She wobbles onto the screen, teetering precariously on high heels, her miniskirt wrapped around an elfin 5’3″, 110-lb. body, her hair bleached until it’s almost white. She’s Julie Walters, 34, a British actress making her movie debut in Educating Rita, a kind of modern-day Pygmalion in which she plays a working-class English hairdresser intent on bettering herself through education. She enlists as her mentor Michael Caine, a burned-out, boozing college professor who is rejuvenated by Rita’s wide-open approach to life. How much like Rita is Walters, whose acting career up until now has been on the British stage and in the television series Boys From the Blackstuff? The answer: quite a bit. “Rita is a girl who wants to change and do something with her life,” says Walters. “The impetus is all from her. I come from where she did, and I had the same enormous drive that she does.”
In fact, Walters’ performance as the saucy, wisecracking Rita has earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress. Although she probably won’t take home the award on April 9 (Terms of Endearment’s Shirley MacLaine is heavily favored), she has impressed public and critics alike. She has already beaten out Barbra Streisand for a Golden Globe award, and she swears bribery wasn’t involved. (“They sent my $2 back,” she jokes.) The Academy is a harder nut to crack. “I won’t win,” says Julie. “They don’t tend to give Oscars for comedy.”
That’s about as modest as Walters gets. Born in the grimy industrial town of Birmingham, the daughter of a builder-decorator father and a civil-servant mother, she proved adept at mimicking people early on and got thrown out of Catholic school because of it. Says her mother, now widowed: “She was always acting up. She kept everyone amused except the nuns.” Nor were the sisters much taken with Julie’s persistent working-class accent. “A nun once slapped my hand because I couldn’t say ‘baaath,’ ” she recalls. “It’s a wonder I learned anything.” After a brief stint at nursing school (“I did it to please my parents”), Julie, like Rita, decided to take the plunge: She enrolled in acting school, in Manchester. Ten years later, after working in regional theater and on the London stage, she landed the title role of Rita with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
But when it came to casting the movie, the backers wanted a big name like Dolly Parton, and it was only through the insistence of producer-director Lewis Gilbert that Julie got to play Rita in the movie too.
Julie lives in a sparsely furnished two-room flat in London, where she religiously watches such American prime-time soaps as Dallas and Dynasty, feeds her tiny frame with junk food, and likes to go out occasionally and “get good and plastered.” Although she has had two long-term relationships, she is now on the loose. “I have phases of being promiscuous and phases of being celibate,” she proclaims. “When I’m not working I’m more interested in sex and blokes.” A heterosexual who enjoys shocking, Walters announces that bisexuals are “lucky—they can get sexual pleasure out of everyone.”
Now, with her Oscar nomination in hand, Julie is mulling over new scripts and is back onstage this month with fellow Oscar nominee Tom (The Dresser) Courtenay in a production of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers. After that she will play a graphic designer in a TV film called She’ll Be Wearing Pink Pajamas. Beyond that Walters has no definite plans, other than to enjoy her new place in the spotlight. “I don’t like the future being sewn up,” she says. “I like an open book, the feeling that anything can happen.” In the process of Julie educating Julie, it usually does.