Philomena Lee discusses search for her son and seeing Judi Dench portray her
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It’s a story so incredible, if it weren’t true you wouldn’t believe it. An unmarried young woman in Ireland gave birth to a boy in 1952. Sent to have the baby in a convent home, she remained there until her son Anthony was given away against her will at 3 years old, adopted by an American family. She would spend some 50 years with no idea what became of him, while keeping her secret from the family she would start in England.
The new film “Philomena,” opening Friday in Los Angeles, is based on Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” Starring Steve Coogan as Sixsmith and Judi Dench as Lee, it was written by Coogan and Jeff Pope and directed by Stephen Frears. [Spoiler alert: Some key plot points are discussed below.]
The movie tells not only the incredible story of Lee and Anthony, but also the odd-couple pairing of Sixsmith and Lee as they searched for him. They ultimately discovered he was a lawyer who worked in the first Bush White House who had been searching for his mother, unable to find her before his death in 1995.
The real Philomena Lee, now 80, was recently in Los Angeles for the first time when the film of her story played as part of AFI Fest. At the end of an afternoon of sightseeing, she got on the phone to discuss her experiences.
Has the process of seeing through the release of the movie been different from when the book came out?
When the book came out, at the time I didn’t know it was going to be a movie. I can’t believe it myself, really. I never ever thought it was going to be a book, let alone a movie. When Martin had written the book, I didn’t really want it to be published. But then I changed my mind and I thought, well, maybe it will help other women like myself. I think with the movie coming out, it’s been such an eye-opener, now it’s being debated so much in Ireland, everybody is coming out and talking about it. I feel as if maybe I have encouraged other women to trace their families.
When you first met Steve Coogan, did you know who he was?
Oh, I know him. He’s a comedian in England. But he’s more a younger people’s thing. I’m 80 years of age and I like him very much but it’s not my type of comedy. I like the older-type comedy. But he was such a lovely gentleman and we had lots and lots of discussions. He said he was thinking of making a movie of it and took it from there.
And what did you think when you were told you would be played by Judi Dench?
Oh, what can I say about that one? I could not believe it. A lady like that playing little old me. She was a lovely lady, and we met once or twice before the filming started. And then I used to go down, I saw a few of the scenes being made. And just such a lovely lady. We discovered we had a few things in common. I was so surprised because she’s such a renowned lady in England. Nobody would believe me when I told them Judi Dench was going to play me.
Does the movie feel accurate to your story?
It is, actually. All I ever, ever, ever wanted to do was find him. And once I’d found him, I found out he was dead. That was an awful shock, but then again, as I say, that’s how life is. But now I’ve got his whole life story. He had a wonderful life in America, a very good education, he was a very clever man and I was so sad when I heard he’d died, because he was only 43 at the time and I was very sad.
But at least he had his ashes brought home to Ireland. Living in England, I’m not far away from the grave, so I can go over and have a little prayer there. We tried to find him for so long over the years, we tried to find him ever so. But it wasn’t meant to be.
Do you think coming forward with your story has helped others?
I said to Martin at the time, there are so many people like myself in Ireland, I was hoping that in telling my story I’d help them. Because they’re not compelled in Ireland to let families know and it’s become a very hot topic at the moment in Ireland because there are people coming out like myself that kept it hidden as well. And they won’t give out any information. Anthony came over three times and they wouldn’t tell him anything about me and they wouldn’t tell us anything about him. I think, I’m hoping, that eventually it will help a lot more people.
While nothing can bring your son back, has telling your story helped you?
What I feel better about is that I found out about his life. That with the book, Martin found out he worked in the White House and was very successful too. But I feel happy because I found him. That’s all I ever wanted and I’ve put him to rest in my heart. I can pray to him and I know he’s in heaven. I know he’s safe and I’ve found him and found out all about his life. He did have a good life in America.
But if only I could have seen him once before he left and put my arms around him. But he died thinking, they told him I’d abandoned him at birth, that I’d left him at 2 weeks and I did not. I had to work in that home for 3 1/2 years. But at least he went to a good home and had a good life. As I say, I’m at peace in my heart now. It’s a sad story but I did come out with it. Now that it’s out and I found him and found out everything about him, I am at peace with it all.
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