Jennifer Ehle is the daughter of English actress Rosemary Harris and American author John Ehle. She made her West End debut in Peter Hall’s 1991 production of “Tartuffe,” and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1995. Ehle won the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actress for her role as Elizabeth Bennet in the 1995 BBC miniseries “Pride and Prejudice.” Her other television credits include “The Camomile Lawn” (1992) and “A Gifted Man” (2011-2012). For her work on Broadway, she won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for “The Real Thing,” and the 2007 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for “The Coast of Utopia.” She has also appeared in supporting roles in such films as “Wilde” (1997), “Sunshine” (1999), “Possession” (2002), “The King’s Speech” (2010), “Contagion” (2011), “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), “RoboCop” (2014), and “Fifty Shades of Grey” (2015).
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where her new film, “Saint Maud,” premiered in the Midnight Madness section.
What made you want to become an actress?
Jennifer Ehle: Well, my father was a writer and my mother is an actress and people always used to say: “Are you going to be an actress or a writer?” Nobody sort of assumed I would be anything else and, apparently, she remembers me when I was quite young saying I was going to be an actress and the person said: “Why?” and I said: “Because my mother has so much fun.” And so, I guess, that’s the very young child’s reason for doing it, and I don’t think it really changed. There had been times where I haven’t enjoyed it as much when it took me away from family. I’ve gone through periods where I felt quite shy and so it’s been hard – not the acting side of things, but I used to find this side of things more difficult. But now, the older I get, the more I love it and I think, in general, the less I am concerned with the things that used to make me feel self-conscious.
Do you still have fun, though?
J.E.: Yes! I really usually have enormous amounts of fun working! You know, one of the great joys and satisfactions in life is to really try to solve problems that you enjoy figuring out. Steven Soderbergh said that. He said: “Art is problem solving.” And it’s true. And if you enjoy solving those problems, then it’s joyous and satisfying.
How did you get on board this film?
J.E.: My agent represents Morfydd [Clark] and it was an offer to do it. Reading the script, it was such a beautifully written piece that it was as close as you could imagine to watching the film. It felt almost like a complete experience. And it was such an interesting and intriguing world and so finely drawn. Then, I spoke with Rose [Glass] on the phone and really liked her and trusted her. I loved her film references and you could tell that she has a core of confidence and she doesn’t really have a sort of people-pleasing or ingratiating feature. I just had faith in her and trusted her and was very happy to be on board. That was that!
Can you talk about your character, Amanda? She’s a bit amused by her own downfall and she kind of reminds me in an odd way of Norma Desmond.
J.E.: I can see that. Amanda has huge charisma, a huge ego and huge intelligence and wit and she, I think, has had in her area of life a lot of artistic and creative power and an enormous amount of freedom and agency to do and behave as she wants and now she’s physically very limited, in a wheelchair or bed-bound, and has to be bathed. And she’s dying and she knows it. And everyone has kind of gone away in her life. She has no intimates. I don’t think she’s probably ever really known and been known by anyone and she may have always, to a certain degree, had relationships that are slightly abusive power-wise and she’s now in a situation where the two people who are closest to her are in her employ and she’s paying them for their care and intimacy. So there’s obviously self-loathing in there and fear and frustration and anger and incredible boredom. I think she’s artistically, creatively, intellectually and entertainment-wise incredibly bored.
How did you prepare for her? What were your references? What did you do?
J.E.: I don’t know! I just had fun really, playing! She was just so much fun to play because I do enjoy playing people who are entertaining themselves or have a desire to entertain themselves. And it was wonderful. It’s always an extra special thing. My mother always says: “It’s always an extra special thing when you’re playing a character in their own home because you feel like you have an extra kind of license to know your surroundings.” And, of course, your character is being helped by – especially on a film like this – the production design, the props, the lighting, the camera angles, the sounds, to tell the story and who the characters are, so I think we were enormously aided and abetted by every area of the production.
Talking about production, can you talk about working with Rose and Morfydd?
J.E.: Rose is really incredible. She knows this story and she knows these characters and I think everybody on the production really wanted to serve her vision and do everything they could to bring what they had fallen in love with on the page onto the screen. There wasn’t a single thing that wasn’t shown to Rose or that Rose was asked about. She really was open to every single tiny detail and everybody wanted to collaborate and serve her with every detail and that was really an exciting experience to be around.
How much does your mother inspire you in your work?
J.E.: My mother inspires me all the time and we’re so close and I’ve learnt and am learning constantly so much from her.
How much of you is there in every character you play? Do you manage to dissociate yourself from own persona in order to play someone else?
J.E.: It’s interesting because I don’t know. I know that one day towards the end of the shoot, one of the make-up artists said something just in passing – there was a scene I hadn’t been in or something: “Because you know, you’re such an enormous presence on set” She said it just like: “Well you know you are” and I just thought: “Who is she talking about?” That’s not who I think I am at all and I thought it’s Amanda, it’s not me. Amanda’s the huge presence on set and, I guess, in order to play a character that large and a character that gives herself such high status, I probably carried that around with me just because otherwise it’s awfully shy-making to say: “Give me a moment, here I go!” so I think I probably did swan around. I don’t know. All bits of a character, I suppose, are bits of one’s self, but I think we’re all capable of being all things. I think we all have the same ingredients, really.
Has any character that you have played, any role completely, radically changed you or your worldview, has done something to you that has stayed with you?
J.E.: That’s an interesting question. I’ve certainly learnt things. I did a play onstage a couple of years ago where I played a Norwegian diplomat, Mona Juul, who helped bring about the 1993 agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. We did it twice, off Broadway and then off Broadway. And not just because of the story and because of the stage, but because your position in this play always bleeds backstage a little bit, so you end up being a little bit the character you play in that you end up holding that position. And so, I think I learnt a little bit of the diplomacy and I think I realized some of my own power playing her through the experience of just working with the company for a year.
Do you have any favorite role that you’ve played?
J.E.: Gosh! There’s lots of them! Lizzy Bennet, of course! And also I loved my character in A Quiet Passion and I loved Mona Juul whom I played in Oslo. There were three characters I loved in The Coast of Utopia and then Annie in The Real Thing – the Tom Stoppard plays I’ve done. I loved a part I played when I was about eighteen in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Hattie Dealin. There are so many characters, I’ve been just really, really fortunate. I feel like I’ve had sort of nine lives as an actor. And I love Amanda, and Valerie in Sunshine, István Szabó’s film.
What do you prefer, the stage or film? Which one gives you more freedom?
J.E.: I’ll always be a creature of the theater. With film, I love the fact that the camera can capture accidents and it can capture things, moments that are unplanned and moments that are planned and I love that it can do that, but I will always slightly have the feeling of doing a scene and at the end of the day thinking: “Well, that was really good, that was good, let’s make it better tomorrow, let’s try again tomorrow.” It’s still strange to me that you just do it once and then it’s gone.
Is there any character, person, anyone, that you would love to play? Your dream character?
J.E.: I’ll always be sorry I never played Rosalind in As You Like It. I did actually when I was sixteen play a part of it, but it was only a tiny little part of it and I just had a few days to rehearse it. But that’s gone. I don’t know. There are a few things I guess I hope to play one day. Plays, I guess… We’ll see…
There has been so much talk about women in film for the past two years. What is your opinion on the matter? Where do you see yourself in this discussion?
J.E.: I think things are changing. I think things have begun to change. And I don’t think we would have had this film made if it hadn’t begun to change. I hope things continue to change and continue to grow and continue to move forward, but I think we have to get parity with pay in all professions. I think that’s vital.
Is there any female filmmaker that you would love to work with who inspires you?
J.E.: Well, one of my closest friends and favorite collaborators or artists to try to serve their vision is Kathryn Bigelow and I’ve worked with her twice and I look forward to working with her again very much – always.
What are your next projects?
J.E.: I don’t think I can say!
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Photo credits: ©Luis Mora – TIFF x Samsung Studio 2019