Based on the novel by Shannon Hale (who also co-wrote the script with director Jerusha Hess), Austenland is a quirky romantic comedy about the 30-something and single Jane Hayes (Keri Russell), whose obsession with all things Jane Austen takes her on a trip to an English resort that caters to just that very thing. But once there, Jane quickly realizes that finding the perfect Regency-era gentleman may be much more of a challenge than she ever could have imagined.
During a conference at the film’s press day, co-stars JJ Feild (“Mr. Henry Nobley”), Bret McKenzie (“Martin”), James Callis (“Colonel Andrews”) and Ricky Whittle (“Captain George East”) talked about the appeal of the Regency era for American audiences, their most memorable moments making the film, what it was like to wear this wardrobe, being a part of a female-dominated movie, their favorite Jane Austen novel, and what their version of Austenland would be. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
JJ FEILD: There’s a history of English literature where the best boils to the top, and Jane Austen stands right at the top of that. That exported to places, like America. And it’s not just America. I did a lead in a Jane Austen once, and the Austen fan clubs are huge in Eastern Europe. I’m huge in Croatia. I did a play in London and these busloads of East Germans, Hungarians and Austrians, who were Austen nuts, would turn up. For some reason, Jane Austen exports romance perfectly to just about everywhere, outside of England.
RICKY WHITTLE: She’s the original storyteller. They say Hollywood has done the whole romance thing to death. It’s guy meets girl, guy loses girl, guy gets girl in the end, or vice versa. She’s the original.
BRET McKENZIE: Well, Shakespeare was dropping a bit of that, as well.
WHITTLE: They try so many ways to come up with new material, but it’s tough. So, you revert back to the original stories because they were told more beautifully and the most truthfully, without trying to add the CGI and the craziness.
What’s the most memorable thing you’ll take away from making this film?
McKENZIE: There were so many great days. In that one scene where Jennifer Coolidge gets out of the car, and she’s just so comfortable with her body, particularly her breasts, she thrust her breasts. I’d only just met her, the day before. It really just made me uncomfortable with the proximity to her breasts. That was pretty memorable. And then, there was Keri, who was pregnant during the shooting, and she’s quite a confident person who likes to do things herself, who wasn’t allowed to ride a horse because she was pregnant. So, she had to have somebody holding the horse, the entire time. Everyone else was riding around, and Keri had to do the scene with the horse trainer holding her horse, the whole time. She was just so annoyed by the fact that she couldn’t ride a horse.
JAMES CALLIS: I wasn’t pregnant, and I wasn’t really allowed near a horse. I was not really allowed to touch it or pat it. They’re very nervous about that kind of thing. And it is frustrating ‘cause you’re there for two or three days with somebody saying, “I don’t know who taught you to ride a horse before, but you’ve got it all wrong.” So, you work on it, but then, when you get to the set, they’re like, “Sorry, but you can’t.”
FEILD: My memorable day, for good and not so good reasons, was the dining room scene. It took more than a day to shoot that, under heavy lights, and those were real fish heads. I was watching everyone try to act and not laugh or wretch. It was the funniest thing. It was hilarious! I never looked at Jennifer Coolidge once because I physically couldn’t, from laughing. She’s a genius, and we all adore her.
McKENZIE: The other thing that was really fun was that we filmed on this beautiful estate in this amazing place. We got to spend about a month there, just wandering around these incredible grounds with swans and a lake. I think it’s being sold. All the rich families who used to own all the British estates have gone bust because their children have blown their money. So now, they’re all being given to the government to look after. On Sundays, they’re open to the public, so we’d be filming and people would be having picnics. We’d be cruising around in our period costumes, and I think someone thought I was the stable hand.
What was your audition like, for this?
WHITTLE: When I auditioned for the part, I wasn’t actually in the same town as Jerusha. As actors, when you can’t be in the room with the casting director or the producers, you put yourself on tape and send it off. So, I got my breakdown for Captain George East, and I thought, “Okay, great, so he’s a Caribbean guy.” I had an open white shirt and shorts, and I worked on my Jamaican accent. I watched Cool Runnings for awhile, and I phoned up my dad in Jamaica and said, “Just talk to me, dad. Tell me about anything. How’s mom?” So, I did the audition, put it on tape and sent it off to my agent. My agent loved it and sent it off to Jerusha. And then, they came back and said, “They loved the tape and they want to meet you over Skype. They want to have an interview.” I was like, “Fantastic! That’s great!” So, Jerusha popped up on Skype, and it was first thing in the morning, and she said, “Oh, so that’s what you look like!” I was like, “Excuse me?!” Now, I checked it and my agent even sent it off, but for some reason, when they watched the tape, all they could see was my neck down to my lower groin. She was like, “Well, your torso was fantastic. Your groin looked lovely. The accent was dead on. We just had no idea what you looked like.” They had to Google me. Basically, my torso got me the role. I should have known where it was going, as an insight into the film.
FEILD: The no underwear was painful. That was a nightmare. No, I was wearing underwear. In the time, you wore a very long shirt. You didn’t wear underwear.
CALLIS: Now I know why my trousers didn’t fit! We have a kid’s toy in the UK, called Action Man. You have G.I. Joe over here. I got my trousers from Action Man. They were very difficult to put on, every day. I could feel the blood start to rise up to my head. They had a lot more time in the mornings to get dressed then. They didn’t have TV shows, and they didn’t have to get on the internet. Everything could take a bit longer.
WHITTLE: I don’t know about the rest of [the cast], but I felt really violated. You won’t recognize me because I’m actually wearing clothes. I’d often go into my trailer, after seeing everybody walking around in their fantastic outfits, and there would be little hot pants. I’d be like, “So, where’s the shirt? Is my shirt being ironed? Oh, that’s it?! That’s fine. That’s okay. That’s good.” But, that was Jerusha’s mind. She has an incredible eye for comedy, and she really brought this script to life. When I read it, it’s a million miles away from what you see on the screen. She really has made it come to life. And with this cast, they really found things that weren’t in the script. The script was incredible, at first, but people found little nuggets of gold. Although it’s very female-oriented, I think there’s a lot in there for the guys. A lot of guys are going to get dragged to this movie, under the illusion that it’s just a chick flick. But from the screenings we’ve had so far, guys have left with huge smiles on their faces. There’s plenty in there for guys, as well. It’s not your typical romantic comedy. We’ve got a fantastic cast, and Jennifer Coolidge is insane. I’m not even sure if half of what she said was in the script. Her improvisation and timing were great, and Jerusha was very free. Jerusha is an actor’s director. She lets you improvise. She said, “You’ve got the script. You know the story. You know your character.” So, we’ll do that, and then she’ll say, “Okay, let’s take it up a little. Give me something else. Give me something different.” It was very freeing to work under Jerusha.
FEILD: This was financed by a woman, produced by a woman, written by a woman, directed by a woman, and was a female-led film. In regard to playing these fantasies, as it were, who better than an entire female-led production to guide us to where they wanted. It was very easy to sit back and trust the guidance that we had, from the very beginning.
CALLIS: It was a very female-dominated film, but luckily there was the brute strength of men. We added the macho quotient to the film.
Do you have a favorite Jane Austen novel?
CALLIS: I read Emma, which I enjoyed very much. Jane Austen is very amusing.
WHITTLE: I’m not gonna lie, I’ve never really read the books. But, I’ve watched the films. Does that count?
What would your version of Austenland be?
CALLIS: I think maybe they built it, and it’s Las Vegas. I’m not sure. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, necessarily. The film allows, on some level, for a little bit of time travel. Going back to some days past is impossible, but we made it happen. You’re looking in, and getting a slight window into what it was like. I think there’s that a part of all of us that wants to do that. One of my kids keeps on saying that he wants to be a paleontologist, but first he wants to make a time machine, so he can go back and save the dinosaurs. Going back in time and being there, around in this period, was a lot of fun.
Austenland opens in theaters on August 16th.