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23 May 2016

“Just try to be a real person”: James Fleet on doing Austen on screen

Ryan Gilbey talks to the actor James Fleet, who stars in Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship – his third Austen film adaptation after Sense and Sensibility and Death Comes to Pemberley.

By Ryan Gilbey

In this Thursday’s New Statesman, I’ll be reviewing Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s sparkling adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, as well as speaking to the director himself about his novel-of-the-film-of-the-book. For now, here are some illuminating asides from one of the cast members, the 62-year-old British actor James Fleet. He plays the stuffy Sir Reginald De Courcy, who tries to intervene when his son (Xavier Samuel) becomes involved with a woman widely considered to be unsuitable. Fleet has endeared himself to audiences on television in The Vicar of Dibley and on film in the likes of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Mr Turner. He also has form in the area of Austen adaptations, as he explains below…

Sir Reginald must have been fun to play. What discussions did you and Whit Stillman have about him?

We didn’t. We really didn’t talk about him at all really. Whit is a very interesting man, quite eccentric. He doesn’t explain things but he knows when it’s right. You like him and you want him to be happy though. Directors are very different from one another but then they don’t work with each other so they don’t know what all the other ones are like. There were times when I thought that Whit didn’t like acting at all. When you would try and do any acting you’d see his face drop. If you just say the lines, that’s the style he likes. He doesn’t want you to colour it. What he wouldn’t like is what we think of in this country as “excellence”. That pausey, meaningful style. I don’t want to name any actors but you know what I mean. I don’t think he’d like them. If he got someone really famous to be in his films he’d probably make them compromise.

His films really rattle along don’t they? He doesn’t give the audience any time to catch up.

That’s right, and I think it flatters the audience’s intelligence. That’s the style he likes: “I understand this so you’re going to.” He makes you feel clever. He’s not cutting it all up into small parcels and asking if you understand this or that bit. That’s why he doesn’t want you to make everything clear by “Acting”.

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Do you agree that he’s a very literary director?

I think he loves words. From the moment I read the script I was desperate to do the job. It was those words! Whatever happens, you’re not going to spoil it. He loves film too but he’s slightly at one remove. Not a hands-on director. He isn’t all “you drop the fan, she looks away, that’s the laugh”. He wouldn’t know how to construct a visual joke but he knows when it’s funny. You keep doing it again and again and he’ll nod – “Mm-hm… Mm-hm” – then you’ll figure it out yourself and eventually he’ll say it’s time to move on. He doesn’t run around hugging you in enthusiasm. If it’s not right he’ll scratch his head.

Is there a key to good directing?

The great secret of directing is making people like you. Everyone likes Whit, he’s very warm and urbane and nice. The sort of person you’d fall in love with. A lovable intellectual.

Am I right in thinking this is your third Austen after Sense and Sensibility and Death Comes to Pemberley, where P D James used characters from Pride and Prejudice?

That’s right. I was also in Mr Turner as Constable, though that’s slightly later on. It’s a period of history that I feel I know. All sideburns and top hats.

How does Whit compare with Ang Lee, who directed Sense and Sensibility?

I wouldn’t begin to know how to compare them. Ang didn’t speak English very well back then. It was the first film that he’d made in English. He was at a bit of a loss with people arguing back. Actors saying, “I don’t think my character would do that.” He would sit there in the French windows with his baseball cap on. He must have been thinking, “What am I going to say to these people?” He didn’t have the language. You’d talk to him and you wouldn’t be any the wiser at the end of it. Even though he didn’t always understand what you were saying, he still knew whether it was a good take or not. He could just tell. And when you see the film, it’s all Ang. It’s his personality. There’s a calmness to it, a compassion; that’s exactly what he’s like. Here is someone who didn’t seem to be in charge and yet his personality is still imprinted on the film. The same with Whit. He has a very light touch  but as soon as you see the film you know who directed it. I’ve never managed to work out that puzzle.

Was it true that Ang was a tough director? He criticised one of Emma Thompson’s takes by saying she had given a “boring” look, and Hugh Grant nicknamed him “Fang Lee”.

Oh, it would be typical of Hugh to make a joke like that. But no! Everyone adored Ang. He was completely adorable. Everybody’s favourite guy.

Is there a secret to playing in an Austen adaptation?

I don’t know. Just try to be a real person I think. Everyone’s seen so much Jane Austen that when you turn up to audition you think you’ve got to do it the way you saw it on TV. But it has a pace of its own. You wear the clothes and you don’t have any pockets for your mobile phone. You’ve got to get in and out of carriages and there’s always some bossy bloke who owns the carriage and is worried you’re going to damage his doors. You have to say the big sentences with the slightly antique phrasing and just try to make it real.

Love & Friendship is released on Friday.

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