Julie Andrews for “The Princess Diaries”

Julie Andrews is more than just a movie star, but something of an icon. The Oscar winning Mary Poppins has triumphed from stage and screen to having carved a niche in popular culture.

While her sugar-coated Sound of Music is currently enjoying something of a comeback with the hugely popular sing-along version, Andrews herself is genjoying herb own personal comeback as the Queenly grandmother in the G-rated Princess Diaries, and hopes to return to singing despite the botched up throat surgery that nearly destroyed her career. In an enlightening interview with Paul Fischer in Los Angeles, the 66-year old Dame Julie talked nuns and Alps, flying nannies, throat surgery, childhood and Princess Diaries.

Julie Andrews looks nothing like her 66 years would indicate. A vision in a pastel green pants suit, Andrews epitomises old world elegance. Still as British as she ever was, despite living in both Switzerland and Los Angeles, Andrews, recently knighted, says that she feels very British, and proud of it. “I also feel, in a Pollyanish sort of way, that I carry my country wherever I go, that I represent it, and I still carry a British passport”, Andrews explains with that all-too-familiar voice we know so well.

Rarely engaged in this “whole press bash”, Andrews is happy to be trotted out to promote her co-starring role in The Princess Diaries, from veteran Garry Marshall of Pretty Woman fame. The film, dealing with an American gawky teenager who discovers that she is the sole heir of a European kingdom, casts Julie as her ‘Professor Higgins’, the girl’s ‘stern’ grandmother who needs to transform the ugly duckling into a royal swan. The irony of playing a Higgins-type character doesn’t escape Andrews, who originated Eliza Dolittle on Broadway. “Everyone picks up on that”, Julie agrees. The actress, whose first big studio film Princess Diaries is in a while, says that she wanted to do the film “because Garry Marshall asked and I’ve always admired him.” Andrews also adds that the Dowager Queen “was a wonderful role for someone like me to play, because I can kick up my heels and wear those gorgeous Valentino clothes”, she says smilingly. An added irony was that the film, her first Disney movie since Mary Poppins, was shot, in part, on the same soundstage upon which Poppins was filmed nearly forty years ago. “Of course the studio is so different now. Back then it was a little smaller and more charming. Back then you also walked everywhere, now it’s so huge.”

Born Julie Wells in 1935, Andrews recalls “kind of being born into” being a singer. “My mother and stepfather were in vaudeville, and to keep me occupied during the war years, as I was out of school, I took singing lessons.” She and her parents thus “discovered, to everyone’s amazement, that I had this freak voice, a child prot?g?.” So suddenly, Andrews explains, “I was launched, at age 12, into this career, because I could sing the hell out of an Aria. And had a four octave range.”

This ‘four octave range’ put Julie in work for years to come, conquering Broadway in the likes of The Boyfriend, Camelot and of course My Fair Lady. In 1964, she made an auspicious film debut in Disney’s Mary Poppins, for which she won her only Oscar.

Throughout much of her career, especially her early work, Andrews has revelled in the fairytale mythology of popular culture, from My Fair Lady through to Sound of Music; Princess Diaries is another film that continues to encapsulate the longevity of the fairy take. Andrews agrees that this facet of literature and film endures “because ANY Cinderella endures and this is just another version of that. ‘This is clearly one of the great themes; EVERYBODY hopes to be put in a better place.”

It was Mary Poppins that launched Andrews’ movie career back in 1964, but The Sound of Music, released a year later, catapulted her into superstar status. While Andrews is happy to have moved on, she is not surprised by its extraordinary longevity. “You put children, the Alps, nuns and great music together and you have the perfect family film. It also remains a beautifully crafted film.” Surprisingly, Andrews never tires of being asked about the film that has taken on a life of its own. ‘I’m grateful, happy and lucky. All those adjectives apply.” She still has “wonderful memories” having done SOM and remains great friends with the ex-SOM kids.

The actress says that she was originally puzzled by the new sing-along edition of Sound of Music, that has been playing to packed houses worldwide, though Andrews herself has not attended one of the performances. “I’d like to be a fly in the wall though. I’ve heard some funny stories, such as one guy turning up covered head to toe in gold paint; it appears he had come as Ray, a drop of golden sun.”

Last year, Andrews’ singing career remained in serious jeopardy following a botched up operation on her throat. Initially destined never to sing again, Julie, whose litigation against the hospital is still happening, won’t talk too much about this, but says that she remains optimistic over her musical future “and I’m exploring every possibility. Certainly my initial voice is so much better than it WAS, so there’s room to be hopeful.”

The Princess Diaries will allow a new generation of moviegoers to be reintroduced to Andrews, who delivers the kind of comedic work she loves. “I adore comedy”, she enthuses, admitting a penchant for being “a bit cheeky in my own sense of humour, as well as a bit irreverent.” Next on screen, Andrews will be seen playing a cameo in Aussie director PJ Hogan’s Unconditional Love. “I get to poke fun of myself a bit, within an ingenious idea. I hope it works.” Andrews was also seen recently on US television in a live production of On Golden Pond, co-starring with Sound of Music’s Christopher Plummer.

Add to that her other career as a renowned writer of children’s books, and Julie Andrews is enjoying a second and third wind. She hopes to produce, but not direct, “because I’m married to a director and I know what THAT’S like.”