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Julie Walters

‘Billy Elliot’

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The last time Julie Walters basked in Oscar’s glow, she was the student, learning from a professor played by Michael Caine in 1983’s Educating Rita, for which she earned a Best Actress nomination. Now, 18 years later, she’s back with a Best Supporting Actress nod, and this time she’s the teacher, instructing working-class dance prodigy Jamie Bell in Billy Elliot. Yes, her Mrs. Wilkinson is poured from that old, world-weary mold, a chain-smoking mom trapped in a humdrum existence whose only spark comes from helping others realize a potential that she never reached herself.

Yet like the movie itself, Walters’ performance finds vitality by keeping it rough around the edges — a savvy change-up from an actress best known for her broad comic talents. ”With Julie, you get buckets of emotion,” Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry has said. ”But I would tell her ‘Keep this as tough as you can.”’

The role was a stretch in other ways, too. ”Actually, she said she hates dancing,” chuckles producer Jon Finn. ”We didn’t have much time to shoot the film, so it was really remarkable how she would always be ‘up,’ always willing to just go for it.” Unlike her Mrs. Wilkinson, Walters was able to achieve her artistic dreams, though like Billy’s, that pursuit was frustrated by a parent — her mother, who wanted her to be a nurse.

Never entirely comfortable with her celebrity, the 51-year-old Walters (now a mother herself) declines most interviews. But her reticence seems reserved only for the press — producer Finn, for one, was impressed by the bracing shot of humanity Walters brings to the screen. ”Some people just have an innate decency that shines through,” he says. ”She’s one of them.”