After Jessica Biel’s impressive star turn in the period piece The Illusionist opposite Edward Norton, the 27-year-old former TV actress is tackling yet another era as a roaring 20s siren in the film Easy Virtue — a wonderful, comic adaptation of a witty Noel Coward play.
Biel remains grounded, friendly and impressed but ultimately unintimidated by her British acting royalty costars Colin Firth and Kristin Scott-Thomas. She admits that, never having plied her craft in the UK before, playing the flashy, fish-out-of-water American wife of a Brit aristocrat (portrayed by Prince Caspian’s hot Ben Barnes) wasn’t a giant stretch.
From Heaven to Virtue
Biel appeared for 10 years as Mary Camden, oldest daughter of a preacher in the popular TV series 7th Heaven. From there, her career exploded. Jessica, who admits she likes to mix it up genre-wise, hit the big screen as an Iraq war vet, the victim of that Texan with the chainsaw, a butt-kicking vampire hunter and a fighter pilot before taking on art-house cinema with her role as an unhappy duchess in The Illusionist. This breakthrough performance convinced the international indie community that this little girl from Colorado could act.
Biel is well known for her work on behalf of animals (her dog Tina is a rescue pooch), a high ranking on Maxim’s “Hot 100” list and, yes, for her relationship with Justin Timberlake, but there is a grace, humor, substance and intelligence to the young actress that isn’t often discussed. These qualities were evident in our interview in Beverly Hills during which we discussed everything from her musical theater background and upcoming Hollywood Bowl appearance in Guys and Dolls to her working relationship with offbeat Aussie director Stephan Elliott, a newcomer to period films. His calling card is the hilarious yet poignant Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.
We dished on wearing luscious period clothes in Easy Virtue, dancing the tango with yummy Colin Firth and performing a high-kicking can-can. Picture Jessica with long, highlighted brown hair and looking all casual elegance wearing a crisp, tan and creme linen blouse set off with small accent buttons, some chunky gold and copper bangle bracelets, neatly pressed beige slacks and stylish, sensible heels.
SheKnows: You’ve heard “the past is a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.” After doing this film, did you feel like it might not be so bad? [The film is set in 1929.]
Jessica Biel: Yes, definitely. When you’re living it for two months, kind of on and off, it’s fabulous. You want to live there. You want to dress in the beautiful, glamorous, incredible clothes and have beautiful parties. It seems so fun and frivolous, but life was clearly very difficult back then. So, yes, it’s fun, but I’d much prefer to live now. There were so many restrictions, especially for women. It was so difficult to do what you want, to have a career back then.
SheKnows: Speaking of incredible clothes, you look in the film like you were born to wear those slinky fashions. Did you feel that way wearing them?
Jessica Biel: I definitely did feel pretty wonderful. But, they’re built for women’s bodies. They’re built to accentuate your waist, give you room in the hips and the legs, and let you wear a loose, beautiful, satin/silk blouse. Anybody would feel beautiful in something like that. It was such a wonderful time for women’s clothing.
SheKnows: You do have that “walking down the staircase in a gorgeous gown” moment when all conversation stops. When you see that in a script, do you think, “How do I make this real?”
Jessica Biel: When it’s written in the script, it just says, “And she pauses at the top of the stairs. Everybody stares in awe, and she walks down.” You never think it’s going to be 10 seconds of a pause (she poses as if suspended at the top of the stairs… forever). I think that really worked well in this movie because it was a little tongue-in-cheek, and those few moments are really where Mrs. Whittaker is just dying inside that this woman is in her home and taking over her golden boy.
SheKnows: So, is a moment like that every woman’s dream?
Jessica Biel: Yeah, if you’re wearing that dress. Those dresses were amazing.
SheKnows: Did you change your workout to have a body closer to the way most women looked in that era?
Jessica Biel: Definitely. I did. I actually just stopped doing what I normally do, and I didn’t really have any time. Working out in London, I found, was very difficult. It wasn’t easy like in LA or New York, where you can just walk to the gym and do your thing. I literally felt like I couldn’t get my routine together, so I just kind of let it go. I think we spent so much time being cold. We were freezing. It was so cold, and we were wearing thin, silk blouses. I think that’s what helped keep us all in shape… after I found out what crumpets were and had them every day because they are so good!
SheKnows: Other than the fab clothes, what was it about this film that attracted you to it?
Jessica Biel: Initially, I loved the script. Stephan sent me a copy with a really nice note saying, ‘I’d love for you to play this part. Can you look at it?” I just thought it was such a unique experience for a period movie. I thought it was almost, at times, a rom-com. It had all these unique elements, and I just loved her. I loved Larita. After I read it, I wanted to be her. I wanted to have the comebacks that she had, the strengths that she had and the vulnerability. I literally said to my agents, “I have to do this. I have to! Figure it out.”
SheKnows: How did you relate to your character, Larita, and how is she very unlike you?
Jessica Biel: I related to her in that kind of “fish out of water” feel. I’ve always felt that way growing up in general. I went to a lot of different schools. I was always the new kid. You’re on television, and when you go to college, you’re the kid on television who is at college. Everybody knows you, and you don’t know anybody. So, I really connect with her kind of stoic “I’m gonna survive in this situation” attitude. What was very different for me to grasp was her incredible comebacks and her really clever [dialogue]. I wish I were like that. I’m just a little too nice. It’s so boring. I want to be more like her in that sense.
SheKnows: Can you talk a little about shooting in England? Did you feel out of place? Were you intimidated by doing Noel Coward and knowing you’d be working with all these British stars?
Jessica Biel: Definitely intimidated by that. I wasn’t that familiar with Noel Coward. I was more familiar with his music than his actual plays, but yeah, I look up to Kristin Scott Thomas and love Colin Firth. Everybody there had been through such intense drama school. Initially, I felt like I didn’t fit in and thought, “Gosh, I hope I’m good enough to pull this off.” So, it was scary. And it is nerve-wracking to go and live in a new place in a different country. Thank goodness I speak the language. Makes it a lot easier, let me tell you.
SheKnows: But you could use that for Larita, couldn’t you? An American who marries a Brit?
Jessica Biel: Yeah, absolutely. You do feel like the outsider. You can’t help it. You’re “the American.” You don’t know what a crumpet is. You stick out like a sore thumb. But it’s kind of invigorating and wonderful to get out of your comfort zone. I love that. I like to do that: Get out of my comfort zone and experience some other things.
SheKnows: How would you deal with a disapproving mother-in-law like the one in the film?
Jessica Biel: Well, there are two ways of thought on this one. You can just be confident being you and think, “If you don’t like me, you don’t like me. Too bad.” Or you do what Larita tried to do. You try. And I think that’s what I would do. I think I would give it my best effort to be accommodating and respectful, but I would definitely maintain my idea of who I am. I’m not going to be pushed around by someone in a ridiculous scenario. But, I also don’t think I would start a war with somebody’s mother.
SheKnows: Ever had any friction with the relatives of anyone you’ve dated?
Jessica Biel: Oh sure, yeah, long, long, long time ago, but you can’t please everybody. I think you have to remember that.
SheKnows: Talk about singing in the film, recording some of the songs; was there apprehension about doing that?
Jessica Biel: That happened in the middle of shooting. Ben (Barnes) was singing, doing something in a scene and Steph (Stephen Elliott, the director) said, “You have such a great voice. You should sing the lead track. We want to do Mad About the Boy, and you should sing it.” They were actually moving forward with Ben singing it, and what they found out looking into Noel Coward’s will was that he’d said that “no man can ever record that song again.” I guess he was in love with somebody, and that was it. No man was gonna record that again, so you can only find women singing and recording it. Then he heard me humming around or something and said, “No. You should do it.” So, it was really very random. I hadn’t planned on it, and it was such a treat.
SheKnows: You did musical theater as a kid.
Jessica Biel: Yeah. Nobody really knows this about me, but I really started in music, with musical theater and Annie and Sound of Music, and I wanted to be Whitney Houston. That was my dream. I don’t know how it took a left turn. I don’t know what happened, and I got into this acting world. But it was really fun for me to go back and do that.
Guys and Dolls
SheKnows: Aren’t you doing some singing and dancing this summer at the Hollywood Bowl?
Jessica Biel: I am. I’m really thrilled. I never knew that the Hollywood Bowl does this kind of summer stock-style show. I got a call about auditioning for Guys and Dolls at the Hollywood Bowl and I thought, “Well, I’m not a soprano anymore.” I got in there and auditioned, and it actually worked pretty well. I auditioned for a second time, I think, in New York, and I did pretty well and got it. I was really surprised. It’s been fun. I’ve been working with a voice coach and training, working the muscle. It’s just about working the muscle again. I’m playing Sister Sarah.
SheKnows: How long will it run?
Jessica Biel: Only three days. It’s perfect. You get your feet wet, see what it would be like to be on stage and do something live again, and not have to have a commitment for six months or a year.
SheKnows: Can you talk about working with Ben Barnes? He’s adorable.
Jessica Biel: He’s so great. He’s such a nice guy and is involved in the process. He cares so much about it. I think he was pretty new at the moment when he was working with us. I think he’d just done the Narnia movie [Prince Caspian] and had probably spent a lot of time in front of a green screen, so he was itching to work with people, get his hands dirty and have a really good time.
Learning from legends
SheKnows: And what did you learn from Colin and Kristin, being such acting heavyweights?
Jessica Biel: When you’re working, you’re all on an equal plane, although secretly, you’re in your trailer going “Oh my God!” But it’s not like I asked them for advice. There’s such a natural, organic quality to Kristin. She’s very within herself, connected to the earth in a way. That’s probably very esoteric-sounding, but she’s very honest. I didn’t ask her, and she didn’t tell me that. It’s sort of what I took from sitting across from her on the couch and having a scene with her.
SheKnows: You’ve said that you’ve tried to get certain auditions, and people have been resistant to even having you come into the room. Has it been frustrating to get people to change their images of you?
Jessica Biel: I’m always trying to do new things, different things, simply to avoid getting bored. I want to try something that’s scary or challenging. Yes, sometimes I don’t get in the room, and that’s frustrating. I always feel like “I just want one chance, I want my time in court. This is what I’ve got. You don’t want it? Fine, that’s cool. I understand that, but at least let me have a shot.” You do maybe one or two things that are somewhat similar and then people see you as only doing that. If you do too many things in a row, people’s imagination in this business is just not as open as you would think.
Working with Swayze
She Knows: You just worked with Patrick Swayze (in Powder Blue), and a lot of people are concerned about him right now. What was it like to work with him?
Jessica Biel: He’s definitely beloved for me because I grew up watching Dirty Dancing. I watched it every day after school. I’ve seen it probably 80 times or more. No joke. He was wonderful. He was involved in the process and literally coming to set when he wasn’t even working. He’s so kind, and such a warm, supportive person to work with.
SheKnows: You seem very relaxed. How do you handle stress? Larita seems to have a cool head. Do you handle it by being positive?
Jessica Biel: Definitely. I’m very positive. I feel like I handle stress very well. I let things roll off and always look to for the positive in a situation and how I can resolve it in a logical way. I’m probably not as cool under pressure as she is. My heart would be pounding a million miles an hour if I were having a confrontation like she was having with that mother-in-law, but I definitely can see the positive and get through a tough situation pretty well.
SheKnows: Can you talk about dancing the can-can? And then the tango with Colin?
Jessica Biel: The can-can is so hard. That is a really aerobic dance. It’s just relentless, and the knees are up to here [indicates chin] and the abs… it’s pretty serious. It’s really fun, though. That’s one of my favorite scenes. And for the tango, if you can believe it, we literally had three or four rehearsals. Colin and I danced together three or four times. I don’t know how we did it, because that is a really difficult dance. Most of all, we wanted to create that feeling of sensuality and mystery. But, we couldn’t cross the line in any sense because of the relationship that we have in the movie. It’s an incredible dance. I wish that I had kept taking classes because it’s so much fun. It was such a ball. That was my first tango experience.
SheKnows: What are you looking forward to doing once you are through talking to us about the film?
Jessica Biel: Some traveling and the prep for Guys and Dolls. It’s really fun. I’m really enjoying myself, and I’ll get to do some dance rehearsals and things like that.
SheKnows: We have to ask: What do you think of the job Justin does on Saturday Night Live? Do you have any comment on his acting abilities?
Jessica Biel: I think he’s fantastic on SNL, and he can do anything he puts his mind to.