I stood out in the cold, doing all that and it’s gone, and we’re going to redo it in this way instead?’, but it’s all for the right reasons, and in my experience, very few films, in my experience,  have that luxury to be able to have that element factored in. But as both films have shown, if you’re prepared to invest that, then hopefully it will reward, because I think it’s a better film for it. You could also say, “Well you should have got it right in the first place”, but sometimes you can, and sometimes you can’t.

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I suppose it’s similar to the process they’ve been using at Disney for animation for the better part of a century, where they see if something works in a rougher form, and then come back and change it if it doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, we shot everything the first time, for real, but some elements we knew we weren’t going to complete, and that we would revisit them – or we would finish them – later. Particularly the train sequence, there were bits there that were so complex, we always knew we were going to come back to that. But there were some little beats that we never got time to do, or Paul would worry away at a sequence – because he’ll never settle for second best, he’ll reshoot, or revisit stuff. A week later, he’ll wake up in the middle of the night and go ‘that scene didn’t work, it doesn’t feel right’ – and we’d go and revisit it.

Again to have the scope and the trust, and the scale of production that you can do that is wonderful. And Studio Canal have been amazing like that, with David being the ringmaster of it. I think if we’d done all that and the first film had tanked, this method would never be used again, but it seems to have worked, certainly for this film.

When you were shooting the first film, and I assume you grew up at least aware of Paddington as a character, what were your expectations? Did you imagine it would be as funny as it was? As appealing around the world?

I was certainly cautious when I first heard about it, because I thought, ‘oh gosh, they’re going to Hollywood-ise this beloved bear’, who for me, like millions of people, the bear was mine, he was my childhood. His voice was unique, and was in my head. Or in some cases it was Michael Horden from the TV version, or whoever. So I was a little cautious about how they were going to muck it up, because they were bound to.

And then two things: first of all, reading the script I laughed out loud from page one. In the first film, the explorer carrying his small grand piano through the jungle, I thought just to read it was funny, I didn’t know Paul at this stage, but I thought “whoever’s written that has got the right idea”. And then going to meet, Paul and I had a few moments outside David Heyman’s office, before going to see him, and just within a couple of minutes of chatting to Paul, as I’m sure you found, you just find an enormous heart, and good imagination, and basically you’re sitting next to Paddington. And I thought, “we’re in pretty safe hands here”. And he’s got a terrific, and sometimes warped, and sometimes very dark sense of humour. And so when you’re playing stuff out on set, and maybe tweaking a few ideas, or changing a few words around, or he’s worrying away at an idea, he’s always looking for something funnier, or truer. As long as it’s in the real of truth, or credibility in our fictional world, he’s always up for it.

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And so there was a great sense of fun, and adventure, and exploration working on the set, so I thought, “it’s going to make me laugh, I know, but I don’t know if it’ll make anyone else laugh”, but you never know that. And the result was that it did seem to make lots of people laugh. And cry. So that was good.

The crying was surprising. I’m not admitting to anything. Honest.

There was one other thing, about this new film, that was different: they brought in a secondary Hugh. You’re both renowned, charming Englishmen. Was there a clash of Englishness?

We were sitting in rehearsal, actually, and I was looking at Hugh, and I said, “Do you realise it’s 19 years since we did Notting Hill?” and we both suddenly felt really quite old, except the difference is, he doesn’t look a day older. It’s a very funny part, and I said to Paul, “Who are you thinking of for Phoenix Buchannan, that’s a tough part to get the tone right, because it could be so over the top that you don’t buy it, and don’t believe it. And it could be so sold fashioned in style, as a ham, that people won’t get it either”, and he said, “I’m thinking of Hugh Grant”, and I said, “Perfect”.

Hugh doesn’t get to play that broad so often, and he’s a very, very, as we all know, his comedic instincts are brilliant, but to actually be able to do some physical comedy like that, and adopt those characters, I’m hoping was a lot of fun for him.

I was talking to Sam, who plays Jonathan, my son in the film, yesterday, and he was telling me how in awe he’d been of Hugh, because on every take, Hugh would offer up something new, and something different, and throw in a fresh line – I think that line he says about being “tickled the deepest shade of shrimp” was one of his he plopped in on one take – and Sam was saying, “I didn’t realise you could be that inventive”. I think he learned something, learning from the best, that if you feel safe in a character, and you feel that you’re not going to really cheese off the director, writer, producer, or whatever, to offer up stuff, and to have the freedom to do so – and to have the experience to know when to do it, which Hugh does – was inspiring for him. It was rather touching to see Sam so inspired by it. But Hugh runs away with every scene he’s in, and I’m delighted that he does.

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I know you’re all downplaying it, but there is the political edge to this film.

If there is, I think that’s for an audience to draw, but most importantly, it’s something that was in the books, written in 1958. You think of Michael Bond living in West London, in a community that was changing shape, demographically and culturally, very quickly; a lot of immigration, and people coming to Britain for the first time and finding a new home. Also, it was just a few years after the war, where the image of children on station platforms with gas masks around their necks was absolutely vivid, and Michael actually said, that’s one of the images of Paddington; so I think this mixture of – if there is a political message, it dates back to the post-war era, and is still obviously prevalent in our current discussion today.

But the bottom line is, Paddington is a stranger in a strange place, and we’ve all been there. We’ve all been a stranger in a strange place, whether in a new school, or moving to a new town, or coming to a new country, either by choice or by refuge. I think we can all identify with that feeling, that we put ourselves in Paddington’s shoes. How we react to that, as people who have the chance to either help or block Paddington, is equally a conversation that we’re having now. Frankly, it’s a family film that hopes to entertain, and if people want to draw messages of acceptance, and tolerance, and the consequences of intolerance, and not looking for the best in people, and not giving people a chance, then it’s up to them.

It strikes me that a lot of the messages we’re talking about resonate with the charitable work you do. You seem to be supporting things like diversifying the arts.

It’s very simple for me, I’m involved in charities I understand, and I understand the performing arts, and theatre particularly, so that’s why there’s a bias toward those. I’m also an ambassador for Water Aid, because water is something I understand, I think we all do. But there’s no two ways about it, I grew up in a very privileged position, of having parents who could afford to engage with the arts, and they took me to experience the arts from an early age. I was at a school that engaged with the arts, that enabled children to do drama, to enjoy music and art, and that took them to see such things as well. And I know that there are millions of people for whom that is not an easy opportunity.

So I am conscious of wanting to, in my tiny way, support those endeavours, and those charities, that try to give  those opportunities, be it, the Mousetrap Project, that enables families to go and see West End shows that otherwise might not be able to, or Seen and heard in Camden, that engages with young children who are going through really challenging times, and have no means, or not been encouraged to express themselves, and so for them to be able to write little plays which are performed by professional actors. And to see the look on those kids faces, when their ten-minute plays are produced, and they’re getting applause, perhaps for the first time in their life, for anything they’ve ever done, and it’s irrespective of what those children then go on to do, but they’ve been involved in the arts in a way that hopefully will improve their self-confidence.

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The National Youth Theatre was a massive game changer for me, in terms of introducing me to kids from all over the country who all wanted to do the same thing, which was to make plays, so I’m involved with them for that reason. And the Primary Shakespeare Company, which again, engages kids in primary schools in London to take on Shakespeare, which is quite a challenge. Most people get to 18 and think, ‘Who’s that scary Shakespeare?’, but if you can get people involved in literature, and the arts and making plays and using their imagination, irrespective of whether they go into it professionally – that’s irrelevant – it’s about using our imaginations, and being connected. So it’s quite simple, I had those opportunities, lots and lots of kids don’t, and I’m now in a position where by waving a bit of a flag, I can say, “Look at what this enterprise is, it’s worth supporting”, so it’s a tiny simple way. I’d be rubbish at going out into the field and helping someone in a medical situation in a war zone, so I do what I know how to do, which is to support the arts.

I’d argue that they’re equally important.

I know I flippantly say sometimes, that I skip around in tights, and I’m not saving lives, and there are millions of people who would agree with that, it’s a redundant profession, in that regard, it’s not utilitarian. But I’m also aware, flippancy aside, that expression through art and culture, promoting mutual understanding and tolerance, is something my industry can do, and should do. Frankly, in a world in which insulting each other in 140 characters seems to be the norm, films like this, or projects like the ones I’ve mentioned, that can actually try to reach across boundaries in some small way, yes of course, they can do a tiny bit to help. And if you can get everyone to eat marmalade sandwiches, the world would be a sweeter place.

It does seem that’s the key to prison reform.

I know. That, of course, is a gorgeously fantastical sequence but the simple message is that if you try to find the best in people, there’s a good chance they might give back, or be able to give back. I’m not suggesting it’s the answer to prison reform. Although having said that, I did have a prison visitor friend of mine come to see the film the other day, and he said “I’ve got to show that to the trustees of the prison I work in.”

There is one thing, before I wrap up, and it’s almost entirely off topic. You worked with Kenneth Branagh years ago, and he’s just remade Murder On The Orient Express. You were once in Murder On The Orient Express, and I’m curious to hear how it feels to have famously performed a role, and to now see it performed by someone else.

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I’m looking forward to seeing it. What a cast he’s assembled. It’s such a great story, I remember watching the movie version in the late 70s, or early 80s, with Wendy Hiller playing the great Countess, or whoever she is, and I remember finding it quite spooky, in a way, the whole film was quite scary and sinister. So we did it on telly, and I played Masterman, who’s a butler – I think Derek Jacobi’s playing it in the movie – I’ve known Derek over the years, so it’ll be fun to see it, and to see if there’s a different angle on the whole story. It’s such a familiar story now, and obviously you want to make things slightly fresh, or have a fresh angle on it. The production I did on ITV had Jessica Chastain in it, and Eileen Atkins, and David Morrissey, and Toby Jones, these really wonderful actors, so familiar to British audiences, and I can’t wait to see these even bigger movie stars, and I particularly can’t wait to see Ken Branagh’s moustache, which I think is going to steal the movie.

Hugh Bonneville, thank you very much!

Paddington 2 is in UK cinemas now.