I had the privilege of talking with actress and Disney Legend Hayley Mills about her newly released memoir Forever Young. The book covers the early part of her career, including the films that she made with The Walt Disney Company. Viewers will remember her from the iconic roles she played as a child star, including the titular character in Pollyanna, and the dual roles of Sharon and Susan in The Parent Trap, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. In her candid and honest memoir, she recounts some of the struggles of growing up in the spotlight, in addition to the incredible experiences in the industry, like working with top figures such as Walt Disney.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. For our full, uncut discussion, check out the video at the bottom of the page!
How have you been doing over the last year and a half as you have been writing your memoir?
That was a whole new experience for me. I’d never done that before, though it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I started again and again and discarded my efforts. But this last year has been really interesting. When it’s over, I think I will probably have a better idea about the effect that it’s had, because I think it has actually had an effect on the way I think about my life, and perhaps even myself, having written the book and spent such a long time trawling through the past.
Was it hard to recount these things? Or did your diaries fill in some of those gaps where maybe you hadn’t remembered some of those specific details?
Memories are a fascinating thing. I did have a journal, but I didn’t write it every day, and very often the journals were full of moaning about boys I was in love with, which obviously gets boring for people to read. But as soon as you’ve got that little chink, the door opens a bit and then you can slip back to the past. It was very vivid for me. I was also very lucky because both of my parents had written autobiographies. My mother had written a very good autobiography some years before called What Should We Do Tomorrow? She was a very emotional writer. I love the way she wrote; she was very much an inspiration. For me, I always wanted to write like her. My dad, of course, was tremendously entertaining and told wonderful stories. So, I could cross-check their work and see how they had put things. And I’m very lucky that I still have a few people in my life that were part of my childhood so I could talk to them.
I appreciated how open you were in your experiences. Was it difficult to recount some of these things emotionally?
Yes. And of course, as a writer, so much of writing is choice: What am I going to write about? How am I going to write it? How much am I going to say? How much do I have the right to say? My memories involve other people. I didn’t want to invade people’s privacy. But I wanted to tell the truth. So it’s picking your way through a bit of a minefield sometimes.
Over the years, Walt became known to many as “Uncle Walt.” However, in your memoir, you mention that he was more of a father figure. What about him was fatherlike?
I think the reason I said that was because he was a towering figure. He was my father’s generation. And because he was in a position to influence my life as a father, more than an uncle. The decisions he made directly influenced me. And also because I trusted him. I trusted and believed that he had my best interests at heart. And of course, I wasn’t completely naive. I understood that he also had the best interests of the film, and of his studio, and that my image shouldn’t in any way clash with those things. And, of course, he had that kind of influence and control where he would veto any photographs if I was holding a drink or anything that would be a bit questionable with the Disney image. It’s a very different world now. In the book, I mention when I was doing The Moon-Spinners, and I was shooting a scene in a little restaurant where I’m at the table with Peter McEnery and Joan Greenwood. I’m leaning forward and talking very urgently to Peter McHenry, and they stop the filming and drag me behind the camera to run wire all around the top of my sundress and clamp it to my chest so there was no shadow showing any kind of cleavage. There must not be any suggestion of any cleavage. It wasn’t that long ago, but it probably seems archaic now. I Ioved Walt Disney; I had great respect for him and I wanted to do what was right, as far as he was concerned. It was just when I got a little bit older and I wanted to play certain parts in different kinds of films because I was starting to feel my chops as an actress and I wanted to spread my wings. I wanted to do things and they absolutely went against the grain. That was a bit frustrating. I still feel a certain sort of frustration about that all of these years later, funnily enough.
Speaking of Walt Disney, this year marks the 60th anniversary of The Parent Trap, which is just incredible. Does it feel like 60 years have passed since The Parent Trap? Did you have any thoughts at the time as to the future of that and your other films?
Well, obviously, to think that people would still be watching them 60 years later never crossed my mind! But in actual fact, it doesn’t surprise me that The Parent Trap has survived because it was a very well-written script by David Swift, who also directed it. He’d also written the script and directed Pollyanna and I loved working with David. He really understood actors. He knew how to approach you and how to suggest things and he never undermined you. He was a collaborative director. He was wonderful. I think those were the best films that I made for Disney. But as far as their longevity, Pollyanna was already a classic story. And her message is for all times. The name Pollyanna has gone into the dictionary as a way of being! As for The Parent Trap, I did recognize even at the time that there was something important about that movie. Because up until that point, not very many people were getting divorced. Everyday, ordinary people didn’t get divorced, not very easily anyway. At my boarding school in England, there was one girl that I knew of whose parents were divorced. And she was so ashamed that they were, that she pretended her father was dead, rather than admitting that they were divorced. And so here is the story about these two girls taking control of their parents who have really made a complete hash of their lives. They’ve really messed up, and the girls take control. And I think that that is just such a wonderful idea for kids: that they can make the right choices where their parents didn’t. It was done with great humor and great characters and wonderful character actors. Maureen O’Hara, how marvelous to have her in that movie! And Brian Keith! They were such a perfect couple they worked together so well. And Joanna Barnes who played the scheming wife-to-be was brilliant. All the actors were! His [Walt’s] great recipe was to cast the film brilliantly. As far as I was concerned, I was surrounded by these fabulous actors and it took a tremendous onus off me. I just had to learn my lines and not bump into the furniture. And I didn’t feel I was carrying the film because I wasn’t and that’s the best feeling when it’s a real collaborative unit.
Later on, you went back to the studio in the early 80s to film a Disney Animation special for television? Was that the first time you’d been back to the studio since?
I think it was. And I don’t have much of a memory about it, unfortunately. I vaguely remember going there and talking about the process. But the studio was very different because Walt wasn’t there! It’s like a party without the host. It’s like a family without the patriarch. And the people who were running the studio were not integrated into the life of the studio in the way Walt was. He was wandering around the studio every day. And he was always very well dressed. He was either in a suit or he would be wearing a pair of grey trousers and those cardigans. And his wife Lily would turn up. Everybody knew them, and they knew everybody. It was like a family. But, if people did something that they didn’t like, they got fired just like that. There was great respect and great affection.
Your memoir ends during the 1970s. Do you plan to write a follow-up book about your adult life and career since that time?
It would be very different. At the moment, I’m so relieved to have finished this one. It would have to be quite different; I don’t quite know what. I discovered I do love writing very much. Of course, I was helped by my son Crispian, who is my guide. He helped me with the structure, which is terribly important. Otherwise, you go wandering off!
Many thanks to Hayley Mills for taking the time to talk with us. Forever Young is available from Grand Central Publishing and is in bookstores starting on September 7.