Hayley Mills Interview: Disney Legend Discusses "Forever Young: A Memoir"
Image attributed to Bee Gilbert
Hayley Mills began her acting career as a child at age 12 and was soon hailed as a rising star, winning the Academy Juvenile Award (as one of only 12 actors to ever be bestowed with this honor), BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer and Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year. Her six-picture deal with Walt Disney made her an international star and included the movies Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, In Search of the Castaways, Summer Magic, The Moon-Spinners and That Darn Cat. She appeared in many other films, in stage productions and made several guest appearances on television.
In Forever Young: A Memoir, the iconic actress shares personal memories from her storied childhood, growing up in a famous acting family and becoming a Disney child star, trying to grow up in a world that wanted her to stay forever young. The book is released September 7, 2021.
"Walt Disney was a warm, generous, marvelous man. I adored him."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Hayley, how’s the pandemic going over there in the UK?
Hayley Mills: Oh, it’s going very well, although things are relaxed quite a bit. You can go into shops and restaurants and things now without worrying wearing your mask. But we’re told the variant is infecting people. I think they’re almost very used to it, you know? It’s become something that we’ve lived with now for nearly two years, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. It’s a horrible, horrible thing for anyone to experience and go through. Last year, when we were locked down for a very long time, I was writing the book. I wasn’t able to do anything else or go anywhere else like everybody. There were no excuses. I just had to get on and work every day.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I like the title Forever Young. Who came up with that?
Hayley Mills: Well, we had a whole list of possible titles, and it’s from the Dylan song, which I’ve always loved. It was just one of the titles that we sent to the publisher of possibilities, and that’s the one they chose. When they chose it, I actually said, “No. I don’t think I like it now. I don’t think people will understand.” I thought they were going to think that I’m trying to say, “I am forever young.” And of course, I’m not any more than anybody is (laughs). Yet intrinsically, we’re spiritually forever young because we’re always the child that has stayed with us for our whole lives.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Your career was sort of depending on you remaining that child as long as you could, but at the same time, you were getting older and growing up. That had to be confusing to you.
Hayley Mills: (laughs) Yes. I know. I think a lot of people find adolescence terribly confusing. You are leaving one identity behind. It’s like being a caterpillar, and you go into the chrysalis. You don’t know if you’re going to be a butterfly or a moth. I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but it’s just that kind of insecurity and doubt while you question everything, your awareness of the world is very acute, and you’re not sure what your place is or who you are and what you believe. I think it’s quite a frightening time for most people and certainly a very confusing time.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Combine that with the added pressures that come with being a child actor, and I imagine it’s even more confusing. Then there are so many horror stories of child actors who suffered abuse as young stars.
Hayley Mills: I escaped that. I lost all of my money, but I avoided the abuse. I was very fortunate to have been working for an exceptional man, an exemplary man who would’ve never dreamed of abusing or exploiting his young actors. That was very lucky. It was a wonderful studio to work for. Walt Disney was a warm, generous, marvelous man. I adored him. The studio wasn’t very big. It had a family feeling. It was full of faces that I knew. So for those years, it was a wonderful place to work.
But whatever you do, whatever your circumstances, there is the other part of the coin. However perfect somebody’s life might appear, the other side is where all the difficulties and the challenges and the problems are. Although I had, in many ways, an extraordinary childhood with loving parents, still, in the pressure in my life, my responsibility and the expectations that I felt from the adult world were quite difficult, particularly when you doubt yourself, and you don’t really understand.
I didn’t really understand what it was I was doing, which is why I was so keen to go into the theater and have a much wider kind of role. I wanted to play challenging parts. I could’ve gone to acting school. There are lots of things I could’ve done, but I didn’t. I didn’t help myself as much as I could have. One of the difficulties was the expectations people had. When you’re quite a shy person, you grow and grow until you don’t recognize this person that has the same name as you do who’s on the cover of magazines and things. The expectations were that I was going to be adored, and I didn’t feel like that person at all. So, yeah. And people think, “Oh, well. You had wonderful advantages.” And I did. I had great advantages. Whatever. We all have a little price to pay.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Even though you were around celebrities your entire young life because of your parents, was there someone you met that you truly admired?
Hayley Mills: I was totally bowled over by meeting Boris Karloff. I couldn’t believe I was actually meeting Frankenstein’s monster who was the most charming man and surprisingly good looking. It was at a dinner party I went to, and I sat between Boris Karloff and Edward G. Robinson. So that was quite the dinner party to remember (laughs). There were people that I worked with that were wonderful, and Maureen O’Hara is definitely one of those people. How she handled herself on the set, the kind of generosity, warmth and good manners that she had, her sense of humor, her sense of balance about her fame and her beauty, I thought she was absolutely fabulous. I looked up to her. She was a great inspiration to me.
Una Merkel, who was also in The Parent Trap, was such a sweet person and very down to earth like Maureen O’Hara. I got on terribly well with her. I loved Nancy Olson. Of course, for so much of my childhood, I was surrounded by adults, and I always felt very comfortable with adults. Probably as I got older, I felt more comfortable with adults than I did with people my own age.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I hadn’t seen Pollyanna in many years, so I watched it a few days ago. I forgot about the first scene, something you don’t see anymore in films, a little boy swinging from a rope into the water with no clothes on. Surprising for a Disney movie, but definitely a sign of the times.
Hayley Mills: (laughs) Oh, yes. And nobody said anything at all! Nobody remarked upon it. So obviously things weren’t quite as uptight then as we think they were.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: According to the book, Pollyanna is cured of her spinal injury, but the movie sort of leaves the audience hanging.
Hayley Mills: I know. I know in the wonderful film with Mary Pickford, you’ve got scenes where she’s in a wheelchair, she’s trying to walk on crutches, and she can’t. She keeps falling over. And suddenly, she’s walking, and that’s the end. Mary Pickford was so fantastic. What a wonderful performance that was. She was 26 or 27 when she played it. She had such physicality and spontaneity. Just like a child, she threw herself around without any sense of personal danger. She was just amazing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Even in 2021, 50 years after The Parent Trap was released, the words “let’s parent trap” were used in the daytime drama General Hospital. I know there were Parent Trap sequels, but the original started it all.
Hayley Mills: Were they? How did they use those words?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The storyline was that a girl asked a friend to conspire with her to reunite her parents.
Hayley Mills: Oh, I see. Right. That’s quite something, isn’t it? That means it’s gone into history (laughs). That’s fantastic! I appreciate you telling me that, Melissa.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: As a child of six, The Parent Trap had me believing there were actually two of you (laughs).
Hayley Mills: Well, I think it was one of the first films where they used that process. Walt liked it so much, he added more scenes. I thought it was fun. I loved doing it. I had a photographic double. Her name is Susan Henning, and she was really good and very sweet. We used to have a great time together. She was an actress, and I always admired her so much because the whole film was the back of her head. But because she was an actress, I had somebody to really play the scenes with.
One thing I ought to mention is that obviously, I had to play both characters, and in the scene where there’s a dance, the boys from the local camp turn up. The girls are all excited about the boys. Sharon cuts the back of Susan’s dress out, so she walks off and dances with her knickers showing, and they end up having a terrible fight. I played Susan, so the first time we shot the scene, it was up to me to get hold of a key lime pie with a lot of whipped cream on the top and smash it into my double’s face, which was quite fun to be able to do that. Then of course, I forgot that I was going to have to switch parts, and I would get the pie in my face, so that was what was known as instant karma. That was quite interesting.
Then another thing we used to do was, when we were dressed exactly alike, we would leave the studio sometimes and go to Bob’s Big Boy hamburger joint for lunch and pretend we were real twins, which is a very simple pleasure, but it was tremendously exciting pretending we were real twins. I loved it.
Susie had to wear the false nose. They made a rubber cast of my nose, which was a little blob, and she had a neat little nose. So they’d stick this false nose on her face. Poor girl had to wear it all day. It was so hard for her to eat a hamburger with this nose on her face (laughs).
Susan and I still keep in touch. She lives in Northern California and breeds the most beautiful horses. When she finished Parent Trap, she went on and became a professional dancer, and she got back at me for those weeks having the camera at the back of her head. She dated Elvis Presley who I was madly in love with, and she actually kissed him, so there’s no way to top that. She kissed Elvis because she was in a film with him.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Trouble with Angels was directed by the iconic actress Ida Lupino. She actually lit a path for women directors in the 40s and 50s. Did you work with other female directors?
Hayley Mills: That’s true. I had one other female director, Amanda Bearse, a very good comedienne. I did a play with her in New York a few years ago. I loved being directed by women. I have to say, it took a bit getting used to working with Ida Lupino, who is a very impressive person and very good actress herself with a tremendous track record. She was quite a force to be reckoned with, and it was different. The atmosphere on the set was different. This was 1962 or 1963, I think. It was very unusual, and Ida called everybody “Darling” and “Sweetie” and all that. She was very sweet. She knew exactly what she wanted.
Bill Frye was the producer, and he had a very strong sense of design. He designed his office, and everything was black and white including the candies in the ashtrays because it was about nuns, and of course, they were dressed in black and white. He insisted that Ida also be dressed in black and white, so there was this wonderful monochrome scene for her wardrobe, his office and the nuns. Of course, The Trouble with Angels was a film with very powerful women, Rosalind Russell, Gypsy Rose Lee, Binnie Barnes and Mary Wickes.
Ida was a very good director and somebody I trusted. I trusted her instincts. I trusted her observations and guidance, and it’s great to be directed by directors who have been actors. They have a different kind of sensibility. I worked with my father. He directed me in a movie. But actors just have a different way of talking about a scene and what’s going on in the scene.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was that experience different and familiar for you because he was your dad?
Hayley Mills: Yeah. I’d worked with him many times, so the working relationship was very familiar. It wasn’t odd. The only thing that was odd and made things a little tricky were the love scenes I did with my dad staring at me from a few inches away.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was that embarrassing?
Hayley Mills: Yes, it was a little bit. I had to work on that (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: If you had not been in an acting family, what would you have chosen that for a profession?
Hayley Mills: I would love to answer that, but I think it’s absolutely impossible because if I hadn’t been raised in an acting family, they wouldn’t have been my parents, and depending on who my parents were, I would’ve probably gone another way. I would’ve been a different person. I would’ve had different genes. The first film I got was a case of just being at the right place at the right time, just absolute and complete luck. The part in the first film I did was originally for a boy. The director, J. Lee Thompsom, came to talk to my father about playing an inspector in his film, Tiger Bay, that he was going to write for this wonderful German film star called Horst Buchholz. He came to the farm in Sussex where we were living at the time and talked to daddy about doing the detective inspector. He saw me messing around doing TV commercials and decided there and then to make a little boy in the film a little girl. That was the start of the whole thing. So our lives and luck, and our fortunes turn on a dime, don’t they?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Absolutely. How’s your health been, Hayley?
Hayley Mills: Since the cancer? Oh, very good, thank you. Yes. Very good. I look after myself as much as I can. I diet and exercise. I’m terribly lazy about exercising, but I do believe that diet plays an enormous part in our health. I’m not the first person to say that. I’m pretty much a vegetarian and have been for many years. I’m even more now, of course, but with this pandemic, it’s vital we all keep ourselves as healthy as possible and our immune systems as robust as possible.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you concentrating these days on theater work?
Hayley Mills: Well, actually, I’ve been concentrating on writing this book (laughs). Before that, yes, I’ve been doing theater and little things here and there, did a little bit in a movie. I have my two sons. I have a wonderful partner, and I’m very fortunate to have five grandchildren. I’m really busy. So much of my life when my children were growing up, I had to go off to work, and I don’t want to miss my grandchildren. I want to be there for their birthdays. I want to know them, and I want them to know me.
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