'Billy Elliot'

Director Stephen Daldry says he’s been a fan of Julie Walters for “years and years,” so when he read the script of “Billy Elliot,” she was the first person he thought of to play Mrs. Wilkinson, the tart-tongued teacher who encourages a North Country boy to pursue a career in ballet.

The first-time feature director says he went, cap in hand, to ask “Would you mind, please, please, please ….” He got his wish. The 49-year-old character actress signed on to become a vital part of this hard-nosed but sensitive British coming-of-age movie, released by Universal Focus.

Walters, who trained as a nurse before segueing to act in regional British theater, was Oscar-nominated in 1984 for supporting actress as the enthusiastic hairdresser turned student in the Pygmalion-like story “Educating Rita,” a role she had played on stage. Hugely popular in her homeland, Walters was honored last year with the Order of the British Empire for her work on stage and screen.

Daldry was delighted to discover at test screenings in New York that American audiences also had huge affection for her, having never forgotten her performance as Rita. More broad international exposure will no doubt come from her role as the kindly wizard mum, Molly Weasley, in the much anticipated “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” now filming in England.

Daldry says he worked with Walters to “Keep her hard,” not wanting any sentiment to undercut Mrs. Wilkinson’s tough love demeanor. Walters liked the truth she saw in the character, whom she describes as a woman “disappointed on every single level you can possibly be disappointed.”

“Julie’s a brilliant collaborator,” Daldry stresses, describing her as “a transforming actress, the genuine article who can play a scene any way you want.” Additionally he says he believes great actors usually have great souls, and, he stresses, “Julie Walters is a great soul.”

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