Angela Lansbury was, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic when director Mark Waters first offered her the role of Jim Carrey's nemesis in the family film "Mr. Popper's Penguins."
"I said absolutely not when I heard about it," the charming 85-year-old Lansbury said in a recent interview in Beverly Hills. "The part wasn't there. I didn't know what to do with it. They kept saying it's such a wonderful little story, and you are associated with movies that appeal to children, and they would love to see you doing this. I kept saying, 'There is nobody home there.' "
But Waters thought she was the only one who could play the role of Mrs. Van Gundy, and it wasn't because of her family-friendly reputation in films and TV. It was because of her Oscar-nominated role as Lawrence Harvey's ambitious, ruthless mother in 1962's "The Manchurian Candidate."
"I wanted somebody who was intimidating to Mr. Popper and would be the one who kind of sees through his game and calls him on it," Waters said. "She was able to be kind of a harsh taskmaster, but at the same time, be the person who is kind of a magical spirit of the movie."
So Waters persisted. "I remember the writers and I had tea in her apartment, and we ended up delivering the script to a place where she was able to get her teeth in it," Waters said.
"I sort of figured out the way I felt she should go, and then the writers picked up on it and did it," Lansbury recalled.
It was a coup getting Lansbury, the five-time Tony Award-winner, best known for her roles on Broadway in the musicals "Mame," "Gypsy" and "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"; as the voice of Mrs. Potts in 1991's "Beauty and the Beast"; and as super-sleuth Jessica Fletcher on the lighthearted 1984-96 CBS series "Murder, She Wrote." She plays the owner of the famed New York restaurant Tavern on the Green who refuses to sell the eatery to an ambitious young businessman (Carrey).
Lansbury enjoyed working with the popular comic actor. "He's quite brilliant, artistic and extremely sensitive."
Lansbury, Waters said, was a real trouper. "I neglected at any time to tell her that her first three days of shooting were all night shoots at the Guggenheim" Museum, he said, laughing. "It was tough on a film crew, but the fact that we have this 85-year-old woman who is down on the dance floor getting spun around by Jim Carrey over and over again. She was on her feet the entire time."
Ironically, Tavern on the Green closed its doors in 2009. "It's very sad," said Lansbury, who splits her time between L.A. and her apartment in New York. Lansbury's husband of 53 years, producer-agent Peter Shaw, died in 2003. "We had the opening-night party there for 'A Little Night Music' with Catherine Zeta-Jones," she said wistfully. "We were the last show to have their opening-night party there. My family came. When I was doing 'Mame' [in the 1960s], we used to go there all the time.'
Lansbury's blue eyes twinkled. "I was thinking about Hollywood the other day," she said. "I remember how exciting it was to be asked to go to lunch at the Brown Derby on Vine Street. It was so romantic. You never knew who you would see there. There would always be the odd star. I was a starlet."
But she's being modest. The British actress was one of the busiest character actresses at MGM in the 1940s. She earned her first Academy Award nomination for supporting actress for her first film, 1944's classic thriller "Gaslight," in which Lansbury played the haughty cockney maid. She was all of 18.