Jane Austen fans take note, director Jerusha Hess has given your obsession a voice in her new film Austenland. Based on a book by the same name, Austenland is the story of a young woman, aptly named Jane (Keri Russell), who is a die-hard Jane Austen fan. From life-sized cutouts of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy, to recitations of Austen’s famous words, Jane is the epitome of a fangirl. She takes her level of obsession to an even higher extreme when she decides to spend her life’s savings on a week at a resort in England called Austenland. This resort allows its visitors to jump back to the era of Austen. You dress in period costumes, stay in a beautiful manor, speak in British accents, and even find your own “love-interest” (amongst the resort’s actors of course). The pinnacle of your stay is the ball, where your Mr. Darcy will profess his love to you and propose.
Unfortunately, Jane’s experience in Austenland isn’t as wonderful as she had hoped. Because she can only afford the low-end package, Jane is stuck in a maid’s room, is forced to wear less than flattering costumes (and less than flattering hairstyles), and is excluded from participating in some of the group’s Austen-style excursions. Not to mention, she begins to get a bit disillusioned with the concept of “acting” out love with either Mr. Nobly (JJ Feild) or Martin (Bret McKenzie). Will Jane’s obsession with Jane Austen’s work get her through the week or will she pack it up and leave early?
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to JJ Feild about the film, his character Mr. Nobly (the Mr. Darcy to Jane’s Elizabeth), the hilarious cast, and his love of REI. We also had a great discussion about his role in an upcoming T.V. show on AMC called Turn, which will be filmed in Richmond, VA! Check out the interview below and don’t forget to see the charming rom-com Austenland this Friday!
LB: Hi J.J., it’s good talking to you! Have you been to DC before?
JJ: I haven’t! We got in late last night, I had a lovely meal, and here I am this morning talking to you.
LB: So you haven’t really had the chance to explore the city yet?
JJ: No, but it’s beautiful! Driving around from interview to interview, I wish I could just get out and walk it! It’s stunning!
LB: I know! It really is a pretty city. So let’s talk about Austenland, how did you come across the project?
JJ: Shannon Hale, the writer of the book (and the co-writer of the script) and Jerusha Hess (the director) approached me partly because I had done Jane Austen before; I was in Northanger Abbey. They had me in mind when they were writing this. So they just wanted to know if I was willing to make fun of myself (which I was delighted to).
LB: Well you’re a good sport then!
JJ: You have to be; you can’t take yourself too seriously.
LB: Right, yeah. It seems like Colin Firth did that a little bit in Bridget Jones also with his role.
JJ: Yeah, he can’t really do that wrong, can he?
LB: So what kind of preparation did you do for the film? Did you read a lot of Jane Austen or watch a lot of the movies?
JJ: Yeah, in England we read Jane Austen at school. And being an actor who does a lot of costume dramas, I’ve done a lifetime of research into it. And ultimately, you bring all of that with you and then you have to honor the script and the script is about a man that is accidentally in this place. So that’s where his coldness comes from. He never intended to be there in the first place.
LB: Right exactly… and that’s what I liked about your character. It was the typical Mr. Darcy role who didn’t want anything to do with the “Elizabeth” character, and the audience is wondering “do you want Jane with him?” And by the end of the film, you do.
JJ: Exactly! Who couldn’t melt with Keri Russell?
LB: Right! And with you too!
JJ: Well, that’s very sweet.
LB: So I’ve always wondered.. in every interview I see with an actress that has to be in period [costumes], they always kind of complain about it. How is the period dress for guys?
JJ: You know, it makes you stand up very straight, really handsome making… but it pinches in really strange places. So I wouldn’t recommend everyone wearing it. Certainly, in the time apparently they didn’t wear underwear so it’s definitely very pinching.
LB: Really? That’s really interesting.
LB: So did you find it harder to be in period dress or harder to keep a straight face when Jennifer Coolidge was doing her thing?
JJ: Infinitely harder to keep a straight face around Jennifer Coolidge.
LB: She’s hilarious! She’s doesn’t even need to be speaking!
JJ: She’s a genius.
LB: The whole cast consists of a bunch of funny people. Was the set a really fun experience to be a part of?
JJ: You know, we laughed so much on set. You know, James Callis is incredibly funny and sharp. Georgia King, I mean what was that walk?
LB: Every time she did that, the audience died over her walk.
JJ.: Brilliant! When you laugh so much on set, you finish the movie and there’s a little minute when you go “oh my God, maybe we’re the only ones that found it funny”. But thankfully, it really came together. And I’ve seen it quite a few times now with all of the screenings and I’m still laughing and in hysterics every time.
LB: Oh it’s hilarious! Was there a lot of improv with the dialogue or were you pretty strict with the script?
JJ: There was a lot. I’m a straight guy, so I’m pretty straight with the script. Keri and I sorta ground the film in reality, if such a thing is possible, in the romantic story. Then around us is sort of this whirling hysterical improvisation by all of the others. So yes, a huge amount of improvisation but my role really was just to keep a straight face.
LB: Right, I can imagine how hard that would be. Like I said… Jennifer Coolidge won’t even be speaking in some scenes but the way she’s acting is hilarious. But you’ve done a lot of different genre movies, like Captain America, which is more of an action movie and this [Austenland] which is a rom-com. I was wondering which genre you like best or if you have a favorite?
JJ: I think my favorite is independent cinema. I think that, especially with last year’s Oscars, all the films nominated were independent cinema. Not one of them was a studio blockbuster. I hope that there’s a return to the glory days of independent cinema. Because at the moment, you either have to raise $300 million to save the world from zombies or you get $100 bucks and a mobile phone to make a movie, and that middle ground budget has disappeared and I think that’s an absolute travesty. That’s where the art really happens and that’s where the enjoyment really happens is the happy medium of a budget to make something to its full potential and be small enough of the scale where you can really hone in on telling a story and acting.
LB: Do you have any projects like that coming up?
JJ: Well you know where a lot of that is happening now is actually television. Where there is incredible images and incredible collaboration between producers, show-runners and guest directors. I’m about to go shoot a series for AMC called Turn, which is about the Revolutionary War and Washington’s spies.
LB: I saw that! It looks really interesting!
JJ: Yeah, that script was extraordinary and I got to work with Rupert Wyatt. Yes, Rupert Wyatt did do the last Planet of the Apes movie but he also did the extraordinary British independents… so he’s been able to marry all the different mediums. There’s nothing that man can’t do. So, I’m very excited to go do that because I think it’ll help us give that kind of independent feel.
LB: Exactly! So you haven’t started filming that yet?
JJ: We start shooting in the fall, which is any moment now, in Richmond, Virginia. They built these incredible sets for John Adams and then Lincoln made the sets even more incredible and then AMC made them even EVEN more incredible. There’s a whole city, a whole Revolutionary-era city hiding in Richmond, Virginia.
LB: Are you going to be playing one of the spies as part of the spy ring?
JJ: Exactly! I’m the head of the British spy ring. I’m the other side. Mine is the three-dimensional story of the British side. The evil Red Coats.
LB: That’s really cool. I didn’t really know there was a British spy ring…
JJ: No, I don’t think the History books have given that much justice.
LB: So you’re going to kind of be the villain of the T.V. show?
JJ: Well, you know you say that… and people may think that but I like to think of him as the unsung hero [laughs] from the terrible tragedy about the wrong side winning.
LB: Of losing the colonies?
JJ: Exactly! [laughs] It’s like England playing in the World Cup each year. It’s a travesty! We lose every time. It’s a disaster.
LB: Well it sounds like a really interesting T.V. show! I heard about it even before I was looking up your upcoming work on IMDB and I was excited you are going to be in that. AMC has been doing a lot of cool stuff recently with The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad so I’m excited…
JJ: They’re amazing! They’re an amazing network to be a part of and they’re really cool and kind and forward-thinking. It’s not easy to say we’re going to do a period costume drama as serial television but the timing is perfect for it and the infrastructure is all there and incredible backing by the creative arts team and Barry Josephson the producer. So it’s really… we’re very, very lucky to have that bunch of people to work together. And the young actors playing the American heroes are incredible. We’ve got a guy Jamie Bell and Seth Numrich, who in his young age has already played every classical leading role on Broadway. AMC has found the next superstar, quite literally. And an amazing Australian actor called Daniel Henshall, who won all of these awards in Australia (including best actor) so AMC nabbed him up. So they’re the best scouts possible at finding people.
LB: And you too! I’m sure you’re going to be bringing it as well!
JJ: Well, I’ll be trying to put them in their place. I’m the other side.
LB: Did you compare notes with Keri Russell about being a spy? I know she’s doing The Americans right now.
JJ: Yeah, or Matthew Rhys is a really old friend of mine… but they’re slightly different. They’re the ninja, kick-ass spies. We’re slightly more reserved. We’re more cunning.
LB: And you can’t have all of the cool gadgets that I guess they get to have on The Americans or Homeland.
JJ: No, it’s not quite that technological. We have to rely on our wit and our cunning.
LB: So getting back to Austenland, I noticed that there were a lot of funny gags in the background that probably the hundredth time I see the movie, I will still be finding funny parts that I didn’t notice the [other times] I saw it…
JJ: I’m so glad you said that because Jerusha is so incredibly design-oriented, as well as an amazing director. She was constantly tweaking something in the background and putting [different things in hilarious places]. The layers of comedy are phenomenal.
JJ: I’ve seen it quite a few times now and I’ve noticed something different every time.
LB: What is one of your favorite gags? Are there any you can think of that you enjoyed?
JJ: You know, unfortunately, they all ended up on the cutting room floor; they’re so R rated. I’m waiting for the DVD extras.
LB: Was this supposed to be R at one point?
JJ: No, it was never supposed to be R but you throw a load of actors together and set them loose; it’s going to be an R rated film every time.
LB: Yeah, especially comedic actors like you guys. I know you haven’t done a lot of comedic roles, but you’re a funny guy just talking to you right now so I’m sure you all had a great time on set fiddling around with everything.
JJ: We had a wonderful time.
LB: So in Austenland, Jane is obsessed with Jane Austen. Is there anything in your life that you would love to see an entire land dedicated to where you could go and spend a week and role play in that environment?
JJ: I’ve been asked that question recently in regards to literature and cinema. But you know, actually my obsession is… I could get completely lost in outdoor shops… mountain climbing shops. All that stuff. I have honestly convinced myself that I’ll be climbing Everest and if I’m not careful, I’ll put all of the gear on and climb the back walls. What is it? REI? I have to say, I’ve got all the ropes, climbed into a sleeping bag at the back of the store, and have to be removed by the police. That’s my obsession.
LB: So you just lock yourself in there and climb various things?
JJ: Light my campfire stove, start cooking the meals, and I’m taken out in straight-jacket.
LB: That would be a good movie actually. Maybe you should write a script for a movie like that.
JJ: Yeah, absolutely.
LB: I know that you also played in another Jane Austen movie Northanger Abbey. What other character in a Jane Austen book would you want to play?
JJ: What other character? Well I would like to be Emma.
LB: That’s a good one!
JJ: Yeah, I don’t know if they would let me put the wig on.
LB: I think they would. I think you would make a great Emma!
JJ: Why not?!
LB: I think I have time for one more question, and I know this one might be a little controversial… but which Mr. Darcy do you like best? Colin Firth? Matthew Macfadyen?
JJ: Oh, that’s brutal. You know, Colin Firth…. It’s like trying to pick your James Bonds. Whether you like Sean Connery or Daniel Craig. They’re both brilliant for different reasons but I’ve always had a soft spot for Colin Firth. He can do no wrong.
LB: I totally agree with you. Did you get to talk to him at all about this role.
JJ: No. You know, no I didn’t call up and ask him how to do the wet t-shirt thing
LB: Yeah! I was waiting for that scene in this movie.
JJ: You know, but who knows… maybe he will call me up the next time he does an Austen comedy.