BLETHYN TAKES ON A CLASSIC CHARACTER Interview by Paul Fischer in Los Angeles
Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn may well score another nomination as the matriarch of the Bennet family in the new screen version of Jane Austens classic, Pride & Prejudice. Always working, Blethyn had never seen any other version of the classic story before taking this on, as she revealed to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview, during her brief stint in New York where she is busily promoting the film.
Paul Fischer: When you took this on, how concerned were you about making a character, that has been played to death I suppose in one form or another, your own?
Brenda: Well to tell the truth I hadnt seen it before, although when I mentioned to people I was going to be playing this they said, oh, a wonderful, cartoony person...I said, what, no shes not. Stop it! They said, oh, no, its usually like a figure of fun. Ive read the book and I know her daughters description of her, but that has to come from some place real - shes the only one taking the problem seriously. Mr. Bennets all right, theyve got a roof over their heads all the time hes alive - its when he dies that theyve got the problem when the money goes down the male line. As it turned out, I think shes the only one speaking up for her daughters and trying to solve these problems so I wont hear a word said against her...
P.F: There are moments of histrionics with her which are quite fun, and youve played histrionic characters before, do you find those roles easy to get to?
Brenda: Its the same as any role and I find that you cant lump characters together; because they all have different life experiences, different reasons for being the way they are. So as far as Im concerned Ive never played that person before.
P.F: Well thats fair enough.
Brenda: No, Im not criticising you - Im just saying that thats the way I have to approach it. Also, the descriptions of her are taken from a teenage daughters point of view, and I know my mum used to embarrass me something awful but if you stop and look at it totally objectively, she was only doing what mums do in her love for her children and Mrs. Bennet is no exception.
P.F: How contemporary a character is this? Is it challenging for todays audiences turning a 19th century character into a 21st century character?
Brenda: Well I think when classics are made the code of conduct of the period is painted too heavily on top of the natural behaviour. I think behind closed doors people behave differently no matter what period were looking at, because people have to stand up straight in public but can slouch behind closed doors - can you imagine wearing those corsets? I mean, just to lie down would be heaven, and you see the difference with this family when they have guests for dinner and when they are alone. I think Joe [Wright, director] did a very good job of doing that; you can almost smell it. And the different behaviour at the two dances - youve got the local dance, sort of like the barn dance if you like, what would be called a hoedown...
P.F: Yeah, right.
Brenda: ...the dance of manners at the other place. I think hes captured the two and he was very, very keen that there was a sense of reality. You could see the dust and you can smell the sweat and its a working farm theyre living on, so he was keen to, to feel that.
P.F: Does the physicality of a character like this help you get into the character much more easily?
Brenda: Certainly...Ive done a lot of costume drama and theatre - the National Theatre and In fact, most of my work at the theatre, at the National Theatre anyway, was period. So Im very, very at home in those costumes. And of course, yes its different. You can imagine without washing machines and without all of that wearing those voluminous costumes - how often did they get washed? So they wear little things to make them smell nice, little sprigs of flowers, just different standards today. I mean how often would they have a bath for instance?
P.F: Youre incredibly busy. I mean every time I see you - mostly at film festivals it appears - you have something else coming up. What was the initial attraction to this in the first place for you?
Brenda: Its such a wonderful book. I read it when I was a teenager and it was just at that time when I was sort of waking up to romance and I really felt the pains, those little heart-stopping pains of romance reading this book. And I felt it again when I saw it - saw what Joe had done in his version of Pride and Prejudice. Obviously the scenes Im not in I havent seen how theyve been dealt with or how Joe had handled it or how Matthew and Keira were in it - and as such it was like an adventure. I loved what hed done. My partner was with me and he turned to me at one point and - because I was thinking this is like an adventure, and thats exactly what he said its like. And its not just a girls film, I think men like it too.
P.F: Before I saw this film I must confess that I thought to myself I cant see Keira Knightley as that character - mainly because I, I think shes done so many contemporary things and she...and having met her a number of times shes just a very, a very modern young woman. But then I changed my mind after I saw the movie...
Brenda: Well its nice to hear you say that because I, I think shes terrific in it. And in fact a lot of people who have said that - that they couldnt see her playing this part - have eaten their words. Theyve stood up and said shes wonderful in this. Now I think Joe Wright has got good performances out of everybody - um, me and Donald, Tom Hollander, Judi Dench, Keira and Matthew. Joe has to take a lot of credit for creating the right ambience for us to work in and to make it a really good atmosphere for all of us to be creative and not to feel silly if we tried something that didnt work.
P.F: What do you think it is about this movie that contemporary American audiences who are so non-literary would get out of this film?
Brenda: Well the thing about it is its the most wonderful story. Its a timeless story. We still all have those emotions, a sense of loss. It was originally called First Impressions and how first impressions can so often be wrong, and it does highlight that.
P.F: Now I mentioned earlier how busy you are - I mean every time I see you at either Sundance or Toronto you have something else on the horizon. What drives you? I mean you do have a partner, so you obviously have a personal life, yet it seems to me that youre always working. Why is that?
Brenda: Well its nice. Hes always working too, except often if Im going to be away for a while he comes with me. I think youve met him, Paul. Im sure you have. [Brendas partner is Michael Mayhew, a print art director who works for the National Theatre.] Its what we do for a living. I mean youre away from home often and, you know, its how we keep a roof over our head.
P.F: I think the last time I saw you, which was at Sundance for that lovely English - that movie, On a Clear Day, which still hasnt been released
Brenda: No, its opening I understand in April in the United States. Probably one that might open in December called Undertaking Betty, a comedy with Christopher Walken and Alfred Molina. Its just a frivolous piece of fun - its entertaining.
P.F: Whats happening with Clubland?
Brenda: I havent made that yet - thats hopefully happening in January.
P.F: What about No One Gets Off in This Town...
Brenda: I dont know whats happened to that. I havent heard about that one for months and months and months.
P.F: Ah, thats supposed to have John Hurt in it?
Brenda: Thats right, yeah. It was to be John Hurt, myself and Gillian Anderson, but I dont know whats happening with that.
P.F: And Pushers Needed...
Brenda: thats still on the cards...
P.F: So all of these films of yours are just waiting for...
Brenda: Wait...lining up, yeah. Hope they all happen.
P.F: So what can you tell me that you are actually doing?
Brenda: I dont know yet. Im going to take some time off. Im promoting this and then Im probably going to do a film thats waiting for me at home - the name of which I cant remember...
Brenda: My partner read it and said I will love it so well see when I get there what that is. And Ive been asked to do a theatre tour in Australia but I havent made up me mind whether I want to do that yet.
P.F: if you did that when would you do it?
Brenda: Probably March / April for 3 or 4 months. But Ive got to find the right project. Im toying with the idea of an Alan Bennett play but Im undecided yet.
P.F: Well do you miss the theatre because you
you know, you seem to spend so much time now in front of the cameras, do you miss being on stage?
Brenda: I do. I think its good to do that. Its a real leveller, you know, to do theatre at least once every two years.
P.F: Are you looking for something specifically outside of the Australian Tour that you would do on the West End or anything like that?
Brenda: I just would like to do Australia. If I did that for 3 or 4 months I think that would do me
that would be my injection (laughter) of theatre.
P.F: Now theyre, theyre already talking Oscar nominations for Pride and Prejudice. Do you take any of this hype seriously or just ignore it?
Brenda: Well...if its an indication of people enjoying the film, thats wonderful, yes, and you listen to that. But thats something invented by the movie business for the movie business and it promotes films. But the reason we make them is so that people whove been working all day long can go buy a ticket and go watch a film. You know, its like going to the theatre and thats why we do it. If there are some badges to be gotten along the way, you know, thats wonderful.