Skip to main content

Julie Andrews is known for her angelic voice and heartwarming characters, though it seems she also has just a spoonful of a dark side. For her character in Despicable Me and Minions: The Rise of Gru, Andrews even threw in a sinister homage to one of the most famous movie stars of Old Hollywood. While Andrews still maintains her patented warmth in interviews, the 86-year-old icon appears to enjoy tapping into her inner villain during the second act of her career.

Julie Andrews conjured up the worst mother imaginable for ‘Despicable Me’

When you’re an Oscar-winning legend, sometimes you get to do things like name your own characters. After being asked to pick the name of her character for Despicable Me, Julie Andrews turned to Hollywood’s golden age for inspiration. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair on YouTube, Andrews called her character (the mother of protagonist, Gru) “such a terrible woman, and so full of herself.” Elaborating further, Andrews said, “So, I thought she would think of herself as kind of a Marlene Dietrich.”

Dietrich was an enormous figure in Hollywood by the time Andrews was getting her start at the end of the 1940s. While Andrews was dubbing animated foreign films as a 15-year-old (per the Vanity Fair interview), Dietrich was an international movie star known for domineering performances. Dietrich’s brazen and self-assured persona proved more than an on-screen match for some of the biggest male stars of her day, including John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Gary Cooper.

Most of Dietrich’s characters—often considered femme fatales—were not the typical mother figure routinely shown by Hollywood at the time. For Andrews, that appears to be the point. “She’s maybe the worst mother you could possibly encounter,” Andrews said of her Despicable Me and Minions: The Rise of Gru character. Although Gru’s mom isn’t exactly the warm and fuzzy type, the Dietrich vibes help make her an excellent whip for an aspiring supervillain.

Andrews stepped in as one of Gru’s biggest foils

With Steve Carell at the height of his popularity, Despicable Me wildly outperformed commercial expectations when it hit theaters in the summer of 2010. After it made nearly eight times its production budget at the box office, Despicable Me was quickly transformed into one of the most valuable movie franchises in the world (per The Numbers). What could have been a small, one-off performance for Andrews suddenly turned into an essential and recurring role in the expanding franchise.

Julie Andrews’ character, Marlena (an Americanized spelling of Marlene Dietrich), would return to the series in Despicable Me 3 in 2017. With Gru going through an identity crisis, it’s Marlena who explains the family’s twisted history. Not only does Gru have an estranged twin brother (Dru), but Marlena admits Gru wasn’t even the one she wanted to raise. In true Dietrich-like fashion, Andrews has cut Gru down to size throughout the franchise.

To showcase Gru’s origin story in Minions: The Rise of Gru, Andrews gleefully returns to a role that is the antithesis of the characters that made her famous. “She’s the worst role model for a mother, she’s terrible to Gru,” she told Jimmy Fallon, as seen on YouTube, “and it was a delight to get my teeth into it, I have to admit.” Lacking a positive motherly presence, a young and impressionable Felonious Gru fills the parental void in The Rise of Gru with dreams of taking over the world.

Julie Andrews has reinvented herself after losing her singing voice

Julie Andrews on 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' promoting 'Minions: The Rise of Gru'
Julie Andrews on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’ | Todd Owyoung/NBC via Getty Images

‘Minions: The Rise of Gru’: How Steve Carell Changed His Voice for the ‘Despicable Me’ Prequel

After becoming a Broadway and West End star in the 1950s, Julie Andrews’ first big-screen appearance in 1964 won her an Oscar for Mary Poppins. Though it’s hard to top that sort of Hollywood debut, she did exactly that as spirited troublemaker Maria in The Sound of Music the following year. In one of the strangest splits in Oscar history, The Sound of Music won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Music, while Andrews was snubbed in favor of Julie Christie (Darling) in the Best Actress category.

However, 30 years after her soprano singing voice became world-famous, Andrews’ career made a dark turn when she suffered a debilitating throat injury. As detailed by AARP, Andrews felt like she “lost her identity” when she woke up after surgery and realized she no could longer sing.

Yet even without a singing voice, Andrews wasn’t done making movies, turning predominately to voiceover work since the late-1990s. Bringing her back to her early animated work, Andrews previously played the Queen of Far, Far Away in the last three entries in the Shrek franchise. More recently, Andrews’ voiceover provides an insider’s look at the scandals of Bridgerton, the hit Netflix series from executive producer Shonda Rhimes. While the lasting image of Andrews is her singing on an Austrian hilltop, she is more than happy delving into the world of supervillains and scandals these days.