Creating an account with Tribecafilm.com gives you access to more features and services, like our weekly newsletter and other special features just for the film community.SIGN UP
At the U.S. premiere of Easy Virtue at the Tribeca Film Festival last month, director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) addressed the elephant in the room: the casting of Jessica Biel, an actress more noted for her body than her body of work, in the central role of Larita, an American, racecar-driving divorcée who falls for upper class Brit John (Ben Barnes) on the French Riviera in the 1920s. “Some say she doesn’t fit in,” Elliott shrugged. “Well, duh.”
In the film, which is adapted from a Noël Coward play (Alfred Hitchcock also made a silent film version in 1928), the comedy of manners begins when the prodigal son returns home to his family’s country estate. He’s greeted by a cast that Elliott likened to royalty: there’s an unenthused mother (Kristin Scott Thomas, oozing sangfroid), depressed WWI veteran father (forever Mr. Darcy, the dreamy Colin Firth), and two spinsterish sisters who have trouble welcoming the newest member into the clan.
Elliott joked that the movie itself contained very little acting, implying that the rapport between Biel and her onscreen in-laws was wholly natural. Co-star Barnes didn’t even know who Biel was prior to filming. (Perhaps he hasn't been following her high-profile relationship with pop star Justin Timberlake in the U.S. tabloids?) “She proves herself to be melancholy and witty and farcically funny,” said Barnes. (In fact, the actor was so won over that, during the Festival's post-screening Q&A, Elliott made repeated asides about how the hunky actor was besotted with the beauty.)
For Biel, playing Larita was more a case of wanting to become her. “She’s this strong, opinionated person,” said Biel, who considers herself more of a people-pleaser. Biel loved the glamour of the era—and mentioned a knockout gown she wore in the film’s final scene—but even more, she praised an era typified as “killing someone with a comment and great style.” She was not concerned with proving herself among the Oscar nominee-filled cast; Biel has been here before, with films that people predicted would be her breakout. “So many times I’ve heard, this is the one,” she sighed.
Without younger fans supporting movies like Easy Virtue, “these films will stop being made,” observed the script’s coauthor Sheraton Jobbins. She added that writing for a character like Biel’s was a refreshing experience: “In the ‘20s and ‘30s, the women characters were genuinely smarter and stronger than they have been for the last 10-15 years.”
What Biel could personally relate to was Larita’s sense of alienation. “I feel like an outsider all the time,” she said. “Celebrity is strange—everyone knows you, but you don’t know anybody. It’s kind of an isolating experience.”
Biel shows some surprising range in the film. In particular, she sings a lilting version of “Mad About the Boy,” a song written by Coward. (Note: a clause in his will stated that no man could ever record the song.) It gave the actress a chance to show off her childhood vocal training—in hopes of becoming the next Whitney Houston, she started taking lessons at the age of eight. And her next role will also make use of those skills, as Sister Sarah in the musical Guys and Dolls at the Hollywood Bowl in July.
For Biel, the hardest part of making the film was the comedy: “I think being funny is really hard.” Her task wasn’t just to hold her own amongst British thespians, or to master Coward’s signature rapid-fire dialogue; she also had to contend with the sight gags added in by Elliott and Jobbins—including a memorably macabre subplot about a beloved family pet—designed to attract a new audience to a period piece.
Easy Virtue is “kind of claustrophobic, and the characters are unsympathetic,” said Barnes. And he wasn’t joking—he hesitated to take the part of John, whom he called “a weak character incapable of making up his mind.” But Barnes, who had finished The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, was “looking for anything without a sword and a horse.” He found a fondness for the character in the balance between John’s charm and his naivete. It should be noted that Barnes, who just finished filming a ‘50s-set Dorian Grey—alongside costar Firth as Lord Henry—is not able to escape horses and swords for long: he is currently growing his hair long for the role of King Caspian in the next Narnia film.
Elliott hopes that Easy Virtue receives a better reception in America than it did in Coward's homeland. While it was, he noted, a big hit in Australia (which he called “the convicts’ revenge”), “it was an absolute disaster in the UK,” he laughed. “We realized we’re picking on the English.”
Easy Virtue Trailer