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Classic Hollywood: Julie Walters keeps her ears perked in ‘Indian Summers’

Julie Walters attends a BAFTA celebration of Downton Abbey" on Aug. 11 in Richmond, England.

Julie Walters attends a BAFTA celebration of Downton Abbey” on Aug. 11 in Richmond, England.

(Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images)

Julie Walters has joined such legends as Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren as a grande dame of the British acting community. But if it wasn’t for her boyfriend’s suggestion, Walters could have ended up with an entirely difficult career.

At her mother’s urging, she was studying to be a nurse. She liked the work but knew that it was acting, not nursing, that was her true love.

Halfway through her nursing course, Walters told herself she had to leave the profession or she’d be stuck there for life. “I was working on a ward where a sister [a nurse] was 67. She still lived in the nurses’ home. I said, ‘Oh, my God, that could be me.’”

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Luckily, she had a boyfriend who lived in Manchester. “He said, ‘They do drama up here,’” Walters said, referring to the school where she studied, which is now called Manchester Metropolitan University. “I applied and got in. I knew when I was auditioning I was doing the right thing. I knew this was something that came from my heart and was every inch a part of me.”

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Over the decades, Walters, 65, has poured her heart into such films as 1983’s “Educating Rita” and 2000’s “Billy Elliot” — she received Oscar nominations for both roles. In the upcoming film adaptation of the novel “Brooklyn” she has a wonderful comic turn as the blunt proprietor of a boardinghouse that caters to Irish girls living in that borough in the 1950s.

Walters is equally adept at comedy and drama and brings an endearing, down-to-earth quality to all her roles.

“She’s like the people’s choice. She is an actress that all kinds of people respond to,” said Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS’ “Masterpiece” anthology series. Walters has appeared in several “Masterpiece” offerings, including “Indian Summers,” a 10-part historical drama set in 1932 during the waning years of British rule in India, which premieres Sunday evening.

Noted Eaton: “I would think British audiences in particular would say, ‘She is one of us.’ She works all the time in feature films, TV and stage. Because she is a character actress, she kind of emerges every now and then in a different incarnation. In this country, she’s best known from ‘Billy Elliot,’ ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Educating Rita’ for an older generation.”

She’s created another memorable character in “Indian Summers,” which has already been compared to “Masterpiece” blockbuster “Downton Abbey.”

Walters’ Cynthia is an outwardly charming but Machiavellian military widow who presides like a grand doyenne over the Royal Simla Club, located at a colonial retreat for the British in the Himalaya foothills. A racist — a sign outside the club reads no Indians or dogs allowed — Cynthia is using her influence to promote the career of Ralph (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), an upwardly mobile private secretary to the British viceroy, who has a few secrets.

“I was sent this first episode and I said, ‘Who is this woman?” recalled Walters, speaking by phone from her home outside London a few days before heading back to Malaysia to film the second season of “Indian Summers.”

All the dramas and films based on that time in India, said Walters, “never had working class people in them. They were all upper class with lots of servants. She was fascinating from that point of view. She was an East End [of London] girl and now she’s in a very powerful position running the club. She likes to be in control. She is party to the drunken peoples’ confessions and gossip. So she has lots of people’s secrets.”

Walters was 33 when she became an “overnight sensation” in her 1983 film debut in the comedy-drama “Educating Rita.” She earned a lead actress Oscar nomination and Golden Globe and British Academy of Film and Television Arts honors for her endearing turn as a working-class hairdresser trying to improve herself by studying literature with an alcoholic curmudgeonly professor (Michael Caine).

Though she had “great fun” being the new big thing in films, Walters is glad it didn’t happen when she was younger. “It wouldn’t have been good for me,” she noted. “It’s hard enough keeping your feet on the ground. Living your life normally is difficult.”

Walters was courted by Hollywood when the film was released. “But they didn’t come up with anything I wanted to do,” she said matter-of-factly. “So I came home, basically.”

susan.king@latimes.com

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‘Masterpiece: Indian Summers’

Where: KOCE-TV

When: 9 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 27 through Nov. 22


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