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I recently had a chance to chat with Penelope Wilton about her new film, Disney’s  adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book, The BFG. Wilton has been an actress in the U.K. since the 1970’s.  Most recently she played Isobel Crawley for six seasons in the critically acclaimed BBC TV Series, Downton Abbey, but before that, she lent her considerable talents to Calendar Girls, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and even the cult classic Shaun of the Dead. She’s also done award-winning work on stage and TV – in fact, if you’re a fan of UK TV, you may also remember her from season one of  Doctor Who where she played Harriet Jones.

Becoming The Queen and a Dame

Joining the cast of this new film was an easy decision. Wilton got a call from her agent asking her to play the role of Queen Elizabeth II in a new film directed by Steven Spielberg. As Wilton put it, “If Steven Spielberg wants you to do a movie, you do it. Wouldn’t you say?”

Wilton was about to start filming the final season of Downton Abbey when The BFG began production and for about a month she was working on both. She found that her Downton castmates weren’t much interested in her new role as Queen Elizabeth II. But she notes, “In fact, they were rather envious. There was silence around the thing when I came back. She’s just been making a film. Who with? Oh yes.”

Steve Spielberg directing Penelope Wilton as Queen Elizabeth II in Disney's The BFG opening July 1, 2016 - rated PG (c) Disney ad

But working with Spielberg wasn’t her only highlight of the year. In June she was bestowed the title of Dame by Queen Elizabeth II herself. Wilton had to keep the pending honor a secret for six weeks making the whole thing a bit surreal to the point of her beginning to wonder if it was real. Doubts began creeping into her head, “That didn’t happen. I made that up. I just had a dream.” But it was real, and Wilton accepted her new title during the Queen’s Birthday Honors earlier this month.

On Playing Queen Elizabeth II

But what was it like for Wilton to play such an iconic, real-life person? “I thought the best way to play the Queen was to try and be the Queen, our Queen, as best I could,” said Wilton and to get the character’s costuming right, production staff went straight to the Queen’s glove and bag maker. In fact, the bag is a bit of a character itself. Wilton gave her best Queen smile and said, “It’s a strong fit. It’s not going to fall off your arm, you know, while marching past a whole lot of soldiers.” She continues, “… and very sturdy shoes, which are nice, and bright colors because she likes to be seen at a distance.” But what about the whiz popper scene she had to perform as the Queen? Wilton says with a laugh, “…it’s a private moment that you don’t often see.”

Steve Spielberg directing Penelope Wilton as Queen Elizabeth II in Disney's The BFG opening July 1, 2016 - rated PG (c) Disney ad

Wilton’s Hopes for  The BFG and Her Relationship With Steven Spielberg

Wilton has many reasons for feeling good about her role. “I’m lucky Steven Spielberg has done great things in my life, in my career actually, so that was special.” Wilton goes on to say, “Also, this is a wonderful story, wonderful to be part of something that, well I hope a lot, a whole generation of young children will remember like they did E.T. because it will be a stand-up moment in the film so for all those reasons…”

And what does Wilton hope people will take away from the movie? “Well, on the very basic level I want people to enjoy being taken to that world because it’s a wonderful story written by a great storyteller meeting another great storyteller and a visual storyteller, so if you get those two together, it’s a wonderful combination, but also like all these stories, it is people learning to understand themselves and learn that  you have to just believe in yourself.” She goes on, “And, little Sophie, who doesn’t have much, but when she meets somebody who has even less than she does and he’s 20 foot tall, they sort of work as a good team and they, they both of them understand that they are outside the norm, and they give each other confidence and when you have confidence in yourself you can take on the world. And I think that’s  perhaps the overall message of the movie, which is the message of a lot of very good children’s literature, you know.”

See Penelope Wilton as Queen Elizabeth II starting June 1 in Disney’s The BFG

The BFG Film

  • Genre: Fantasy-Adventure
  • MPAA Rating: PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor
  • U.S. / Release date: July 1, 2016
  • Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Producers: Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer
  • Executive Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, John Madden, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Michael Siegel, Frank Smith, Naia Cucukov
  • Screenplay by: Melissa Mathison Based on the Book by Roald Dahl

Quote - Penelope Wilton on Steven Spielberg asking her to play Queen Elizabeth II in Disney's The BFG ad