Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn may well score another nomination as the matriarch of the Bennet family in the new screen version of Jane Austen’s classic, Pride & Prejudice. Always working, Blethyn had never seen any other version of the classic story before taking this on, as she revealed to Garth Franklin in this exclusive interview, during her brief stint in New York where she is busily promoting the film.
Question: 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 Blethyn: Well to tell the truth I hadn’t 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 she’s not. Stop it! They said, oh, no, it’s usually like a figure of fun. I’ve read the book and I know her daughter’s description of her, but that has to come from some place real – she’s the only one taking the problem seriously. Mr. Bennet’s all right, they’ve got a roof over their heads all the time he’s alive – it’s when he dies that they’ve got the problem when the money goes down the male line. As it turned out, I think she’s the only one speaking up for her daughters and trying to solve these problems so I won’t hear a word said against her… (Laughter)
Question: There are moments of histrionics with her which are quite fun, and you’ve played histrionic characters before, do you find those roles easy to get to?
Brenda Blethyn: It’s the same as any role and I find that you can’t lump characters together; because they all have different life experiences, different reasons for being the way they are. So as far as I’m concerned I’ve never played that person before. (Laughter)
Question: Well that’s fair enough.
Brenda Blethyn: No, I’m not criticising you – I’m just saying that that’s the way I have to approach it. Also, the descriptions of her are taken from a teenage daughter’s 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.
Question: How contemporary a character is this? Is it challenging for today’s audiences turning a 19th century character into a 21st century character?
Brenda Blethyn: 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 we’re 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 – you’ve got the local dance, sort of like the barn dance if you like, what would be called a hoedown… (Laughter)
Question: Yeah, right.
Brenda Blethyn: … the dance of manners at the other place. I think he’s 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 it’s a working farm they’re living on, so he was keen to, to feel that.
Question: Does the physicality of a character like this help you get into the character much more easily?
Brenda Blethyn: Certainly… I’ve 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 I’m very, very at home in those costumes. And of course, yes it’s 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?
Question: You’re 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 Blethyn: It’s 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 I’m not in I haven’t seen how they’ve 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 he’d 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 that’s exactly what he said it’s like. And it’s not just a girls film, I think men like it too.
Question: Before I saw this film I must confess that I thought to myself ‘I can’t see Keira Knightley as that character’ – mainly because I, I think she’s done so many contemporary things and she… and having met her a number of times she’s just a very, a very modern young woman. But then I changed my mind after I saw the movie…
Brenda Blethyn: Well it’s nice to hear you say that because I, I think she’s terrific in it. And in fact a lot of people who have said that – that they couldn’t see her playing this part – have eaten their words. They’ve stood up and said she’s 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 didn’t work.
Question: 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 Blethyn: Well the thing about it is it’s the most wonderful story. It’s 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.
Question: 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 you’re always working. Why is that?
Brenda Blethyn: Well it’s nice. He’s always working too, except often if I’m going to be away for a while he comes with me. I think you’ve met him, Paul. I’m sure you have. [Brenda’s partner is Michael Mayhew, a print art director who works for the National Theatre.] It’s what we do for a living. I mean you’re away from home often and, you know, it’s how we keep a roof over our head.
Question: I think the last time I saw you, which was at Sundance for that lovely English – that movie, On a Clear Day, which still hasn’t been released
Brenda Blethyn: No, it’s 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. It’s just a frivolous piece of fun – it’s entertaining…
Question: What’s happening with Clubland?
Brenda Blethyn: I haven’t made that yet – that’s hopefully happening in January.
Question: What about No One Gets Off in This Town…
Brenda Blethyn: I don’t know what’s happened to that. I haven’t heard about that one for months and months and months.
Question: Ah, that’s supposed to have John Hurt in it?
Brenda Blethyn: That’s right, yeah. It was to be John Hurt, myself and Gillian Anderson, but I don’t know what’s happening with that.
Question: And Pushers Needed…
Brenda Blethyn: that’s still on the cards…
Question: So all of these films of yours are just waiting for…
Brenda Blethyn: Wait-… lining up, yeah. Hope they all happen.
Question: So what can you tell me that you are actually doing? (Laughter)
Brenda Blethyn: I don’t know yet. I’m going to take some time off. I’m promoting this and then I’m probably going to do a film that’s waiting for me at home – the name of which I can’t remember… (Laughter)
Brenda Blethyn: My partner read it and said I will love it so we’ll see when I get there what that is. And I’ve been asked to do a theatre tour in Australia but I haven’t made up me mind whether I want to do that yet.
Question: if you did that when would you do it?
Brenda Blethyn: Probably March / April for 3 or 4 months. But I’ve got to find the right project. I’m toying with the idea of an Alan Bennett play but I’m undecided yet.
Question: 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 Blethyn: I do. I think it’s good to do that. It’s a real leveller, you know, to do theatre at least once every two years.
Question: Are you looking for something specifically outside of the Australian Tour that you would do on the West End or anything like that?
Brenda Blethyn: 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.
Question: Now they’re, they’re already talking Oscar nominations for Pride and Prejudice. Do you take any of this hype seriously or just ignore it?
Brenda Blethyn: Well… if it’s an indication of people enjoying the film, that’s wonderful, yes, and you listen to that. But that’s something invented by the movie business for the movie business and it promotes films. But the reason we make them is so that people who’ve been working all day long can go buy a ticket and go watch a film. You know, it’s like going to the theatre and that’s why we do it. If there are some badges to be gotten along the way, you know, that’s wonderful.