Fifty years ago, 10-year-old Mary Badham tried out for a role in a little movie filming near her hometown of Birmingham, Ala.: "To Kill a Mockingbird." The beloved adaptation of Harper Lee's seminal novel earned Badham an Oscar nomination, making her, at the time, the youngest actress to ever receive one. (In 1973, Tatum O'Neil became the youngest for "Paper Moon.") Not a bad for a young girl who had never even seen a movie before making "Mockingbird."
For the release of the 50th Anniversary Blu-ray, Badham talked to Moviefone about her rather fuzzy memories of making a classic all those years ago, her memories of co-star Gregory Peck, why she quit acting, and what it was like to return to the profession (if only for one film) nearly 40 years later.
You'd never acted before you made "To Kill a Mockingbird." What's the story of how you got a part in such a prestigious movie?
My mother had been the leading lady for the local theater and the manager of the theater, James Hatcher, told her that these movie people were coming to town and told my mother that I was about the right age and everything, so to bring me in. So I went in and interviewed and got the part.
At the time, did you know the full scope of the film's story?
I'm not even sure we got complete scripts. I really didn't know anything. I read what they gave me and I identified with the little girl. And basically that was it. She was very much like I was as a child.
You were a tomboy too?
Yes. Still am. I think Scout was really a very intelligent child. And I envied her intelligence. She was so bright and the whole wonderful relationship that she had with Atticus was so much like the relationship I had with my dad and then with Gregory Peck. He was Atticus, there's no two ways about it.
Do you remember any scenes being difficult, or maybe above your head, like when your father explains why he's defending a black man? It's still hard to watch Scout so casually drop a racial slur there.
No, that really wasn't hard to film. That was easy. What was hard was the last scene that we shot, which was the jail scene, when I had that speech, when the mob's there. That was the last day of shooting and I was going to have to say goodbye to all of these people that I'd fallen in love with. That was really difficult, it was very sad.
When you see the movie now, do you still feel those emotions?
Not so much. It's been replaced by a sadness in the fact that everybody's gone. There's so few people left. Rosemary Murphy (Maudie Atkinson) is still alive, Phillip Alford (Scout's brother Jem) still alive. And Robert Duvall (making his film debut as Boo Radley), but that's about it. There's not many of us left anymore.
I've read that Gregory Peck became a real-life father figure to you.
Yeah, he was. He definitely was. I lost my mom about three weeks after I graduated from high school and I lost my dad about two years after I got married. So he really stepped and became a major factor in my life.
You both got Oscar nominations for the film. How did you find out you were nominated?
I have no idea. Probably my mother told me. I had no clue what that was all about. I didn't know anything about movies or movie stars or the Academy or anything. I was just a blank sheet of paper. I was totally ignorant of all that stuff. I never went to the movies, didn't know anything about the movies.
So had you ever seen a movie before you made this one?
I don't think so.
Wow! Well, what about the Oscars? Did you go to the ceremony?
Yes, I went. I remember a family coming to me and saying, "Would you mind moving back one seat so we can sit here all together as a family?" And I was like, "Sure!" having no clue that we had assigned seating. And then I was sitting there thinking, "Oh god, what am I going to do if I win this thing?" I didn't have a speech or anything prepared. Here were all these people with all these wonderful speeches and I had no clue what I was going to say. So when Patty Duke won (for "The Miracle Worker"), I was thrilled. I was like, "Yes! I don't have to go up there!" And now that I know her performance, she more than won it. Hands down, as far as I'm concerned.
You were pretty young. At what point did you first read the book?
That wasn't until later. I think my daughter was about two years old before I read the book. In defense of myself, how many times have you gone to a film and then you read the book and it changes your whole outlook on it? So I had my whole little world up there in black and white and was totally happy with that and then a professor friend asked me to come to his English Lit class and I wanted to know that the heck I was going to talk to his class about. He suggested we meet and go over what we were going to do. And before I could even sit down, he asked me, "So what was your favorite chapter in the book?" And he could tell by the look on my face I hadn't even read the book. And he said, "Young lady, your first assignment is you go home and you read this book!" I did and it was great. Here were all these characters that I had no idea about and it gave me so much more of an insight into Boo and the whole ball of wax. It was just real different than what I thought it was.
What do you think the movie -- and the book -- still have to say to us?
It just has everything to say about intelligence and getting a good education and trying to live a positive, good life. We're still dealing with issues of ignorance, which, to me, breeds things like bigotry and racism and intolerance and hatred. So I think it helps us to reach up, beyond that. And this is a very important treasure house of what we can do to live a better life and to make this world a happier place to live in. If more people would try and reach up instead of going to the lowest common denominator, I think we'd be a lot better off.
You stopped acting shortly after "Mockingbird." Why was that?
You have to look at the industry as a whole. When I retired, I was at an in-between age. I wasn't a child anymore, I wasn't really a woman yet and they weren't really writing scripts for that age. The scripts that were being written were so bizarre and different from what we had been seeing, the industry was changing so dramatically. (Badham's last film before retiring was the sensationally titled William Castle thriller, "Let's Kill Uncle Before Uncle Kills Us," a far cry from "To Kill a Mockingbird.")
You returned to acting after nearly forty years in "Our Very Own." Are you open to doing more acting again?
I think so. I doubt it's ever going to happen. That was just like a fluke thing. I don't think it's going to turn into anything else. I know that I wouldn't mind going back to work if I could find the right script and the right crew to work with. I don't think it gets any better than Cameron Watson, whose writing was absolutely beautiful. The story was so terrific, and absolutely spot-on. And to work with people like Allison Janney and Keith Carradine, and Jason Ritter. It was like a miracle. It was one of the most fun times I've had in a long time. It's a great business to be in, if you've got the right crew. I love acting, don't get me wrong. Just finding the right people. And I've been out of the business so long, nobody knows who I am now. [Laughs.]