George Nash chats with James and the Giant Peach actor Paul Terry…
Every now and then, Paul Terry is reminded of the time he was on top of the world. Browsing the local charity shops dotted around Durham, the city he calls home, his eye will occasionally be drawn to a DVD case adorned with the image of a large fruit. It’s one he knows very well.
“I’ll see it and think: ‘oh yeah, I forgot about that — that’s a pretty cool thing’,” says the 35-year-old, in a surprisingly jubilant mood for a Zoom call at 8:30 on a Monday morning. ‘Pretty cool’ might be underselling it slightly, though. What he is referring to is the 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach: the Tim Burton-produced Disney film that, as a nine-year-old, Terry pipped over 500 young actors to star in.
Twenty-five years later, it remains his only feature film appearance. But for an entire generation of children who grew up in the 1990s, it’s one he’ll forever be remembered for. For Terry himself, however, in the quarter of a century since his character, a lonely orphan from rural England, sat triumphantly atop the Empire State Building, his memory of that time has become a little hazy. That is perhaps, in part, due to the fact that for years he shied away from the limelight, actively avoiding doing interviews about the film. But in the hour or so we have to talk, during which I ask him about everything from the pitfalls of fame to life on set with Joanna Lumley and Miriam Margolyes, the anecdotes soon start spilling out, told with the warm exuberance of a once-lost child who has just fended off an army of skeleton sailors with his new-found family of insect friends.
“Memory,” Terry says, “it’s a funny thing. You create memories, and sometimes those memories become a feeling or emotion you remember having.” It’s a notion that immediately strikes a chord. My own memory of being a shy, slightly awkward nine-year-old is defined in no small way by the struggles of my parents’ divorce: a particularly turbulent period in my life helped steadied by films like James and the Giant Peach, with its poignant themes of growth and perspective. For the nine-year-old from Watford who landed the leading role in a Hollywood film, however, that overriding emotion was one of joy.
“It was all just a bit of fun for me,” he says. “I absolutely loved it. But I think for a kid that age, you don’t see the enormity of it. Even now I struggle to see the enormity of it.” There is, for those with a taste for such things, a neat irony here: someone failing to grasp the enormity of a film that features big bugs and a peach the size of a house. But perhaps it was this blissful ignorance — that wonderfully youthful, optimistic outlook — that helped him navigate what for many child actors can become a notoriously treacherous path.
“I never really took acting that seriously,” he says. “It was never really a huge passion of mine. It was sort of a side project almost. And a lot of people think that with young actors they have pushy parents but one of the big things my parents did was really try to keep me grounded.”
That’s not to say he wasn’t exposed to the reality of the situation he found himself in. Much like the deft blend of fantasy and realism found in Dahl’s most revered tales — in James and the Giant Peach, sweet, colourful escapism softens some darker examinations of death, grief and domestic abuse — a young Terry would witness first-hand the cutthroat nature of an industry that to so many can seem so alluring.
At his first audition he was placed in a room with 14 other kids his age. “They got you to line up and basically just asked you to introduce yourself,” he recalls. “You had to say who you were, give them your name and tell them what you had done that weekend. Then they just went along the line saying: ‘you can go away. You can go away. We’ll give you a call. You can go away.’ It was literally that harsh.”
Five further auditions followed before Terry was invited along with two other boys to an intense week-long final audition in San Francisco. But despite the lengthy, arduous casting process, despite beating hundreds of other hopefuls to land the role, Terry remains sceptical about his own talents. “People say to me: ‘oh you must have been a great actor to get the part’. The fact is I wasn’t a good actor, I just looked the part. There was a hell of a lot of luck involved.”
His assessment is admirably modest, if somewhat difficult to entirely agree with. As James Henry Trotter, the boy who escapes a life of misery and solitude to embark on an adventure across the Atlantic Ocean with a band of anthropomorphic invertebrates, Terry was required to act, sing and supply voice over — the latter earning him a Young Artist Award nomination in 1997.
It’s a performance that, over two decades on, remains spirited and genuine, one made all the more impressive when one considers the A-list company he found himself in. While he never met the majority of the American contingent — the likes of Susan Sarandon and Richard Dreyfuss who voice the characters of Miss Spider and the Centipede, respectively — he is quick to express his admiration for the plethora of seasoned British talent he did share the screen with.
“He was lovely,” Terry says, describing with notable fervour the late Pete Postlethwaite, the man once described by Steven Spielberg as the best actor in the world. “I had a really good relationship with him.” As for working with Lumley and Margolyes, “it was fantastic,” he recalls with a grin. “They really looked after me. But they had absolute potty mouths. So much so that there was a swear jar on set because they were so bad and being really vulgar.
“There’s a jokiness in the horribleness they portray,” referring to their memorably grotesque turns as James’ sadistic Aunts Spiker and Sponge. “As an adult you see it as almost pantomime, but as a kid, it’s actually quite frightening. I remember in the cinema during the premiere there were lots of children who crying quite a lot. And I think part of that is because of our relationship, we just got on so well that I think they enjoyed trying to scare me.”
Filming the live action scenes took place over seven weeks in San Francisco: a location that Terry, in a neat mirroring of his character’s affinity with New York City, found to be magical. “It was just this magnificent, wonderful place,” he says. “But that was probably because I was treated like a king while I was there. I was being fed sweets and chocolate whenever I wanted. The chef even asked me one day if I wanted lobster. I sometimes think: ‘why can’t I have that now?’”
But Terry’s memories of filming weren’t all confectionery and lavish seafood. Between getting bitten by a tarantula used during the film’s early scenes to a camera falling on his head, being so far from home, and his immediate family, eventually started to take its toll.
“That was the first time I’d been away from home for any length of time,” he says. “I had my Grandmother out there with me because both my mum and dad were working. But to be away from them for two months was a massive thing, for both me and them.
“I remember when Randy Newman was teaching me the song ‘My Name is James’. I called my parents and sang it to them. The lyrics are all about distance and being apart and, by the end, my mum was absolutely blubbering on the other end of the phone.”
His education, or lack thereof, was also becoming an issue. “In all honesty I don’t think my parents were particularly impressed that I got the part. Their view was that the acting was secondary and the schoolwork was the most important. I think they were actually quite disappointed because of the amount of time I had out of school.”
When he eventually did return home, life as he knew it had changed drastically. Fame, unsurprisingly, had become a very real thing. “Obviously, I was being recognised almost everywhere I went,” he says, recounting with a smile the time he was mobbed by hordes of children while shooting with the Spice Girls for a cameo in Spice World – a scene that was eventually cut from the final edit.
“But I got abuse, too,” he says. “You’re going to get abuse. Everyone gets abused if you’re in the media spotlight. And it’s one of the things I’m so grateful for now, that I was in a time where there was no social media. Being famous now must be horrific. Especially if you’re young.”
It’s a view many would share, and a sentiment that so often rings devastatingly true. But, by his own admission, Terry didn’t always live up to his character’s lofty moral standards. “Because I’d been totally spoiled for two months solid, I turned into a bit of an arse to be honest. If I was in a really bad mood, I would just bring up money. I feel bad about that now, but as an 11-year-old kid who’s just fed up with people you don’t know coming up to you and yelling things, I’d just go: ‘look mate, I could probably afford your house, your car, the clothes that you’re wearing’.”
The recognition, he tells me, didn’t really stop until he was well into his late teens. By that point, he’d not been on screen for the best part of half a decade, after leaving acting behind when filming wrapped on Microsoap, a children’s sitcom that ran for 26 episodes from 1998 until 2001 on the BBC and Disney Channel.
When I ask him about his decision to stop, he recalls a specific moment while working on Microsoap when he knew the motivation was fading. “There was one scene where we got in a load of extras. They had come from a local stage school and I was sat there as the main person and there were all these kids sat around me whose dream it was to be where I was. And for me it was always just a bit of fun. I just felt such guilt at that point. I felt like I was taking the place away from these children. It was then that I started thinking this might be the end.”
Does he ever miss it? “Yeah, I do,” he says. “The fame I didn’t enjoy particularly, but the acting bit of it, sure.” So much so that, for a while, he had considered a return to amateur dramatics. But, in his words, “life happened”.
‘Life’, as Terry puts it, became a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering, a stint as the bass guitarist in the semi-successful indie band Glassapple, and work as a maths teacher — the job he’s been doing for the last 11 years. All this interspersed with several other noteworthy life events: self-publishing a novel, running a series of ultra-marathons, becoming a father of two, and even appearing on The Weakest Link while he was studying at University.
“In fact, it’s all that other stuff that I’m most proud of,” he admits. “The acting is fluke. It’s luck. I don’t go back and watch Microsoap or James and the Giant Peach,” — he hasn’t watched the film in its entirety since his early twenties — “But every now and again I’ll go and watch footage of the band.”
As for his two children, the youngest of which was born two weeks before the first UK lockdown in March 2020, they remain oblivious to their dad’s stardom. “For as long as I can, I want to keep it a secret from them,” he says. “I always felt growing up that what my parents wanted from me was to do better than them. To go further than them. To go beyond what they had accomplished. And if I managed to do that, they’d see that as a success.
“If I show the film to my kids, they might just think: ‘how the hell am I going to compete with that?’ Of course, there’s always going to be someone who tells them, but hopefully they won’t find out for a few years.”
And so, more than two decades since the moment he stood proudly at the summit of the Big Apple’s most iconic landmark, there will indeed come a time when Paul Terry from Hertfordshire must embrace being James Henry Trotter once more. Until that day comes, however, for the man who left Hollywood behind and became a maths teacher, life, it seems, is rather peachy.
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_GeorgeNash for more movie musings.