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In an age where child celebrities are so well-known they can often be identified by first name only (North, Saint, Shiloh, Suri) — not to mention an age of television shows starring kids like Dance Moms, America’s Got Talent, all of the Disney Channel — it’s hard to imagine a time when famous kids were a new concept.
Goodbye Christopher Robin, the forthcoming film about Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his son, Christopher Robin (newcomer Will Tilston) tackles just that. Those of us who grew up with Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, and the cartoon version of Christopher Robin may not be aware of just how famous the real Christopher Robin became when his father’s stories became a phenomenon in the 1920s.
“Now, there are a lot of child celebrities,” director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) explains. “But Christopher Robin was one of the first. I think Christopher Robin, Shirley Temple, and [Queen Elizabeth II] as a child were the most famous children in the world.”
As Gleeson puts it, “At the time, fame was a very different thing. I don’t think we knew how toxic it was, at that time, in the same way that we do now.” So Christopher Robin’s parents, Milne and his wife, Daphne de Selincourt (Margot Robbie), leaned into the fame. “He was in newspapers. People knew what he looked like… Daphne dressed him up like he was [in the books], and he became a symbol of these books which were wildly successful.”
David Appleby/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Of course, as we know now, that kind of wild, unexpected fame can take a harsh toll on anyone — but especially a child. “As a result, he was bullied hugely at school,” Gleeson explains. “And he blamed [his father]. He had a very… not hateful, but he really grew apart and came to resent what his father had done.”
Still, the film isn’t just about the dark side of child fame. For the most part, it’s the story of Milne, a man who returned from World War I damaged and downtrodden, like the rest of England, and who found solace in his relationship with his young son.
“We had to find a leading man who was born in 2008. That was a big task,” Curtis says of casting Christopher Robin. Still, past experience gave him confidence in his abilities to pluck future stars out of obscurity. “The last time I cast a 9-year-old boy who’d never acted before, it was Daniel Radcliffe, who I cast in his first job as the young David Copperfield.” Yeah, that’s a pretty good track record.
Tiltson, the boy they’d eventually cast in the role, had never acted before. In fact, Curtis says, he’d only joined his local drama club 10 days before the casting team came calling. “There are pictures of Christopher Robin, so obviously we had to try and match that,” he says. “But once thing a director gave me as advice when you’re casting a kid is, ‘Cast a kid you like.’ We all absolutely adored Will, and that helped us a great deal.”
In the scenes that will likely give the film’s audience those warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia — when Pooh, Piglet and co. are coming to life before our eyes in Christopher Robin’s hands — Curtis says Tilston wasn’t really even acting. “When he’s just playing with the animals and the toys, he wasn’t acting playing with them. He was just playing with them. He always gave me more than I thought I’d get, so I’m grateful for that.”
David Appleby/Fox Searchlight
Another thing that makes Tilston’s performance so realistic: A screenwriter who can write dialogue in that funny way that children actually speak. “Frank Cottrell Boyce, who wrote it, is a very famous children’s book writer, too,” Curtis says. “He wrote the dialogue for the child so brilliantly and originally. That’s some of my favorite writing in the film.” In one scene, Milne is trying to do the voices for the toys. “The boy says, ‘No, I like it much better when Mummy does them,’ in that devastating way children do say things,” Curtis laughs. “I’m really proud of that aspect of the film.”
Goodbye Christopher Robin premieres Oct. 13.