NEW YORK — Jennifer Ehle is one of those rare creatures whose ethereal beauty almost blossoms more from having her head shaved. But though her high cheekbones and sparkling blue eyes may benefit from the crop — for a part in the upcoming film “Pride and Glory” — it’s probable her self-effacing personality doesn’t appreciate the extra stares that result. For Ehle, despite her many accolades, is shy. So shy, in fact, that when she was a drama student in England in the late Eighties, the North Carolina native adopted an English accent “to camouflage myself,” she says.
Ehle is not one to shy away from a challenge, however. So after a nearly four-year break from acting, she finds herself in front of a nightly audience of 1,800 as Lady Macbeth in Moisés Kaufman’s production of the play for The Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park, opening Wednesday. It’s a role that not only has been performed by “thousands of women,” as Ehle notes, but is also one that portrays one of the most loathed characters in the history of theater.
“I had never been very interested in the play,” Ehle admits softly, “or in the received ideas I had about Lady Macbeth. I always thought that she was sort of this Elvira vamp, and an evil, manipulative, melodramatic, ball-busting creature. But then I read it and I didn’t see any of those things in her at all.”
So a wig-wearing Ehle (no stranger to fake hair, she jokingly dedicated her 1996 BAFTA for her role as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice” to her wigs) takes the stage at the Delacorte opposite Liev Schreiber and humanizes what is one of Shakespeare’s best-known, if briefest, female leads.
“I saw her as an incredibly greedy, determined human being who, if she has any real insanity, has sort of an obsessive love for her husband. I don’t think the play has any interest if she is capable of killing someone at the beginning,” Ehle says. “Unfortunately, you only have about two pages to become somebody who can kill. It’s fascinating to do — like a puzzle.”
Acting has not always held such interest for her. Though it runs in her blood — Ehle’s mother is actress Rosemary Harris, and her father is author John Ehle — she has until recently been on hiatus, living a quiet country life in Dutchess County with her husband Michael Ryan, her son George and her dog, Joe Pie.
“Even when I was at drama school, I was thinking, ‘This isn’t what I want to do, this isn’t what I want to do,’ but I never stopped,” says Ehle. “When I was 30, I just thought, ‘As soon as my schedule is clear, I’m going to not do this anymore and see how it goes.’
“I’d always wanted to see if I would miss it,” she continues. “And actually I didn’t really miss it.”
She eventually decided to stick her toe back in, however, and headed off to London last summer for “The Philadelphia Story.” “I felt that our wee family was ready, and I was very, very curious,” the 36-year-old explains.
Now she’s in up to her neck. Besides “Pride and Glory,” there’s “Michael Clayton,” costarring George Clooney, due out later this year, and come September she’ll star in Tom Stoppard’s trilogy “The Coast of Utopia” at Lincoln Center alongside Billy Crudup, Ethan Hawke and Martha Plimpton.
“I really was not planning on doing any more theater this year,” she says. “I’m torn. Part of me just wants to be a mom and stay at home. It’s daunting to look ahead and think that I am going to be working until next March. I should really probably be doing movies and trying to make money.
“But what are you going to do?” she laughs, shaking her head. “They are three beautiful parts, and it’s awfully hard to walk away.”