Thursday, May 05, 2005

ThisIsLondon: "Jennifer's London Calling"

Lukewarm but with some actual quotes about why she came out of her three-year hiatus for The Philadelphia Story and about her family life.

[edit: since this link is now dead, I'll post up the entire thing]

By Fiona Mountford, Metro Life

In 1995, 25-year-old Jennifer Ehle appeared to have the acting world at her feet. Three years earlier, she had wooed TV audiences as the sexually adventurous Calypso in Peter Hall's hugely successful wartime television drama The Camomile Lawn.

Then her triumphant return to the small screen, as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC's muchlauded adaptation of Pride And Prejudice, made her the nation's Sunday-night sweetheart.

A Bafta award followed, as did tabloid intrusion into her private life due to a brief off-screen relationship with Mr Darcy himself, Colin Firth. A glittering career in the media spotlight seemed guaranteed.

What Jennifer did next was not move to Hollywood, but ignore her burgeoning public profile and decamp to Stratford-Upon-Avon for a season with the RSC. Over the years that followed she gradually disappeared from most people's cultural radar, even though she worked continually.

Her output included a succession of under-rated art-house films such as Possession, Sunshine and Wilde and more theatre. She even managed to beat her actress mother Rosemary Harris to the 2000 Tony Award for her Broadway performance in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. But where has she been since?

This is a question that many will be asking, as Ehle is about to open in The Philadelphia Story at the Old Vic, playing waspish aristocrat Tracy Lord to Kevin Spacey's C.K. Dexter Haven - roles immortalised by Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in the classic 1940 film.

When I tentatively moot the idea that she disappeared, the softly spoken, quietly charming Ehle nurses a takeaway coffee and laughs throatily. 'I did kind of disappear', she says cheerfully. 'I didn't do anything from May 2001 until April 2004. But that was a conscious decision.

'I wasn't enjoying work, which was one of the reasons I stepped away. I think I would have stepped away a lot earlier if I'd had a rich life outside. But I didn't, so I kept plugging away. And then I met my husband [American writer Michael Ryan, with whom she now has a two-year-old son] and I knew that there was no way I was not going
to pay attention to that relationship'.

Ehle beams when she talks of her 'rich home life' and the fact that she now sees herself 'as an actress second and mother first. It never felt right having "actress" as my defining label,' she says.

So strong are her family ties - the three of them live in splendid isolation in rural upstate New York - that she shared a running joke with her husband. 'I didn't think that I could do a play before my son was three.

I knew that they were doing The Philadelphia Story at the Old Vic, and every time someone rang and said, "Will you do our play?" I'd say, "No, I'm so sorry,'" and I'd say to my husband, "Not unless it's The Philadelphia Story at the Old Vic." So here I am'.

Here she is indeed, one of the group of actresses who were initially approached to play Tracy Lord. 'You naturally consider a number of people for a role of this kind', says producer David Liddiment.

'We auditioned six or seven, as we needed someone with real presence and independent spirit. All that comes through with Jennifer.' Will & Grace's Debra Messing declined the part due to prior filming commitments, but the Ehle-Spacey combination has obviously tickled the punters' fancy.

Two weeks before previews even started, advance bookings stood at £1.1 million - a West End record in recent years. That his inaugural four-play season looks set to end on such a high will delight artistic director Spacey, who has been the subject of much sniping in the press.

Before she was cast, Ehle had never seen George Cukor's film about love blossoming again between a divorced couple, with Hepburn and Grant at their sparkling bests.

She has since made a conscious decision not to watch it, although she is familiar with the musical version, High Society. But she realises that she has a large pair of loafers to fill. 'Of course, if I sat around thinking about filling Katharine Hepburn's loafers. But I'm not going to attempt to. I'm not in competition with
Katharine Hepburn. That would be foolish.'

In her mellifluous American accent, the result of a peripatetic childhood spent largely in the States with Harris and her American writer father, John, Ehle declares her sympathy for Lord. 'You're watching 24 hours when she is in crisis, when she has to overcome her "fault" in order to be happy and move on. It's wonderful when
you get to watch her do that.' She pauses. 'Hopefully it's wonderful.'

Ehle's coffee is finished and it is time for her to become the scintillating socialite once more in rehearsal. If her career to date is any pointer, we're in for further surprises.

The Philadelphia Story, previews from Tue 3 May, first night Tue 10 May, The Old Vic,
The Cut, SE1 (0870 060 6628).

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