role call

Kate Maberly Answers Every Question We Have About 1993’s The Secret Garden

Photo: Murray Close/Am Zoetrope/Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

Agnieszka Holland’s extremely goth 1993 adaptation of The Secret Garden has everything: earthquakes, emotionally distant orphans, abandonment, cold and looming British mansions, cold and looming British uncles, bitchy housekeepers, old-timey boys slowly dying in majestic bedrooms, kids asking each other if they are ghosts, Munchausen by proxy, and gorgeous landscaping. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book has been adapted to film four times — the latest version is out this week, and stars Colin Firth as the aforementioned looming British uncle — but Holland’s version is by far the best. Not only is it lush and stunning, overflowing with verdant English gardens shot on film by Roger Deakins, but it’s also incredibly sophisticated for a children’s film, giving its young audience the sort of intellectual and emotional credit that movies made for kids rarely do anymore.

The story of The Secret Garden is inherently dark: 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) is orphaned after a devastating earthquake in British-colonized India, and is shipped off to a freaky mansion owned by her vaguely terrifying, widowed uncle (John Lynch) in England. Almost instantaneously, she and the head housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Maggie Smith) lock horns, as the desperately lonely Mary is kind of an asshole — that is, until she finds a hidden garden on the grounds that once belonged to her dead aunt and begins to take care of it alongside a groundskeeping cutie named Dickon (Andrew Knott) and her cousin Colin (Heydon Prowse), who is being casually Munchausen-ed by his dad and Medlock. Holland’s film is deliciously straightforward about the bleaker elements of the tale, refusing to shy away from anything grim in the name of a G-rating (as the director once said in an interview, “It’s not cute … I think the romanticization of childhood does a real disservice to children”). Caroline Thompson’s flawless script has the young kids talking openly and seriously about dying and emotional paralysis, and even fledgling lust. There’s not a false or softened or condescending note in the movie; it’s as chilling and deeply affecting to watch now as it was for me as an 8-year-old, when I was quietly obsessed with movies that I now like to refer to as “orphancore” (this, A Little Princess, It Takes Two, Matilda, Heidi, Annie, and Harriet the Spy, a spiritual orphan).

Maberly’s performance is key to the movie’s lasting resonance. Early on, she plays Mary, a young girl who’s never cried and can’t imagine what it feels like to be loved, with a stark, dissociated affect. Later, as Mary learns how to develop real human connections, Maberly plays her with both a warmth and a spontaneous aggressive streak; she’s a fragile child who’s terrified to lose what she’s only just found. It’s all the more impressive considering it was Maberly’s first film role — and that she was only 9 years old when filming began. Ahead of the new version’s release, I hopped on Zoom with Maberly to talk about stalking Deakins on set, her relationships with Agnieszka Holland and Maggie Smith, the “meltdowns” she and her young co-stars had while shooting, and the letters she received (and still receives) from young fans.

Where am I reaching you?
In Switzerland. Which is a place where I’d landed, very fortunately, in the midst of all of this strange quarantine times. Very unplanned, but I stuck around. It’s one of the safer places to be, probably. A lot of what I’m doing I can do from here, so it’s good.

What were you working on when you got stuck there?
So I’m doing a lot in production now, but I also do a lot of screenwriting. I’m working on two scripts at the moment. That’s probably the only thing in the business that’s still alive at the moment. Being in the mountains in Switzerland is very inspiring and a good place to do that.

So I just rewatched your Secret Garden as well as the new one, which is coming out this week. Have you heard about it or seen it?
I know! It’s strange. It’s such a strange mix of sensations. It’s one of these fabulous stories that we’ll remake forevermore. But it’s the first one since mine. [Laughs.] So I feel a mix of sentimentality and curiosity. I haven’t seen it yet.

I watched your version hundreds of times as a kid. I hadn’t seen it as an adult until now, and I was really struck by how well it holds up. It’s an incredible movie.
Thank you. It’s funny that my very first movie is the one I’m still most proud of, to this day. Because I think it did affect little girls so much at the time. I got so many letters, and still do get letters from girls of that age who are seeing it for the first time, and it’s just one of those stories that stays with people. A very redemptive tale.

What kinds of things would the letters say?
Just from little girls who were excited and inspired, and really, they’re writing to Mary, obviously. Mary is their new hero. It’s an inspiring tale that was way ahead of its time about girls being strong and feisty and sticking to their guns. I know she starts out as a bit of a brat, but it’s all for good reason.

What do you remember about the audition process? I know it was a long time ago.
It was such a long process. It was such a bizarre — it really was one of those sorts of “right place, right time” things, I suppose. It wasn’t something I was actively looking for. I was not a little girl who was doing lots of drama. I was very shy; I didn’t want to be in the school plays. But they told us later that they looked at 3,500 little girls for this role. They went all over, to all the drama clubs, and then they went to all the schools. The very first time I auditioned, I was supposed to be playing a netball match that day. I was very sporty. But it was rained off. So I ended up instead in this audition. And I just had to read a few pages. I went home and told my family — I have a big family — and everyone laughed. Because I was a little tomboy, and the idea of me running around in corsets, they thought it was hilarious. And we thought that was the end of that, really.

But a couple of months later, we got a call saying, “They liked Kate. Will she come back for another audition?” And the real process began. I was called back nine times, and the last two were screen tests at Pinewood Studios, which was the first time I’d stepped into this world of the movies. It was unreal. And I remember driving onto the lot and saw the James Bond 007 hangar, and it was amazing. And I had a stinking cold. My mom and dad both came to the last screen test and were dosing me up with those little sniffer things to clean my nose, and Kleenex. [Mimics herself doing the lines with a cold.] But we got away with it! And then it began. And it was really the next two years of my life. Because we filmed not consistently for one year, but we filmed all through the summer, then we had a break, then we filmed through the winter for the winter scenes, because so much is outside. And then the following year, it was released around the world, and we went around the world on the opening tour. So it was definitely very life-changing, in many ways.

How old were you during those two years?
I think I was 8 at the first audition, then 9 and 10.

And your parents were cool with you doing this huge movie and doing press and all of that?
None of us had any idea what was coming, really. I remember audition three or four, I was going to meet [producer] Francis Ford Coppola, and I remember my dad was very excited. Of course, I had no idea who that was. [Laughs.] What 8-year-old knows who Francis Ford Coppola is?

Did they ever give you a sense of why they cast you?
That’s not the sort of thing you ask at the time — you just say, “Thank you!” But I think probably what ended up working in my favor without me even knowing it was that I wasn’t in drama school. I was quite shy and quite stubborn and quite serious. And Agnieszka, the wonderful, dramatic, Polish director was looking for — even the way she ended up directing the film, there was a darkness to it. It’s not that I was a terribly dark child. But I think the very untrained existence — I was what I was. That helped. That’s what she spoke about later, anyway.

What do you remember about first meeting her?
She was quite daunting! She was very serious and she was very intense, even through the audition process. But I didn’t mind that, actually. I always preferred that as a kid, from people being [faux enthusiastically], “Oh, yeah, yeah!” I preferred when people were like, “Right, yeah, this is what I need.” And she directed like that. She treated you like a little adult. Which I really appreciated. So it worked. She certainly wasn’t your best friend. She was by the end, but during the audition process she was quite intimidating.

So your relationship developed over the course of filming? What was it like at the end?
Of course. You can’t go through something like that, seeing each other every single day, so close to her — she and I were the ones on set every single day, apart from the crew. A very, very close relationship. We became very close in the way that a little girl and a grown-up can.

Was there any specific moment you remember her becoming warmer with you, or more of a parental figure?
It wasn’t her becoming a parental figure, but there was a — I do remember there were scenes I would do where I always felt pleased when I felt she was very proud. There were really special moments, and some quite intense scenes for little children, for all of us. And when we really got it, you could always tell with her. But it was always subtle. An undercurrent. She was always very supportive. If she ever got frustrated on set, it was never with me. She got terribly frustrated with the English weather. That was the only time I ever saw her get wound up. She was like, “It’s August! When will the clouds part?!” [Laughs.]

Like you said, the movie is rather dark. That’s what I love about it — there are so few children’s movies like that anymore. How did you understand the tone she was trying to achieve? Did you discuss it at all?
I absolutely didn’t understand it while we were making it. I just did what I did. I’d read the book a few times and I read the script, so I really felt like I was just trying to understand what Mary was going through. But I wouldn’t have even known what you meant: “What tone was the director taking with the film?” It all made sense afterward. It all made sense when it came together. She was brilliant, because she gave so much more credit to children than necessarily has been done in some children’s films. Children are ready for that depth and ready for more. I think she really proved that.

What’s so impressive about your performance — and maybe you’ll say you weren’t quite aware of it — is that in the beginning, you have this really believable flat, dissociative affect. Were you aware that that’s how you were coming across at the time, or that it was being requested of you?
I was just really aware of what Mary was going through in the story. One of the very heartbreaking moments is when she gets off the boat, and all of the other children are being welcomed by relatives and she’s just standing there, and they’re making fun of her — that intense isolation … I really always tried to be in the story. And the story at that point is quite devastating. She has nobody; she’s all alone. So I wasn’t thinking, I’m going to create a distanced performance. I was just thinking, I’m really sad because I’m all alone. If the effect that came across did, then I’m very happy!

You have such an expressive face for a kid, too. You have this sort of wry, sardonic humor about you in the movie. It seems like there’s so much going on in your mind.
There’s a lot going on, and I think some of it came from the relationships I had with the people in it. There were probably more grins and smirks when I was playing across from Dickon, from Andy. Because I just adored Andy. And we had so much fun. So some of those little moments that we caught were probably incredibly real. Almost like child flirting. This lovely relationship.

And with Maggie, she was so — she had such a presence. And you felt that doing a scene with her. I wanted to rise up and [meet her]. She was brilliant. She was so lovely to me. So kind. And she has a wicked sense of humor.

What was it like to square off against Maggie Smith?
My very first day of filming, my very first scene, was the scene where she walks into the bedroom and I’ve just woken up, and I stand up on the bed, and I say, “Who’s going to dress me?” And we have that kind of face-off. It was obviously a hugely exciting thing, my first day on this incredible movie, to have that with her. Subconsciously I learned so much. We did a lot of her stuff at the beginning of the shoot, so I was able to — when you’re little, you’re kind of a sponge. So I watched how she worked with people and I watched how she carried herself.

To go back to you and Andy — there is this murky sort of relationship between all three kids, where Colin says he wants to marry Mary, but Mary and Dickon have a sort of flirtatious vibe. But it’s obviously all quite subtle because they’re so young. How did you construct that? What did Agnieszka say to you about those relationships? 
It’s like a baby love triangle! [Laughs.] And that’s how Agnieszka was very clever. She’d pick up on things, things that were unscripted, and she’d throw things in. Especially with little boys; they were 11 or something. In the scene where Colin says, “I think I could marry you,” and we have that little romantic moment in the garden the first time he stands up, the camera is really close — these were the days when you shot on film — and it was supposed to be the end of the scene, and then she just goes, “And now, kiss him!” And I was like, “What?!” She was like, “Kiss him; kiss him!” So when I’m giggling, it’s because I got all flustered. I didn’t even know what was going to happen. Some of those things she really pulled out from us just by putting us in slightly embarrassing situations.

Were you particularly close to anyone on set?
Like I said, I adored Andy, and actually — I must have been a total pain in his butt — Roger Deakins. I literally hung [on to him]. I was obsessed with the camera. Most kids, between takes, you want them to go away and play or do schoolwork. But I’d just follow him around. He taught me how to load the film, the 35 mm. He’d let me look through the lens, check the gate. He was brilliant. I loved being around him and the camera. And actually Fred Roos, who was one of the main producers on set every day, we’ve remained friends forever.

So you just followed Roger Deakins around all the time? That’s incredible.
Yes. I don’t think I knew quite how lucky I was at the time. But yes, I did. And I never stopped. That was basically the first time, and from then on, I always attached myself to the camera department. Working my way to the other side.

Were there any specific scenes you remember being difficult to film? You have quite a range of emotions here.
Funny enough, I always found the scenes where I had to be really skippy and happy and laughing harder than the scenes where I had to be really emotional. Which sounds really messed up! [Laughs.] Because I was a very happy child. I just found it harder to force the smile. As opposed to really feeling the darkness of the situation Mary was in.

Well, there’s the scene at the end where you have to sob quite hard in a field.
Oh, yeah. Oh my goodness, I was so cold. [Laughs.] That really helped with the performance. We were up on the Yorkshire Moors at that point. Really high up, as you see in the very, very final shot. We were there in the winter, and I was wearing that tiny little lace white summer dress. And in between the takes, I literally had three puffer coats and blankets over me. And then they roll the cameras in, get everything set up. I’d be sitting on the rock, and the costume people would pull [the coats and blankets] and run away. So I’d be shivering because it was, like, minus degrees, and I was in a petticoat. Which actually was quite useful, but it was also — I really did feel it. And John Lynch was so intense. His face, his eyes. And we were so close in that moment surrounded by this incredible setting. So it felt very real. I think it’s such a beautiful scene now, when I look back.

Death is this big theme in the film. As a kid I was fascinated by death, and I think a lot of kids are. Were you?
I was. I wasn’t exactly fascinated by death, but I was fascinated by “What else?” I think I was especially fascinated by — I remember that the kids would always have lunch together, and for a couple weeks of filming, we were obsessed with “What’s beyond the ripple in space?” We’d have these deep, deep conversations. I think the conversation underlying the fascination of death in the film comes from the book, and it was handled really subtly, but nicely. It is something that you’re interested in, especially as a child, because it’s so unknown, and people are fearful to talk to you about it. But it doesn’t have to be scary. It’s about your curiosity.

What do you remember about filming the sort of pagan-ritual scene, with the fire and the chanting?
Oh, that was something. That was bizarre. I remember having to learn that weird chant! [Mumbles the whole thing to herself.] I still remember it. It’s amazing how it goes in. It was all blobby-blah-blah words. And we had to memorize them. When you talk about things that are hard for me — that was totally against my kind of vibe. I wasn’t a sing-y, dance-y kid. So when they said, “You’re gonna do a dance around a fire,” I was like, “What?” And I think they realized that quite quickly, which is why I ended up holding the lanterns. But it was fun because it was one of the few night shoots, and night shoots always have a different energy.

But we laughed a lot. That was probably the second-most scene where we had the most meltdowns. You put three kids together — we were laughing so much. Especially with Heydon doing his eagle wave around the fire. I still laugh when I watch it. I shouldn’t say this, because it’s, like, a very magical moment. I hope I’m not crushing it.

You’re not! Can you do the chant in full?
Oh boy, this is embarrassing. Al alagoya. Po kobi hayada. Al hey agoya. Oy koy ayada. I think. [Laughs loudly.]

That’s so impressive. It was just made-up words?
As far as I know! I hope it’s not like, “Do you know what you’re saying in so-and-so language?”

What was the No. 1 meltdown scene?
It was the scene where we first bring Colin into the garden, and we’re bringing him down the steps. This I think defines the quote that I’ve heard so many times, “Never work with children or animals.” Dickon was in the back, pushing the chair, and Colin’s in the chair, and I’m in the front, and we’re carrying this chair down steps. And surrounding us we had geese, lambs, chicken, pigeons, goodness knows what, tripping us up, getting in the way. I don’t know how many times that crow pooped on Dickon’s coat. I think we did 27 takes of that one moment, just trying to get down 20 steps. And half of those takes were because we could not stop crying with laughter. We all found it hilarious. Everyone else was like, “Oh my goodness.” And you can’t skip that part of the movie!

Amazing. Is there anyone you keep in touch with?
Fred, and Laura [Crossley], who played [the maid] Martha. She and I are kind of in WhatsApp touch. She lives in Australia now. And I bumped into Heydon a year or two ago in a postproduction studio, which was really random, but fun. Agnieszka, we’ve seen each other periodically over the years. I haven’t seen her in a few years, but that’s quite good for a movie. So often you have this incredible family for three months, and it’s gone, and you still love everyone, but everyone moves on to the next thing. So I kept a few great friends, for sure.

I watched a few videos of you on the press tour and you seem incredibly uncomfortable. What do you remember about that part of it?

So awkward. So awkward! I don’t do social media at all, so I never see [clips]. But my friends always manage to, and they forward me these things. I’m going, “Um, why are you asking me these questions?” I’m terrified. It was so out of this world for me. So unreal. I grew up in a very small town in south England, and I went to school and I played sports. The biggest stage I’d been on was playing piano in a local music festival. And suddenly I’m opening movies in front of hundreds of thousands of people and going on chat shows and live TV interviews, which were terrifying to me. It was terrifying.

Were you recognized as a kid, or are you still recognized now? Do people come up to you and say things?
Bizarrely, it’s still the film I get recognized the most for. Which I guess is a compliment! Still now and again if I’m buying Starbucks. Which is nice. It’s generally girls who were around the same age that you were when you saw it, and they say that it saved them. I love that. Because it’s always a lovely recognition, like, “That film meant a lot to me.” I always take it as a big compliment.

How would you characterize the ways The Secret Garden changed your life?
It definitely sent me down the path I’m still working on, and I can’t see myself being anywhere else. Suddenly I saw the big world. Being on that very first film set, and hanging on to Roger Deakins, I knew immediately that I wanted to be behind the camera. I fell in love with that whole process. And it changed me in so many ways. Obviously it also came with incredible opportunity, which led to other films. I made films in Egypt, Morocco. And there’s other stuff that comes with that. I had a bit of fame very young, and there’s stuff that comes with that that’s not very fun. But you learn from it. From rejection, or that not everyone in the world is all that nice. And there’s bullying. But I actually think getting some of that out of your system very young — I’m incredibly lucky. I have incredible parents and a great family, so I had great roots. Because otherwise it could have been really insane. But because I did, I think it was just a great education.

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Maberly is directing, writing, and producing a film called The Forests of Hands and Teeth. Maberly went on to star in films, including Finding Neverland, and TV shows, including The Langoliers.
Kate Maberly Answers Every Question About The Secret Garden