Scholarly 'Possession': Yanks Paltrow, Ehle accent their Brit roles
16 August 2002
The Washington Times
Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Ehle, the leading ladies in Neil LaBute's admirable movie adaptation of "Possession," the superlative A.S. Byatt novel of 1990 about modern scholars who uncover a clandestine romance between eminent Victorian authors, have some conspicuous affinities. Both are the daughters of respected actresses: Blythe Danner in the case of Miss Paltrow and Rosemary Harris in the case of Miss Ehle.
Both enjoyed professional breakthroughs while portraying Jane Austen heroines in 1996: Miss Paltrow in the title role of "Emma," a theatrical feature, and Miss Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet in a BBC Television adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" that created something of a cult around her co-star, Colin Firth.
It's generally known that Miss Paltrow, 29, is an American who has demonstrated a singular flair for simulating English accents. "Possession," in which she plays a Lincolnshire academic named Maud Bailey, is her fourth British impersonation on the screen, following "Emma," "Sliding Doors" and her Academy Award-winning performance as William Shakespeare's muse in "Shakespeare in Love."
Miss Ehle, 32, is often assumed to be English because her mother is English and the "Pride and Prejudice" series remains her best- known credit. In fact, Miss Ehle is a native of North Carolina, where her father, John Ehle, is a distinguished scholar, author and philanthropist. Miss Ehle has lived and worked extensively in England, where she moved to attend drama school at the age of 18 and remained for much of the next 12 years.
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The actresses inhabit different time frames in "Possession." Miss Paltrow's Maud exists in the present; Miss Ehle's Christabel LaMotte is a Victorian lyric poet and fabulist invented and cleverly "authenticated" by A.S. Byatt, drawing on certain aspects of Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among others.
The leading ladies were in the same time frame and location during a press junket hosted at the Regency Hotel by Focus Features, the new incarnation of USA Films, an art-house subsidiary of Universal.
Another point in common: They may be the despair of their agents. Miss Paltrow wistfully confides, "Occasionally, you feel you have to do something commercial because your agent is about to weep from frustration. I prefer to do the smaller films and the ones that promise to have more artistic integrity, like 'Possession.'
"Having said that, I had a great time working with the Farrelly brothers and Jack Black on 'Shallow Hal.' It was fun to do something silly. But I haven't worked for serious money in over a year, and it may be another year before I do, since I'll start a biographical movie about Sylvia Plath very soon."
Miss Paltrow does, of course, make a brief, facetious appearance in the opening sequence of "Austin Powers in Goldmember," but that was more beau geste than major payday.
The problem for Miss Ehle's agent is that the actress was married in November and wants at least a year away from stage and screen. A flurry of activity preceded the marriage: She was in a revival of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" in both New York and London, kept her obligation to "Possession" and then returned to New York for a revival of Noel Coward's "Design for Living."
Asked if she married someone in the business, Miss Ehle replies emphatically, "No, I'm no fool. I've been very lucky. Things always seem to work out. It feels good to be back. I've never lived in America as an adult. I have no credit history, so it's been something of a struggle negotiating a mortgage, which is our big project at the moment. In a way it's terribly arrogant to take a year or two off and think you'll be able to work again. Who knows?"
Miss Paltrow's familiarity with England began when "Emma" was in production. "I had spent a little time there when I was younger," she recalls. "And there were a lot of Brits among my parents' circle of theater friends and acquaintances. I've spent a lot of time in England in recent years, and I like working there. I think I've done it so often that I have some insight into how English people think and feel."
Miss Ehle recalls acquiring a passable English accent when she lived abroad between the ages of 11 and 13. "I was being teased at school," she says, "so I became bilingual. My identity was never tied to the sounds that came out of my mouth. During the later, prolonged English period, I felt it was imprudent to walk into auditions with an American accent. After a while, I didn't."
Neither actress read the Byatt novel before being attracted to the movie by Mr. LaBute's final screenplay, derived from his collaboration with Australian writer Laura Jones and an earlier adaptation by playwright David Henry Hwang.
"It was Neil," Miss Paltrow says, "or, rather, Neil-slash-the script. I caught up with the book after reading the script he wrote. I think he did an amazing job of boiling down the important and cinematic aspects of the story, which was very dense. He changed the necessary things and edited out the necessary things. I was very impressed."
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Miss Paltrow seems to have been unaware of "Possession" until she encountered the screenplay, but she was a high school senior when the novel was published.
Miss Ehle recalls, "I was aware of it when it was new, yes, but I didn't read it. That's odd in a way, because I remember hearing a lot about it, and it sounded up my alley. For some reason, we missed each other until I had the script in my hands. At that point, I started reading the novel, reread the script, agreed to do the movie and finished the book."