As part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory returns to theaters for two days. The revival is part of the ongoing TCM Big Screen Classics series.
The Oscar-nominated 1971 original movie, which stars Gene Wilder in the iconic titular role, will screen at select locations on Sunday, August 15, 2021, and Wednesday, August 18, 2021.
When it was released, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory got largely positive reviews, but it wasn’t a huge financial success. It grossed $4.5 million against a $3 million budget.
I caught up with the film’s Julie Dawn Cole and Paris Themmen, aka Veruca Salt and Mike Teevee, to discuss the Hollywood classic, its impact on pop culture, and correct an urban myth.
Simon Thompson: When you made Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, did you ever imagine it would be being celebrated 50 years later?
Julie Dawn Cole: I was 12 when we started shooting the movie. At that age, you’ve got no concept of that. I couldn’t think past next semester, so the idea that we’d be thinking and talking about it 50 years later, absolutely not. It disappeared out of my life for a long while. It wasn’t until probably the mid-1980s when it began to achieve the cult status that it has got now.
Paris Themmen: I can remember being on set and I made a joke, I think it was to my mother, that was something like, ‘Wouldn’t be wonderful if I got an Oscar for this.’ I was 11, so I was aware of the Oscars, but that was just a funny thing to say. The movie did get a nomination for Best Original Score. I did not imagine that we would be talking about the film 50 years later, and it has been an increasing influence on my life ever since.
Thompson: That’s something that you seem very comfortable with.
Themmen: Well, I did Wonka, I did three Broadway shows, and I did some commercials until I was around 16. I went back to acting in my 40s, but for the most part, I peaked at 11. For a long time, I didn’t realize what a big deal the movie had become. It had taken on this natural, lasting popularity and had cult status. We started to do conventions, and it became more apparent, as time went on, that it was going to be the thing that I was best known for. If it had been a huge smash at the time, maybe I would have realized all of that then, but it’s something that became true over time, and that’s very special.
Thompson: Julie, this was one of your first jobs, right?
Cole: It was my second job, but my very first film. My first had been a theater production of Peter Pan in London’s West End over the previous Christmas. When I got down to the last recall for my final audition, I remember getting a copy of the book the night before and reading it on the train home from school. I lived in Guilford at the time, and I was on a train back from London Waterloo. It was a 50-minute journey, and I had read the book from cover to cover before I got home. When you read it, you see things like the Chocolate Room in your head, don’t you? I couldn’t comprehend how they were going to recreate that stuff.
Thompson: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had a budget of $3 million, which was good but not huge. What they managed to do was incredible.
Cole: There was minimal CGI. The geese in the I Want It Now scene were created, but everything else was pretty much there. The Chocolate Room was wall to wall on one of the soundstages. The popcorn trees, the toadstools, and the river were all there, so it felt very extravagant. Pretty much every day, you’d move on to the next scene and think, ‘I wonder what this one’s going to be like.’ It was as good for us as it probably was for you watching it.
Thompson: You worked closely with the late Roy Kinnear and Gene Wilder on this. Both of them are legends. Did you understand that at the time?
Cole: As a child, I didn’t know any of Gene Wilder’s work. At the time, Bonnie and Clyde and The Producers were the most significant things he’d done, and due to my age, I wouldn’t have seen those. He was just Gene to me. I knew who Roy Kinnear was because he was so popular in Britain, and the woman that played my mother, Pat Coombs, was another one of our national treasures. I was in awe of her and Roy. I was probably even more in awe of Denise Nickerson, who played Violet Beauregarde. She was six months older than me; she’d been in movies before and lived in New York. I thought she was so cool.
Thompson: What do you think is the secret of the movie’s longevity? As well as being considered a classic, it’s big in meme culture.
Cole: Goodness only knows, but it is so bizarre when I find myself as a 12-year-old popping up as a meme. The longevity is largely down to the fact that it’s a great story, and it works on many different levels. As a kid, you love it because it’s like winning the lottery, but there’s also the fact that we like to think that if you do good things, you will be rewarded. When Charlie gets rewarded and finds that ticket? Yeah, I cry every time. Some of the other little references are clever; it’s witty, it’s funny, and there are lots of layers in there.
Themmen: Both Roald Dahl and the movie’s director, Mel Stuart, were very clear that they didn’t want to talk down to kids. There are references in the film that are more for adults, and the way Wonka treats the kids is not a typical sort of fairy tale approach like you get with things like Cinderella; it was more like Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Roald Dahl wrote it that way, and Mel Stuart honored it. You’ve got the pretty scenery and the heartwarming scenes, but it’s a bit more grown-up. For that reason, families like to watch it together, and the children see one thing, and then they grow up, and then they start to see the other side of things. Aside from it just being a great movie, in terms of a narrative or a thematic standpoint, I think that’s a crucial point. Also, the themes are still relevant today. On top of that, you have Gene Wilder and the tremendous supporting cast. There are many reasons why people still love it.
Thompson: Julie, you mentioned every kid wanting a chocolate factory, but when you turned 13 while filming, you were given a few props, including a golden ticket and an Everlasting Gobstopper. Do you still have them?
Cole: No. I do have the Scrumdiddlyumptious Bar wrapper. When the other version came out a few years ago, I thought, ‘They’re just pieces of paper, and they only have a value if somebody wants them. I’ve had this stuff rolling around at the bottom of a drawer for years, so let’s pass it on.’ I kept a few other things that really mean something to me. I still have my copy of the script, which I marked out with my little childish handwriting. It’s got all the page numbers and my scene numbers, and I covered it in sticky back plastic. I’ve also got my copy of the book, which I took out to Germany while filming, which I got everybody to sign for me. That is priceless.
Themmen: I had a script at one time, but I don’t have that anymore. I didn’t keep things. The golden ticket or a gobstopper would be a good thing to hold on to. From a more personal standpoint, I would have loved to have held onto my hat, guns, and boots would have been nice. I gave them all back when they asked me to. I have a website called Wonkashop.com, and we sell things that are not original screen-used items but continue the legacy and have been signed by some of us, such as golden tickets. They’re not original props, but we sign them, and we are walking and talking original props from the film, in a way.
Thompson: The story goes that you based Veruca Salt on a girl you went to boarding school with. Is that true, and did she ever find out?
Cole: I don’t know where that came from, but no, that’s actually not true. I didn’t go to boarding school, and it wasn’t based on anybody. My background was very unlike Veruca Salt’s. My mother was a single mum, holding down as many jobs as she could to keep the roof over our heads. We were a lot more like Charlie Bucket than Veruca Salt. Life for us was tough, so I was certainly not spoilt. We didn’t have a car. I was one of the kids that qualified for free school meals. Life was difficult, so playing this spoilt, rich girl was the absolute polar opposite of who I was. It was tapping into the dark side of you that you would usually hide.
Thompson: Veruca Salt became this iconic character and continues to have a wide and avid fanbase.
Cole: For something, for reasons that I won’t go into, I had an adult version of my dress made for an event, and I had this dress over my arm in the street. Somebody pointed at it and shouted, ‘Oh my God! Veruca Salt!’ That was just from seeing the dress. For Halloween, it continues to be a big deal, particularly in the States. I’ve seen Dolly Parton do Veruca Salt, and oh, my goodness, did she rock the red dress? She looked amazing. Last year, Sharon Osborne dressed up as her. I’ve got a band named after me too. We’ve messaged each other, but I’ve yet to meet them. I hope I will one day. We’ve got a pinball machine based on Willy Wonka, which is incredible. It just seems to pop up in the most unexpected places, and I still get a kick out of it. The fans are a massive part of it.
Thompson: From what I understand, Veruca Salt also has a big following in the gay community?
Cole: Yeah, it’s extraordinary. I think the first time I was aware of that, I was at a convention, and a guy came up and said, ‘I do you in my drag act.’ That’s kind of like the ultimate compliment. Who doesn’t want to be a gay icon? I know I do.
Thompson: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has had such an impact on actors and filmmakers. It’s a huge influence. Have you ever had people in the industry talk to you about that?
Themmen: You know, one way and another I have met many famous people in my life, both from my childhood and when I was working in the industry. Later on, I started doing Comic Cons, and suddenly I was sitting next to the guys from Star Wars and Star Trek or Firefly, and in between signing, you’d chat to each other. I sat next to Keir Dullea from 2001, and I’m a huge Stanley Kubrick fan, and several times I sat next to Darth Vader, David Prowse. They love movies, they love this movie, and they want to talk about it. I remember the time that Brent Spiner, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, came up to my table, and I was like, ‘Wow, you’re Brent Spiner!’ He was like, ‘Yeah, but you’re Mike Teevee!’ That was cool. This film has had better longevity than many other films from the same year. That’s not because of me; that is luck, but it’s still cool that it had such an impact on culture and people, and they care.
Thompson: There is a new Wonka movie in the works. It’ll be about a young Wonka, but would you still be interested in a cameo or some sort?
Cole: I’m very excited about it, very intrigued. I’m available for the odd cameo if they can find one. I think that was something that disappointed the fans from the last movie. It made people very partisan. Many fans said, ‘Why weren’t you guys invited to be in it?’ I think this new movie is a nice little nod to the past, and I’d be happy in it, maybe in the background with a reporter’s notepad or something. It’d be fun.
Themmen: Yes, absolutely. I would be very enthusiastic. I’d love to do a cameo. Let’s put it out there, you know, from you know, to let David Heyman and Paul King know, I’m available if they’d like me to do a cameo. They’ve already got a yes from me and a yes from Julie.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory will screen at select locations on Sunday, August 15, 2021, and Wednesday, August 18, 2021. Tickets are available via the Fathom Events website.