Becoming Jane - Anne Hathaway interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ANNE Hathaway talks about the challenges of playing Jane Austen in Becoming Jane, as well as her passion for the writer.
She also discusses her career as she begins to gravitate towards more serious roles, and the pleasure of having Julie Walters as a co-star…
Q. How nerve-wracking was it to play a character like Jane Austen, who you really admire?
When I first thought about becoming Jane Austen I had to forget about the fear, or at least choose something else to focus on because it was becoming paralysing, I couldn’t focus. I felt frightened, not so much by her fans’ reaction to my performance but that I would be playing someone who I think is a legend, who I respect and admire so much. I didn’t want to fail, so I was putting a lot of pressure on myself.
I actually forgot about it when we were making the film but then all of a sudden, inexplicably, about a month after we stopped filming I started having bad dreams about being chased around and being stabbed to death with my Jane Austen quill. I’d wake up in the middle of the night sweating and breathing very heavily. That stopped when people started to watch the film and they liked it so I guess I’m badly in need of other people’s approval. I’m happy that people got the performance and like the film and feel we did her justice because it really would have broken my heart to have messed this one up.
Q. Did you go about reading all of Jane Austen’s books as part of your research?
Yes, there was a huge amount of work to be done, so I thought even if I mess up and be really horrible at least no one will be able to pull me up on the research. I started reading the books as soon as I was cast and I moved to England a month before I actually started filming to work on the accent and do some historical research on the period – specifically about what it would have been like to live in the countryside at that time. I also read her letters and had to learn to play the piano, sign language, calligraphy and become an all-round accomplished person. The skills portion of my résumé greatly improved after this role!
Q. Did you learn to dance as well?
Yes, nowadays all you have to do is shake your butt and you’re a good dancer but back then there was actual choreography. I’ve had training before but I’m usually a terrible dancer.
Q. Did you have to keep the English accent going when you weren’t filming?
I did for the most part. The only person I broke it for was my boyfriend because I kind of disappeared for two months into the Irish countryside. We tried for a couple of weeks but eventually he said: “Look, it’s bad enough that I can’t see you but I can’t even hear your voice, can you at least sound like you for five minutes?” So I came out of the accent for him but everyone else just had to lump it.
I alienated myself from my friends and turned off my cell phone and really kind of stopped being myself for two months. People liked me much better, which was worrying! When I finally slipped back into me at first that felt like a character, it was a strange transition.
Q. How was filming in the Irish weather? Certain scenes suggest that you found it quite cold!
We didn’t know if it was the gods or Jane up there upset that I was playing her but every time we tried to do a close-up of me it would start to rain. The action is hard enough, but when you’ve been standing in a field for five hours waiting for the rain to stop and you’re frozen, eventually you just say the lines…
Q. How long did it take to get used to writing in pen and ink?
I didn’t get used to it at all and to this day it still kind of baffles me. You imagine you need huge quantities of ink but you don’t, just a little bit. I practised by writing letters to my friends as I wasn’t calling them.
Q. What was it like having Julie Walters as your mum and Maggie Smith as an adversary?
They were properly cast, both of them. I adore both of them and I was hopping with excitement when I found out I was going to work with them. I held off watching Educating Rita until after filming and I was really happy that I did because I wouldn’t have been able to talk to Julie beforehand.
Maggie was just wonderful – put her in any situation in life and she’ll make the driest, most clever observation you’ve ever heard. It was great to just be around them and hear their stories. The thing which is lovely about both of them is that they’ll be laughing up until they say, “action” and then they’re completely in character, it’s terrifying. Then when they say “cut” they’re back to being themselves.
The whole cast was unbelievable. James McAvoy I think is the best actor of his generation and Anna Maxwell Martin is scary brilliant. And [the late] Ian Richardson, of course, let’s not forget the other legend in this.
Q. Is there anything from that period that you think women could benefit from and use today in reference to standards?
I think we’ve accomplished so much without sacrificing any sense of freedom that we have nowadays. I think there are some positive aspects. In order to go back there you’d have to sacrifice so many things that are worthy and so hard won.
The only thing would be good grace, I think that came from the time period and not being distracted by cell phones and televisions and the sound of lorries going by. We live in a very loud time right now and I think it was so quiet before. But I’d take loud and free over sedate and suppressed anyday.
Q. Is it true that Ang Lee taught you how to curtsy?
I was at the Golden Globes because he was nominated [for Brokeback Mountain] and he asked me what I was up to. I told him about Becoming Jane and said I was nervous and asked him whether he thought it was a good idea. He said “absolutely” and then asked if I could curtsy. I said of course and showed him but he said I was doing it wrong.
The first note Ang ever gave me was “more subtle” and it got worse from there. I love him to death but he’s very specific and succinct and shows his feelings. So, right in the middle of the Golden Globes he taught me how to properly curtsy, which was nice, because George Clooney was looking over wondering what we were up to. It was the most glamourous moment of my life, sadly and rather pathetically.
Q. Now that you’ve been Jane Austen can you ever be a Jane Austen heroine?
I’m a hack, I love to work, so I would love to play any of them. I’d love to play Anne Elliot. I think they are re-making it right now for TV. There have been some definitive performances of her heroines, if you think about Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in Sense & Sensibility and Amanda Root. I’d love to do one. It would be nice just to read one book instead of being responsible for them all.
Q. You started out on films like The Princess Diaries but have since moved on to heavier roles. Was that part of a plan to experience life first before playing it?
No, it was always my intention to be an actress and not the Princess of Genovia. Once I’d got my fill of the early roles it was time to move on. Brokeback Mountain was really the first time I played a character that was different to who I was and I really got a taste for it. I loved the way it fired up my imagination and how terrified I was of failure – it was kind of addictive. Now my new rules of thumb are no tiaras and do the opposite of the last role you did. That seems to be working pretty well for me.
Q. Is there anything you’ve kept from the whole experience? Any of Jane’s character traits?
When I went to the British Library I studied Jane Austen’s letters, just to see what her handwriting was like. It was just a cool thing to see, and it felt very sacred to be sitting there in front of those letters which she had touched, it was lovely. But she makes her Ds in a very specific way. It’s a sweeping D… so now, whenever I write I have to do a sweeping D. I hope it’s not a summation of my performance.