Friday, August 05, 2005

Once a tar heel...

A beauty, this one. It's mega-long, so not in blockquotes.

In case you too were wondering, Wikipedia says that "tar heel is the nickname applied to the state and inhabitants of North Carolina, as well as the University of North Carolina’s athletic teams".

The Virginian Pilot, Mal Vincent, 30th August 2002.

She's a Tar Heel born, and, she vows, when she dies, she'll be a Tar Heel dead.

Yet everyone thinks Jennifer Ehle is British.

The illusion is furthered by her role as fictitious poet Christabel LaMotte in the ultra-romantic movie "Possession," opening today. For the part, she is dressed in Victorian silks and corsets, which she said "are nice, but only when you get out of them."

Maybe the confusion about her heritage is because she kept making the trip from her native Winston-Salem, N.C., to London most of her life. It seemed natural. After all, her mother, Rosemary Harris, is one of the greatest stars of the London and New York stages.

"I keep telling the press that I'm from North Carolina, but it seems they never print that - especially in London, which is just about the only place I've been interviewed," Ehle said as we spoke at New York's Regency Hotel. "Whenever they want me for interviews I duck behind the Portaloo. Now I've learned that you have to make a bit of a fuss or you'll be ignored altogether."

Anything but ignored, she is regarded as one of the most promising actresses of her generation. She won Broadway's Tony Award two years ago for playing an actress who has an affair with her co- star in the revival of Tom Stoppard's 1982 play "The Real Thing."

On that Tony night, she was in competition with her mother. It was the first time a mother and daughter had competed in the same category for any major American acting award.

Harris surely didn't mind losing. She had won her own Tony for creating the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine in "The Lion in Winter" in 1966. Harris has received eight Tony nominations in an amazing career, and she earned rave reviews for this summer's production of Edward Albee's "All Over" off-Broadway.

"You've talked to my mother?" Ehle, 32, asked with surprise when I told her that Harris had shown me photographs of her daughter's high school days in Winston-Salem. "She is so proud of me, and that both warms me and embarrasses me. At least she didn't show you nude baby pictures. She has shown them to some people.

"People sometimes think I was destined to act because my mother was an actress and my father writes. I think it has more to do with the fact that I watched my parents love their work - seeing them happy and fulfilled."

Harris and John Ehle, a novelist and teacher at the North Carolina School for the Performing Arts, were married in 1967 and have had a successful, if unorthodox, marriage.

"Mother lives in North Carolina when she isn't acting," daughter Ehle said, "but she commutes to New York or London or wherever she works. When she's on Broadway, she comes home to Papa and Winston-Salem on her days off. They have been very happy, and she has her career, but she knows where the career belongs."

Jennifer Ehle has a mild British accent that carries no hint of the American South. Like her mother, she is self-deprecating and smart, and is surprised when people recognize her. When they do, it's usually for her role as Elizabeth Bennet in the TV miniseries based on Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."

The part had been played, previously, in the MGM movie version by Greer Garson, but young Ehle made it her own. For a few giddy weeks in 1995, it seemed that the whole nation was gripped by "Pride and Prejudice" and by the hope for romance between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth. It was broadcast in America on A&E.

"Since I read the novel at age 12, I'd wanted not only to play Elizabeth Bennet but to be Elizabeth Bennet. She was so perfect and witty. There's a sense of longing, a yearning, in the book that makes it quite sexy."

Secret, but not so secret, was her brief affair with co-star Firth. In England, the press was in a flurry to find out details.

"It was a bit of a monster," she said.

It seems she has a predilection for co-stars. Her first publicized romance was with Toby Stephens, the son of actors Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, whom she met when they co-starred in a 1992 British TV drama.

"I got into boys very late," she said. "I was uninterested and didn't put out signals for years."

She lived in England from age 11 to 13 and from age 18 until recently.

"The rest of the time I was in Winston-Salem with my parents. I chose England as my home, but I'm glad I grew up in North Carolina. It is a wonderful place to grow up. Now, actually, I'm living in North Carolina, in a cabin in Mitchell County where my parents were married. I'm there with my husband. He's not in the business."

Since she finished making "Possession," Ehle said, "it's quite a shock to me that I am so happy not working. I, in a way, would like to never return. I never thought I would feel that."

After "Pride and Prejudice," daughter Ehle received movie offers. She made her movie debut as one of the women held prisoner by the Japanese in the World War II drama "Paradise Road" in 1997. She played Oscar Wilde's wife in "Wilde" in 1997. Two years ago, she and her mother played the same role, at different ages, in the epic movie "Sunshine."

"Hollywood does what it does so well," Ehle said. "I'm not sure I would fit in."

In the hallway, Ehle rushed to hug her "Possession" co-star, Gwyneth Paltrow.

"Has your mother seen the picture?" Paltrow asked. "What did she say? What did she think of me? I'm so worried about the accent."

"My mother saw it last night," Ehle said. "She loved you, but I haven't talked to her much about my performance. There are things we don't talk about. But she thought you were wonderful."

She then told Paltrow how wonderful she thought marriage was and how she was surprised that she didn't miss work.

Paltrow hesitated but said, "You must come back, you know."

Even though Paltrow and Ehle are the leading ladies in the movie, they have no scenes together.

Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart play scholars who are on the trail of an illicit, and shocking, love affair that may, or may not, have occurred in 1859 between famed poets Randolph Henry Ash (Queen Victoria's poet laureate, played by Jeremy Northam) and Christabel LaMotte.

Two love affairs, centuries apart, are played out in the film - parallel, yet different. Ironically, the Victorian lovers, although living in a repressed society, are much more free and unrestrained than the modern couple.

Paltrow, yet again, essays a British accent.

"Gwyneth is amazing in that she can step in and out of accents," Ehle said. "She shifts immediately. I can't do that."

Ehle and Northam, representing the 19th century, are much more passionate than Paltrow and Eckhart, representing 2002.

"I think, perhaps, it is true that modern lovers let Freud get in the way," Ehle said. "We may live in a society in which everything goes, but maybe this just makes us less aware of what we really want. Emotional commitment is such a difficult thing to give. A relationship has to last a long time before you get to that normal period - when you calm down and increasingly lose the struggle not to break wind in bed."

She admits that she was not comfortable at first with the role of Christabel LaMotte (a fictional writer created by A.S. Byatt in the 1990 novel on which the movie is based).

"I didn't think I looked right, physically, for her. I saw her, initially, as this thin, gaunt woman. Even when I see her on the screen today, I think someone else is playing her. I never felt I got inside her. It's one of the first times that I had to call on someone else to play a part. I see her as very different from me.

"I know that the director of `Possession' said that I could do the role because he felt I had such a strong, independent side. I don't really see that in me, but to portray it is what acting is about. Am I ambitious? Sometimes I think I am, but then for long periods, I'm not at all. Now is one of those times."

She is back in that cabin in North Carolina for the time being. Meanwhile, the offers from Broadway, London and Hollywood are piling up. Carrying on a family tradition, she can have an amazing career, if she wants it.

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