Julie Dawn Cole became a household name when she played Veruca Salt, the bratty rich girl, in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In reality, Julie’s life more closely resembled the sweetly humble lead character, Charlie Bucket. Celebrity Parents spoke with Julie (mom of India and Barney) about the film, her life now as a psychotherapist (and book author!), and why trading in her Everlasting Gobstopper for two weeks in Malaysia was one of the best things she ever did for her family.
On The Cover: Julie Dawn Cole of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
We have to talk about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. What was the experience like?
Overall it was a wonderful experience. Am I proud of having been a part of it? Absolutely. I get cross with people who have a rich past that means something to a lot of people who diss it. I feel they should be more gracious. Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. Some of it was tough. I was away from home for the first time, without a relative. I first met my chaperone at the airport; the woman I was going to spend the next three months with.
You didn’t have a parent with you because your mom was a single working mom.
She was a single mum, as am I.
That must have been difficult for you.
Back then, it was not the done thing. Not where I came from. I didn’t know any other children with divorced parents. Not one. My mum was a brilliant woman who worked really hard. She never wanted that to hold my sister or I back.
Her example must have instilled a great strength in you.
She was independent, but not in a pushy way. She was self-sufficient, and she got on with life. She never felt like a victim.
How would you compare your parenting styles with your mom? Yours sounds similar to hers.
I think so. I have a really good relationship with my daughter, India. Mothers and daughters have that thing. India had a great relationship with my mother as well. And my son Barney, well, I’m terribly proud of him, too. As a family, the three of us are very tight knot. We’ve traveled together often. We’ve had great times together, and I’m fiercely proud of them both. My daughter is a third year medical student at Cambridge, and my son is in the middle of doing his A levels, and will be going to University in September. They have been in state education all the way through and it’s amazing that she got to Cambridge.
As a mom, that must make you feel proud.
It does, but I don’t take it directly. I got that from my mom. As parents, we’re responsible for opening the doors. It’s up to them if they walk through it.
Going back to the film, what has it been like for your career to have played Veruca Salt?
It got forgotten very quickly. It wasn’t an issue in my life, for the next 10-15 years after we filmed it. It wasn’t until the mid 80’s that I was aware that it was a cult film. Prior to that, it wasn’t something I talked about. And as an adult, I didn’t want to talk about a film that I did as a child.
What was the most outstanding moment in the film for you?
I will always remember the recording of my song, “I Want It Now”, because it was my 13th birthday. They all sang Happy Birthday to me and they pushed me down the chute! [laughs] I got a round of applause after that.
As a child, that scene always scared me. How long was that chute?
It probably wasn’t much taller than I was. I’d have to say it was about six feet long. And you’re right; it was scary. It gave me a horrible feeling, because I had to have my balance just right. If I leaned too far forward, I’d clunk my head. I remember them telling me, “Don’t put your arms out at the end of the song.” Naturally, the instinct was to put my arms out as I was singing the song, but I had to keep them straight at my sides so I would go down the chute.
How many times did you go down the chute?
I did it once. And once was enough.
Now, I know that you were the only person to actually keep the Everlasting Gobstopper. Where do you have it?
I’m afraid I sold it. I was made an offer that I couldn’t refuse! [laughs] It was made from the lids that you get on a takeaway cup. I just felt that things have a lifespan of being interesting, and it might not have been interesting later on to anyone.
Was it symbolic to get rid of it?
No. I thought it was time to let it go, and frankly at the time, I wanted a holiday with my kids.
Wow, I love it! You were totally being practical. Where do you wind up vacationing?
I traded a piece of plastic for two fantastic weeks on the beach in Malaysia with my children. We had an amazing adventure; we went diving, and the water was just a beautiful turquoise color. The Everlasting Gobstopper didn’t mean so much to me, but that holiday did.
Your career now is very interesting. Let’s talk about it.
Life now is very different. Only in the last few months have I made big career change. I was studying for six years and made this complete change. I decided that I didn’t want to act anymore, so today, I am a psychotherapist. I wasn’t able to go to University when I was 17, because I had to work to make money. I studied, got my degree, and have been working at a hospice for the last three years. My role is to work with families where the parent is suffering from a life-limiting illness. It is childhood bereavement.
Do you take it home with you?
Sometimes. You cry, but it also is very uplifting. I had been a fitness instructor prior to this, and I remember one of my tutors had said to me early on that it was a privilege to enable someone to make a good death. It just resonated with me.
And that changed it all.
Yes, I just really got it. I believe in living in the moment. And I suppose I am also trying to put a little back for all the good stuff that I’ve had in my life.
Speaking of good stuff, let’s talk about your book!
My book is called “I Want It Now: A Memoir of Life on the Set of Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory”. There was never another title for it. It was always that one. I started collaborating with Michael Esslinger. It took us a good year to do it. Luckily, I was able to give my mother a draft of the book, and four weeks later, she passed away.
Oh, I’m so sorry. What did she think of the book?
She loved it. She didn’t see it finished, but at least she did get to see it. The book has over 300 photos in it; it even has the letters she kept while we were filming. It’s the story of how I came to be in the film, and how my life was not that of the privileged background of Veruca Salt. My life was more like Charlie Bucket. There are anecdotes and what it was like from a childhood perspective. There are some very sad things in it, too, like when I wrote to my mom that I had managed to save 8 pounds that I would be sending home, so she could call me.
Aww, that is so sad.
It is quite sad. When I read it now, I can’t believe that I couldn’t phone home. I did write every day, and some letters included pictures I drew of the set, or my description of meeting Gene Wilder for the first time. And my crush on Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie.
Yes, both you and Denise Nickerson (who played Violet Beauregard), both had a big crush on Peter.
Yes, but he was mine! [laughs] She thinks differently but he was mine. I’m very fond of him, and he wrote a beautiful forward to my book. When I look back on it all, life is definitely different now. But it is definitely wonderful.
For more info on Julie’s book, I Want It Now, please click here.