Julie became a Dame in November 2017 and has received more BAFTA nominations than any other actress: testament to her talent for picking the best television opportunities as well as those in film. There is no longer anything to prove. Ageing, she argues, has been the magic remedy to giving a hoot, especially since the dawn of her seventh decade.
Life hasn’t always been so easy, however. ‘My mother didn’t want me to be an actor, she thought that was absolutely mad!’ Julie exclaims. ‘I come from a working-class background. I don’t come from anything airy-fairy or lovey.’
She was the youngest of five – and of only three surviving – children born to her Irish Catholic immigrant mother, Mary Bridget O’Brien and builder-and-decorator father Thomas in Smethwick, in the West Midlands.
Her mother left school without a single qualification and was obsessed by the idea of her kids achieving more. Three years into a job in nursing – a profession Julie took up purely to please her mother and to which she was ‘ill-suited’ – she quit the NHS to study English and drama at Manchester Poly. Mary wholeheartedly disapproved of her daughter’s career shift.
‘I wasn’t particularly rebellious but we did have a volatile relationship, definitely,’ says Julie, describing her mum as a ‘much stronger character’ than her dad.
There are obvious parallels with the relationship between Marion, Julie’s character in her latest film, Wild Rose, and her on-screen daughter Rose-Lynn. Played by rising Irish star Jessie Buckley, she is a reckless mum-of-two who, after a year in prison on drugs charges, is fixated on going to Nashville to become a country singer – and to hell with the welfare of the kids. Throughout, Marion is supportive as a grandparent but steadfast in her determination to make Rose-Lynn choose parental responsibility over wild ambition, yet eventually she funds her daughter’s dream trip with her own savings.
‘The pain of both their ambitions, clashing and mixed with love, mixed with fear – fear for the children, fear for her daughter. It’s a universal thing,’ says Julie.
Her own mother’s expectations were implausibly high and Julie rarely received praise but, privately, her mother was very proud, secretly keeping boxes of newspaper clippings charting her daughter’s career. When Julie progressed from subsidised theatre to the West End and laying down life foundations, she finally voiced her support.
‘I got a pension and that really cemented everything for her,’ says Julie. ‘I felt I could make a living and, eventually, buy a flat. She thought that was pretty good.’
Save for confirming she’s not yet a grandmother, Julie is lioness-protective of the privacy of her own daughter, charity worker Maisie Mae, 30, who hit the headlines when hospitalised with leukaemia at the age of two. She won’t answer any question about her now fit and healthy daughter.
Last summer, Julie drew a line under work commitments after reaching breaking point at the end of filming The Secret Garden. She’d previously worked simultaneously on two movies: the Emily Blunt-led Mary Poppins Returns, playing irreverent servant, Ellen; and Paddington 2, where she reprised her role as the Brown family housekeeper, Mrs Bird.
‘They were lovely jobs, absolutely heavenly, fun jobs but it was really tiring and then I went straight into something else that was really demanding. It just went on and on and on. I was completely exhausted and I just said, “I’m not doing anything else”. I said, “I need some time otherwise I’m going to get really ill”.’ Julie promptly pulled out of two jobs.
‘I was exhausted and wired at the same time,’ she says. And how does she feel at this very moment?
‘Oh, great!’ she whoops. ‘I love being at home, getting veggies in, getting the seeds in. I’m still doing things like voice-overs, but compared to how I have been, I’m not doing anything. I just need a rest.’
Perhaps this is shorthand for slipping into retirement – and at 69, with a breadth of roles under her belt plus, presumably, millions in the bank, who’d blame her?
‘No, I’m not planning anything, that’s the thing,’ she maintains. ‘I just want time free now at home.’
Julie explains that daily life on the organic farm – surrounded by cattle, sheep, chickens – with her husband Grant Roffey, a former AA patrolman-turned-supervisor and now full-time farmer, is ‘relaxed, really’. These days, instead of ‘worrying about a part’, Julie can be found walking, reading, discussing the farm – her home for more than 20 years – ‘endlessly’ with her other half, plus doing a bit of home maintenance.
‘He’s so busy and I’ve been so busy, the place has been falling apart, so it’s about getting stuff done and clearing stuff,’ she says.
Fortunately, not to the detriment of number one. Julie has acupuncture twice a week because ‘it keeps everything functioning very well. It’s good for your immune system, it’s good for everything.’ She is also keen to brush up on meditation to achieve greater peace and relaxation.
‘I’m fairly crap at it,’ admits Julie. ‘I should go and have proper lessons with someone. I’ve done it online and occasionally with a yoga teacher, but I need a bit more than that.’
The lifestyle she describes is about a million miles away from the glitzy existence many on the other side of the showbusiness fence would assume she enjoys.
‘Oh no, I’ve never lived that,’ scoffs Julie. ‘I have to go to red carpets sometimes, but I don’t know what that is, a showbiz lifestyle. Most actors I know don’t live it. People who live that are those who want to be famous, like reality TV people. They’re the ones who live this kind of mirage of life.’
She deliberately ‘chose’ to get together with Grant, whom she fell for in a swanky bar in Fulham 34 years ago, because he was a foreigner to her working world.
‘You’d never get away from it if you were with someone who was in the business. Never. Get. Away from it,’ she says. ‘Coming home, it’s like looking down the wrong end of the telescope. It makes it all very small.’
The couple married in New York in 1997 after 12 years together, largely to legalise things such as inheritance and pensions. The nuptials barely altered their relationship.
‘I always called him my husband and he always called me his wife,’ says Julie. ‘Well, because we’d been together 12 years, it didn’t make any difference in that sense, but I quite enjoyed the ceremony. I don’t think it made any difference to him because we’d made our commitments.’
She feels ‘lucky’ to have a husband with whom she ‘can really talk things through’. Julie also credits her profession for helping her expel difficult emotions, an unconventional form of talking therapy, if you will. ‘When my mother died [in 1989] I was on stage in the West End in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune playing this woman who had a speech about when her mother died. It was fantastic for me to be able to speak that, publicly, and feel it, publicly,’ says Julie. ‘Acting has been, for me, an expression, this voice to a lot of stuff.’
She is likeable and so relaxed the interview feels like a conversation with an old friend. She admits she despises confrontation and craves more energy and courage, which would have been handy a few nights earlier when she found a spider scuttling among her bed sheets.
‘That was awful,’ shudders Julie at the memory. ‘It disappeared under the bed and Grant was asleep in the other room because he was getting up at 4am, so I couldn’t wake him. I had to sleep in the bed where I knew it was underneath. It was a big one! It’s still there! I got my head around it eventually. I sort of befriended it in my head. ’
It’s impossible to talk to Julie without recalling her great friend and comedy partner Victoria Wood. Across more than three decades, Victoria and Julie frequently performed together on stage and television, including the celebrated Wood and Walters on Granada from 1981. Victoria also created Julie’s most unforgettable comedic characters, such as the elderly deaf waitress in the Two Soups sketch and tea lady Mrs Overall in sitcom Acorn Antiques.
Did Julie credit Victoria for launching her career? ‘Certainly, in comedy, yes, and it happened at the same time as Educating Rita [the 1983 film for which she won her first BAFTA] and also Boys from the Black Stuff, which was a big thing at the time, so it was like a dual push. All of it happened from 1978, so I was pushed from all angles.’
Later on in their careers, the friends didn’t collaborate for ‘a long time’ and with Victoria living in Highgate, north London, and Julie in West Sussex, they saw each other infrequently. Then in early 2016 everything changed when Julie learned that Victoria was terminally ill.
‘We used to text and email one another with various items of interest, to have a laugh about mainly, but I hadn’t seen her for ages until I heard she was ill, then I went round there quite a lot and we got together again,’ says Julie.
‘I’m glad I did. It’s just a bit of closeness at the end. Of course, I miss her. I still can’t quite believe she’s gone,’ she sighs.
Julie reveals she has no untapped ambitions and confesses ‘few things float my boat any more’ and insists it’s a liberating place to be. She recently declined ‘a couple of really big things’ because she ‘wanted to take time out and, God, it felt good’ but won’t go into specifics.
‘I can’t say because someone else is playing them and it’s not good to say “Oh, I was offered that first!” I think that’s awful,’ she says.
‘Sixty is a real watershed. It’s when people used to be called OAPs and when I played Mo Mowlam in a Channel 4 film. I had to shave my head and it grew back white. I’d always dyed it, so I let it grow through and I thought “It’s okay!” You don’t care so much about stuff. You’re not establishing yourself in life in the same way. I’m sort of like “Here I am, this is it and it’s fine”,’ smiles Julie. ‘It’s been fine for 69 years; I know it’s fine.’
Wild Rose is released in cinemas nationwide on 12 April