role call

Hayley Mills Answers Every Question We Have About The Parent Trap

The actress talks working with Walt Disney, life as a teen icon in the ’60s, and her new memoir about a Hollywood that no longer exists. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Buena Vista Distribution Company

For 60 years, countless children have started their summers with a dream: to meet their secret identical twin at sleepaway camp. Sure, 99.9 percent of those kids have no reason to suspect their parents are dysfunctional enough — or at least, dysfunctional in this very particular way — to keep such a momentous secret, but such is the allure of The Parent Trap. The movie will leave you hoping that there is someone out there who has been raised in a completely different home, with very different hobbies and interests, but who will still understand you on a genetic level. Plenty of people have forged bonds at camp, but have those camp friends helped you pull off cinematic twin shenanigans and teach your parents a lesson they can’t forget?

In both the 1961 Parent Trap and the 1998 remake, one actor was cast to play both twins. While millennials contemplated getting their ear pierced with a sewing needle and an apple like Lindsey Lohan, their mothers weighed the short haircut of Hayley Mills of the original. For Walt Disney, Mills was the obvious choice for the dual roles of Sharon and Susan. In 1960, she had won over audiences and critics as the plucky, ever-optimistic Pollyanna. Though it wasn’t a huge box-office smash, the 14-year-old Mills was considered a triumph in the part. She received the Academy Juvenile Award — the last honorary Oscar of its kind — at the 33rd annual ceremony.

In honor of The Parent Trap’s 60th anniversary this year, Hayley Mills was gracious enough to hop on a Zoom with Vulture. The actor has a memoir coming out this September, Forever Young, so she’s certainly had memories of her time on The Parent Trap’s set on her mind. She told us all about working with Walt Disney, life as a teen icon in the ’60s, and whether she’d rather be Susan or Sharon.

What does it feel like to hit this milestone?
I know, 60 years. Extraordinary. It really is. But why do people talk about films being 60, and not 50? Like human beings, we celebrate being 50, but when we get to be 60, we don’t talk about it quite so much. But it is — it’s amazing. I think Walt would be very happy that The Parent Trap is still enjoyed and remembered after all these years.

I know you did Parent Trap shortly after Pollyanna, and you already had a contract with Disney. Did you have to audition for the part or was it automatically yours?
No, I didn’t have to audition. I was so lucky. I did one audition when I was 12 for the first movie I ever made. And I didn’t even feel that that was an audition. It was more like a screen test. I never felt like the job depended upon me. So then the next thing was Pollyanna. I met Walt Disney at the Dorchester Hotel and my parents were there, and my brother, and we bought our Pekingese puppy along, and it was just a really nice meeting with a lovely, friendly, warm, sweet, genuine human being, who happened to be Walt Disney. And after that, I never did another audition for years. The first time I had to do an audition, I think, was 20 years later. And it was a horrible shock! It’s a dreadful experience to have to go through.

I’ve heard you had a great relationship with Walt Disney. Was he coming by the set very often?
Yes, he often did. He would just come down from his office, and wander across the lot. And he’d go and visit all the sets and the soundstages. See everybody. He loved movies, he loved actors. He loved the whole process of moviemaking. And he was intricately involved with every shot — every aspect of the movie. He knew what was going on. And he was always really encouraging. You didn’t think, Oh my god! Walt Disney? Oh, crikey. Oh, dear. He’s gonna ... You know, because he was always smiling. And he’d go around and tell everybody “good job!” Very encouraging to people.

Do you remember receiving the script for The Parent Trap the first time?
I do. I remember reading the script. I thought it was wonderful. I absolutely loved it. They didn’t have that title then. I know we started the movie without a fixed title, and then they came up with The Parent Trap. Which funnily enough, my parents didn’t like. But they changed their mind. That’s the funny thing about titles. You can think something’s really not very good as a title and then if the film or the book is a great success, suddenly it seems like a wonderful title.

Were you nervous at all about playing two different characters?
I was more excited than nervous. The idea of playing these girls from different sides of the country. There was a dialogue coach, a very nice, long-suffering man called Leon Charles, who had his work cut out for him with me and the accents, because the accents I know wavered quite a bit from place to place. But I think I got away with it because the girls were always playing each other. So they were trying to do each other’s accent, so perhaps that’s why the accents were a bit of a Moveable Feast.

Did you consider yourself more of a Susan or Sharon?
I think I gravitated more towards Susan. I loved her lifestyle. I loved her house. And her horse. And her clothes, her cowboy boots. She didn’t play the guitar very well. But I think her life looked a lot more fun than Sharon’s.

In order to film the scenes where the twins appear at the same time, there was a body double, Susan Henning. Did you get to know her well on set?
Yes, we had lots of fun together. She was a good actress, and she was a very good sport, because it was always the back of her head. We would rehearse the scenes together and then we would switch places and play opposite parts. Occasionally, if you know what you’re looking for when you watch the film, you can see the side of her cheek and it is not me. She’s got a longer neck and much longer legs, which I was extremely jealous of. But she got her own back because when she got a little bit older, she became a dancer and she dated Elvis Presley, who I was madly in love with, of course, as was everybody at the time. So I think that kind of compensated for it being the back of a head in the film.

Knowing that, it feels like there’s a little bit of foreshadowing to reality, with the scene in the camp cabin where Susan’s wall has all those pictures of dreamy rock stars.
Yes! That’s right.

Were there any scenes you remember being particularly tricky to film?
Well, they were all quite challenging. Being tipped out of the canoe by the girls. Again and again and again and again. And then the fight scene! I think that was where I got my comeuppance, the fight scene at the dance in the camp. We shot the fight scene first. And then I had the fun of picking up the cream pie, and squashing it into Susan’s face. And I rubbed it, really did a good job. And they said, “Okay, change.” And I thought, Oh gosh, yes, I’ve got to get the pies squashed in my face. Instant karma that was! I think the fight was probably the most tricky. It was quite effective, though, wasn’t it?

It’s worked amazingly well. I have to imagine that the use of split screen must have really been particularly impressive to viewers when it first came out. 
The split screen was quite a new thing. And I got letters. People really did believe there were two people. Which, really, I find that very hard to believe. But it was very basic, simple split screen. And then of course, they did the remake with Lindsay Lohan, where it was much, much more sophisticated. Incredible. I don’t know how they did it — there wasn’t like a dividing line.

When we were shooting a scene, on pain of death did you cross over the dividing line. Because if you suddenly said, “Here, do you want a Coke?” [Hayley extends her hand] your hand would disappear, because it was a line. They were only basically filming one side of the screen. And then they [would] film the other side. So in the scene where we were both on the bed together, you had to get off the bed and you couldn’t move the sheets or anything. Otherwise, when you got back, the sheet would be going up.

Do you remember when the song you sang from the movie “Let’s Get Together” became a hit on the radio?
I do, and nobody could have been more astonished. I couldn’t believe it. It was a gimmick song. The Sherman Brothers wrote it and when they played it to me, they made all sorts of terrible faces and we all laughed like trains. And then suddenly — I mean, it got into the Hit Parade! I think it got to be No. 1 in Hawaii. They’re very, very discerning in Hawaii! It was one of the surprises of my life.

My mom was 10 when The Parent Trap came out, and she was already a huge fan of yours from Pollyanna. What was it like to be looked up to by girls who were just a few years younger than yourself?
Wow, I don’t know how to answer that, really. Except that we never forgot that it was because of the film. It was the film. I was in the film. It wasn’t as if they met me at a party and had that reaction to me. So there was always this kind of feeling of being at arm’s length, or once removed. So that’s really what it was. They loved the film, and they loved the characters and they could identify with them and with their situation. And they could imagine themselves in that situation.

Of course, then, when I met people, when I was a little bit [older], it always worried me that they would be expecting something rather extraordinary. They’re expecting Pollyanna or Susan or Sharon, and they just got me. Because you’ve got the fan magazines all writing stories that aren’t true and picking photographs that have been airbrushed. So then there’s the person with a spot and greasy hair. And they think, Oh dear, this is a bit disappointing. There is a kind of bubble of unreality that goes along with it. Maybe less now, because probably social media has got so much to do with it. And you know, people know everything about everybody now. There’s not a lot of surprise or mystery.

I know that you have a memoir coming out, Forever Young, this September.
I wanted to write it because the Hollywood that I knew is gone. There were amazing actors that I worked with, that were all in their 40s and 50s — they’ve gone. I was there at kind of the tail end of the glory days of old Hollywood. And so it was wonderful and fun to go back to those days. Also, on a personal level, it wasn’t all happiness and light, because growing up is difficult and growing up when you’re getting very famous is quite difficult. So it’s about Hollywood then and also my personal struggle.

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Hayley Mills Answers Every Question About The Parent Trap