Becoming Jane (2007) – Q&A with Anne Hathaway and director Julian Jarrold

Share now:

Movie Interview by Silvia Felce

While Julian Jarrold is very calm and almost shy, it is Anne Hathaway who stole the “show” at the UK press conference of BECOMING JANE. She is funny and witty and most of all she has the best stories about filming the movie. As she worked a lot to prepare for the role, she happily told us all about her research and how she is now a Jane Austen expert, being able even to imitate her writing!


When the biography was published it created a story. So how many liberties have been taken with the scanty facts that we do know about Jane Austen and this relationship?

JULIAN JARROLD: The interesting thing about the biography is that through some detective work he found out there was more to the romance between Jane and Tom than other biographies had noticed. He was the first person to do that. He did some investigation to discover that they met each other after their brief flirtation in Hampshire. That was really the starting point for the film. We don’t know very much about that period because Cassandra burned almost all the letters. There still are two. But it is obviously a fascinating point in Jane’s life because it was just before she wrote Sense And Sensibility; so within the scanty facts that are known – to which we have paid as much attention as possible and reflected the situations and characters and the pressures on her at the time – Kevin and all of us have imagined the story that might have happened in that period; but very much keeping true to the spirit of the known facts and the situation and everything that Jane Austen wrote at the time.

How have members of The Jane Austen Society reacted to the film?

JULIAN JARROLD: Only a few people from that society have seen it and the people who have seen it have loved it. The other interesting thing from my point of view was to get away from sort of stereotypical images of Jane Austen as a middle aged spinster who is obsessed with propriety and actually what I think is interesting about this project is to look at her before she became Jane Austen when she was young and carefree and negotiating her way through all the family and economic pressures of the time; and meeting this guy and, for the first time in her life, falling in love.

You have immersed yourself in the work of Jane Austen since you were 14. So I imagine there was even more study for the film?

ANNE HATHAWAY: Oh yeah there was a huge amount of work to be done and as always, with every performance there was a very good chance that you were just going to mess up and be horrible and unwatchable. So in this particular case I thought that even if I did a really crap job at least they can never get me on the research. I started re-reading the books as soon as I was cast and I moved to England a month before we started filming and I worked on the accent and did all the historical research about the period, and specifically about what it would have been like to live in the countryside in England at that time. I read her letters, I had to learn the piano, sign language, and calligraphy and become an all round accomplished person. So the skills portion on my resume greatly improved after this role.

You also had to learn those very specific dances?

ANNE HATHAWAY: Nowadays all you have to do is shake your butt and you are a good dancer but back then there was actual choreography. I had dance training before. I am a terrible dancer but I can think like one. So all the actors thought of me as a traitor at that point.

Would you care to mention any actors who were hopeless at dancing?

ANNE HATHAWAY: They were all perfect. They got it after the first time.

What was it like when you looked in the mirror and saw yourself made-up as the older Jane Austen?

ANNE HATHAWAY: Well I put down the whisky that very day! (Joked) It inspires you to go to yoga and eat your vegetables. The thing is that she was 41 when she died so we did not want to make her look really, really old. But it was important to remember that the lifestyle was very different back then. There was very little convenience to anything, so it would have aged someone a bit faster.

Tom suggests that Jane’s ignorance of love might damn her writing to mere female accomplishments. What do you think of that?

ANNE HATHAWAY: I think that everyone’s artistic process is very different. I don’t necessarily think that as an artiste you need to experience everything that your character experiences. You can imagine the general ballpark. If I were to play a heroin addict it would mean it would be like…bottoms up! In her case she had a really extraordinary genius, very clever imagination; so I didn’t think it took much experience but it did give her added insight. However it is important to note that without her imagination all the experience in the world would not have made her a good writer.

This is the story of one of England’s greatest writers but it was filmed in Ireland. Why?

JULIAN JARROLD: There were a number of reasons. We got some money from the Irish Film Board but what turned out rather well is that Hampshire now is groomed and manicured and we were able to find in Ireland was a sense of countryside that felt more unchanged. That was one of the things that I really wanted to get…a sense of the landscape in which Jane Austen grew up. Ireland also has a great variety of Georgian houses and older houses as well. I think it gave us quite a different and interesting look for the film.

You seem unbothered if the weather changed during filming?

JULIAN JARROLD: We wanted to have a realistic look and feel to the film so everything is not lit in a very glamorous Hollywood way. Obviously when you shoot a long scene in the woods the changing weather is part of the price that you pay.

ANNE HATHAWAY: I don’t know if it was the gods or that Jane was upset that I was playing her but every time that Julian would do a close-up on me it would start to rain. It was an awful coincidence that kept happening.

How cold was it on location in Ireland?

JULIAN JARROLD: When we shot the first woods scene Anne was pretty cold in a thin dress. It was a long day and she gradually went white and then blue.

ANNE HATHAWAY: The hardest thing about it was when you had been in a field for five hours, waiting for the rain to stop and you are frozen, then eventually you start to say your lines and your jaw is frozen shut. So I just sounded drunk in a lot of scenes until we did the ADR.

Was it part of a plan to go from films like THE PRINCESS DIARIES to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and now BECOMING JANE?

ANNE HATHAWAY: It was always my intention to be an actress and not the Princess of Genovia. So once I got my fill of those early roles… it was in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN that for the first time I played a character that was so different to who I was and I really got a taste for it and I loved the way it fired up my imagination and how terrified I was of failure. It kind of became addictive. So now my new rule of thumb is…no tiaras and just always do the opposite of the last thing I did. And that seems to be working pretty well.

Why did you believe that Anne was the girl to play Jane Austen?

JULIAN JARROLD: When I first met her she knew more about Jane Austen than I did and was absolutely passionate bout it, which was obviously very convincing. One of the key ideas in the film was to get away from the old, stuffy costume drama kind of feel of what Jane Austen is and to look at somebody before she becomes a genius, when she is in her early twenties and on the verge of writing her great thing; she had a real exuberance for life, intelligent and independent and a sort of outsider in rural Hampshire, more intelligent than the people around her and kicking against all those pressures. It seemed interesting to have somebody who was a little bit outside that English costume drama tradition, to give it an extra bit of vitality and buzz. I did see BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and thought that Anne was absolutely brilliant in it. Happily I think this has worked really well.

Did you keep the accent when you weren’t filming?

ANNE HATHAWAY: I did for the most part. The only person I broke it for was my boyfriend. I disappeared for several months, off into the Irish countryside and it was bad enough that we did not see each other. He tried for a few weeks but eventually he just said, “Look, it’s bad enough that I can’t see you, but I can’t even hear your voice. Could you please just sound like you for five minutes?” So I went out of the accent for him but everyone else just had to lump it. It was the first time ever in my career that I stayed in character for pretty much the whole time; I alienated myself from my friends and turned off my cell phone and stopped being myself for a few months. Everyone liked me much better – so that was worrying. Then at the end when I slipped back into me at first that felt like a character. It was a strange condition. But it was a nice experience to commit so fully.

JULIAN JARROLD: It was a complete shock at the end of production, when we had our wrap party and when I had a drink with Anne at the bar and I thought…who is this person? Not just her accent but also the whole character, the way of holding yourself and speaking was so completely different. For me it was quite a shock at the end.

How was using pen and ink?

ANNE HATHAWAY: I did not find it very easy. To this day it still kind of baffles me. You imagine you need huge quantities of ink and you don’t. I practised by writing letters to all my friends.

How did you find working with Julie Walters and Maggie Smith?

ANNE HATHAWAY: I adore both of them and I was hopping with excitement when I found out that I was going to get to work with them. I held off watching EDUCATING RITA till after filming and I was really happy that I did because I would not have been able to talk to Julie. Maggie was just wonderful. Put her in any situation in life and she will make the most wry, cleverest observation. It was great to be around them and hear their stories. The thing that is lovely about both of them is that they will be laughing right up until they say ‘action’ and all of a sudden they turn and they are completely in character. They give the most complete performance, grounded in the most excellent technique. It is terrifying. And then we cut and they are back to being themselves. So that obviously is the goal to reach for. The whole cast was unbelievable…. James McAvoy is the best actor of his generation, Anna Maxwell Martin is scary brilliant, Lucy Cohu is gorgeous and of course Ian Richardson, let’s not forget the other legend in this. So it was a wonderful experience.

There is a trend for Brits to play Americans and vice versa. Is this an artistic or commercial decision?

ANNE HATHAWAY: There are two trends…Americans playing Brits and American actresses having babies and I decided to go for one and not the other. So for me it was purely commercial.

What positives might we have learned from the 1790s?

ANNE HATHAWAY: We have accomplished so much without sacrificing any sense of freedom that we have nowadays. There are some positive aspects. Obviously not everyone but I think back then the literate were more literate. But in order to go back there you would have to sacrifice so much that is worthy and so hard won. But back then there was a grace and that would be the only thing. Not being distracted by cell phones and televisions and the sound of lorries going by. We live in a very loud time right now. But I will take loud and free over sedate and oppressed any day.

How difficult is it to make a period piece on a limited budget?

JULIAN JARROLD: It was very difficult. We had to make it work in the locations that we had as efficiently as possible. Fortunately we found a wonderful house that was very like the original house and we hot very fast and everybody got into as rhythm. We honed the script as well to make it as practical as possible.

You said you were terrified of failure. Can you say more on that?

ANNE HATHAWAY: I spent a month becoming Jane Austen and during that time I had to forget about the fear, focus on something else and commit to the character, because it [the fear] was becoming paralysing. I couldn’t focus because I was so frightened. It was not that the fans would not care for my performance but that I would be playing someone that I think was a legend and whom I admire so much and that I would fail. So it was putting a lot of pressure on myself and I forgot about it when we were making the film and then – inexplicably -about a month after we finished the film, I started having panic attacks while I slept. I had bad dreams about being chased around, about being stabbed to death by Jane Austen with quills. So I would wake up in the middle of the night and I would be sweating and breathing very heavily. That stopped when people watched the film and they liked it. That placated me. So I guess I still need other people’s approval. I am just happy that people got the performance and they like the film and we did her justice – because it really would have broken my heart to have messed this one up.

Since you have played Jane Austen does this mean you can’t portray any of her heroines?

ANNE HATHAWAY: I don’t know. I’m a hack. I love to work. I would to play any of them. I would love to play Anne Elliot. They are doing another PERSUASION after Amanda Root did such a perfect job in the BBC version. There have been definitive performances of her heroines…think of Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. I would love to do it. It would be nice to focus on one book instead of having to be responsible for them all.

Was there a bible on manners and etiquette in the 1790s to which you had to refer?

JULIAN JARROLD: We had a number of advisers to tell us what we could and couldn’t do. We had a very good choreographer for the ball scenes. She gave everybody lessons on how to sit and how to drink tea and greet people. That was part of the fascination of entering into that world. We had endless discussions about how they bowled in cricket. We rang up Lords and they said one thing and the consensus seemed to be that it was half way between under arm and over arm.

ANNE HATHAWAY: There is a really helpful book on that period. It is called What Jane Austen Ate And Charles Dickens Knew. It was recommended to me by Ang Lee. It was my bible on this production It answered every possible question.

Had you phoned Ang Lee about this?

ANNE HATHAWAY: Ang Lee did not convince me to do this movie. I did not need convincing. But I was at the Golden Globes where Ang Lee was nominated and I was just hanging on. I told him I was really nervous about this project and did he think it was a good idea. He said absolutely. He asked if I could curtsey and I said of course, who can’t curtsey! So I showed him and he said it was wrong. So then right there in the middle of the Golden Globes he taught me how to curtsey properly. Which was nice because George Clooney was looking on, wondering what we were up to. It was lovely, a very glamorous moment in my life.

Did you decide to keep anything from the Englishness you absorbed for this film?

ANNE HATHAWAY: There is. Beside introducing to my vocabulary the word bosom, which is lovely, when I went to the British Library I studied Jane Austen’s letters to understand her handwriting – an amazing and sacred thing to see, if felt kind of holy to be sitting in front of letter that she had touched – I saw she made her ‘d’ like a sweeping wave. So now when I write I use a sweeping ‘d’ – which is a part of Jane that has stayed with me.