“To Kill a Mockingbird” star Mary Badham talks about playing one of literature’s most beloved characters upon the paperback release of Go Set a Watchman.
by Cerith Mathias
Mary Badham was 9 years old when she played Scout Finch in the 1962 movie adaptation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ a role that she says “changed my life.” Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Badham was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of the boisterous, smart as a whip tomboy, whose outspoken curiosity endeared her to generations of readers and moviegoers alike. This week, the paperback edition of Harper’s Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which sees the adult Jean Louise return to her hometown of Maycomb, hits the shelves of bookstores around the world.
Cerith Mathias spoke to Mary Badham during her appearance at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival in March about her experiences as one of 20th century literature’s most beloved characters. (Badham is pictured with Rick Bragg from the opening night of the festival.)
CM: You’re known the world over for your portrayal of Scout Finch. Are there any similarities between you and Scout?
MB: Oh, we’re so similar! She was like stepping into a well-worn pair of shoes, that you’re comfortable with, because we were so much alike. I was very much a tomboy, still am. I don’t do the feminine thing — I’m not one of those girly girls. I grew up in a house full of boys. Horton Foote (who adapted the novel for the screen) made it so easy for me because the dialogue was just perfect, it was so natural, so it felt perfectly easy. Scout was my first acting part. I’d never done anything before.
CM: How did your involvement in the movie come about?
MB: There had been a cattle call throughout the South to let people know that there was going to be an audition for a movie of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” My daddy said no to me trying out, but my mom had him wrapped. Being on the set was playtime, we had a blast. The movie set was like family. We only got as much of the script as we needed to, and I didn’t read the book until after I had my daughter. When I read it, there were all these people that I never knew existed. People that we all have in our families, like Aunt Alexandra. Boy, don’t we all have an Alexandra!
CM: For so many people, when they think of Atticus, it is of Gregory Peck’s portrayal of the character. What was your relationship with him like?
MB: He is Atticus. I call him Atticus. We stayed friends up until he died. It was a very loving situation; he and his wife Veronique really picked up the torch for me and really took care of me after daddy died. It was nothing to pick up the phone, and it would be Atticus: “Whatcha doing, kiddo? How you doing? What are you reading? School going OK?” For such a busy man to take his time just to pick up the phone and call meant the world to me. It would just keep me on a high for days.
CM: How much of an impact has ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ had on your life?
MB: Oh there’s a lot more than just being in a movie. I mean, I put my sensitivity to social ills and trying to right the wrongs and all of that to my experience with “Mockingbird” and with Atticus and Brock Peters (who played Tom Robinson). All of that has made me very socially conscious. Because Atticus (Peck) was socially conscious. He thought about that all the time; he worked with projects that he thought were important, and I think he helped so much throughout the world; people adored him. Because he was genuine, he was real. He was a showman in the way that he loved to make people laugh, but he was a real caring individual who saw pain and suffering and wanted to make it better. There aren’t many people like that. He was a great role model for me.
CM: The unexpected release of Go Set a Watchman last year was the subject of much controversy, some of which remains today. Were you concerned about its publication?
MB: The day before it was released, I was called to New York to do a reading for it. I didn’t get to the hotel until 8 o’clock at night, I didn’t have the book until 9.30 that night, so I stayed up until 1 o’clock in the morning reading it so I could go and talk to Katie Couric about it the next morning. I’d read all the reviews — all the stupid stuff people had to say about it, where they hadn’t read the book obviously. They had skimmed some stuff and thought they had it. I was thrilled with the book. It was tough, because I had some tense moments. But the thing I tell people who are worried about reading it is: just get through the tense moments, get to the last three chapters and then all will be right. It’s a growing up process that Scout is going through, and her father allowing her to grow up, and her family is supporting her with her beliefs. And it was just like I had to do with my father — understanding that he wasn’t going to be around forever and that I was going to have to stand on my own two feet. That’s the feeling I get with Watchman. It’s a coming of age.
CM: Was it strange coming back to Scout after so many years? Are you happy with the grown-up Jean Louise?
MB: Oh, I’m very happy with Jean Louise. Absolutely! She is Scout to the end. I was a little bowled over by her tenacity and her boldness, but very pleased with it. Absolutely, totally pleased with it. Because she stayed her true self, from beginning to end. This is why I tell people all the time: have faith in your author, trust in the characters and all will be right with the world.
CM: Do you see any parallels between the adult Jean Louise and the adult you?
MB: Oh yes! A lot. Scout gave permission to a lot of girls to be who they are. Politically, we’re right on par; we have the same battles to fight, because unfortunately we’re still having to fight these battles today. This is not a black and white 1930s or 1950s issue, this is here today, now. Whether you want to talk racial issues, whether you want to talk women’s issues, we’re still answering all those same questions. If we don’t teach history, we’re not going to learn these lessons. We do the best we can with what we’ve got, but if we don’t pay attention, we’re really going to lose everything we’ve achieved. Because, I myself, do not want to go back to the days where white men rule. It’s just not right. Diversity is the key to making a strong, healthy society.
CM: Readers all over the world were saddened to hear the news of Miss Nelle’s passing this year. What do you think her legacy is?
MB: Miss Nelle was such a funny, great human being and such a great writer. Her stories live on. Her story is there in her books, so, it’s important that people read those books. Through those books you will be with Miss Nelle, always. Because she poured her heart and soul into these two books. She was quite a gal. She really was. I just loved her so much, she really was a wonderful human being. We didn’t really get to know each other properly until it was almost too late, but at least the short time we had together was lots of fun. I think she was pleased with me. I think I did my job OK.
Photo credit: Mary Badham in conversation with Rick Bragg from the 2016 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival courtesy of Ride Hamilton.
Cerith Mathias is a political television producer for the BBC in South Wales, but her true passion is traveling and literature. “I have held a keen interest in the South since childhood, which I believe stems from reading authors such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain,” she says. She’s written articles on Zelda Fitzgerald for literary magazines and published work in New Zealand, Italy and the UK. She’s currently working on a travel guide based on her travels in the South. Read her blog here.