Jessica Biel and Colin Firth © Sony Pictures Classics

Jessica Biel’s eclectic career has included The Illusionist, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Blade: Trinity, but none of these films could prepare her for her first feature in England, along side of such accomplished actors as Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth.

In Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue, Biel portrays Larita, a glamorous American woman who a young Englishman, John Whittiker (Ben Barnes), impetuously marries to the distain of his mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), although his father (Colin Firth), finds his new daughter-in-law a delight.

The movie is set in 1929. 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?

Jessica Biel and Colin Firth © Sony Pictures Classics
Colin Firth and Jessica Biel © Sony Pictures Classics

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 actually get dressed in the morning to 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, have a career. You couldn’t really do that very easily.

What was it about this film that attracted you to it?

Jessica Biel and Ben Barnes © Sony Pictures Classics
Jessica Biel and Ben Barnes © Sony Pictures Classics

I think initially, I loved the script. Stephan [Elliott, the director] sent me a copy with a really nice note saying, ‘I’d love for you to play this part. Can you look at it.’ so I did and I just thought it was such a unique experience for a period movie. I thought it was almost, at times, a rom-com. And I just loved Larita. It was one of those things that, after I read it, I wanted to be her. I wanted to have the comebacks that she had and the strengths that she had and the vulnerability and I literally said to my agents ‘I have to do this.  Figure it out’

How did you relate to Larita and what did you have to pull out of yourself that is unlike you in order to play her?

Kristin Scott Thomas and Jessica Biel © Sony Pictures Classics
Kristin Scott Thomas and Jessica Biel © Sony Pictures Classics

I related to her in that kind of ‘fish out of water’ feel. I think I’ve always felt that way growing up just 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 really grasp was her incredible comebacks and her really clever… I wish I was like that. I’m just a little too nice. It’s so boring.

Can you talk a little about going to England and shooting there? Were you intimidated by doing Noel Coward and knowing you’d be working with all these British stars?

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 terribly look up to Kristin Scott Thomas and love Colin Firth, and everybody there had been through such intense drama school. Initially, I felt like I didn’t fit in and ‘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.

But you could use that for your character couldn’t you?

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 [she laughs], you know? You’re sticking out like a sore thumb. But, it’s kind of invigorating and wonderful and it’s good to get out of your comfort zone and experience some other things.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.