Byline: Julie L. Belcove
NEW YORK — By the looks of her, Jennifer Ehle has several more years left to play the ingenue, but she is already keeping mum about her age.
When the subject comes up, the actress best known as the heroine in last year’s BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice” takes a deep breath and breaks into a big, silent smile. When prodded, she admits to being in her mid-20s. The problem with getting specific, she explains, is that everyone assumes an actress subtracts three years from the truth, and she’d rather not lie.
“I really don’t care,” she says, “but it matters.”
Besides, Ehle adds, “I was brought up with a mother who says, ‘A woman who tells you her age will tell you anything.’ “
Her mother is English actress Rosemary Harris. Her father is American novelist John Ehle. Jennifer, their only child, grew up with North Carolina as home base, but went wherever her mother was working, changing schools 18 times in the process.
“If I’d wanted to be a doctor, there would have been a problem,” she says.
But since she doesn’t remember ever wanting to be anything other than an actress, she doesn’t worry much about her gypsy-like childhood. And now that she’s an actress in her own right, she’s still leading something of a nomadic life.
Her latest movie, the female POW story “Paradise Road,” took her to Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. The hardest thing about the three-month shoot, Ehle says, was her character’s disposition.
“I know Rosemary is supposed to be this eternally optimistic character — the force of love will carry her through and all that — but that was hard to hang onto because it’s probably not the way I would have handled it,” she says. “I probably just would have cried.”
But the movie did give her the opportunity to bond with — and learn from — the predominantly female cast, including Glenn Close, Frances McDormand and young Australian actress Cate Blanchett.
“I could watch Cate read the Yellow Pages,” she says.
Next up for Ehle is “Wilde,” in which she plays Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance, opposite Stephen Fry.
“She’s quite extraordinary because of her decision to stay with him and not divorce him after the trial, which was an astonishing decision at the time,” she says.
After attending the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama, Ehle decided to stay on in London, largely, she says, because of the more complex roles available to women there. She quickly landed several theater and TV parts and made her screen debut with, as she puts it, “five syllables in ‘Backbeat.’ “
Her star turn came as Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice,” complete with a romance with co-star Colin Firth. Now single again, she recently moved into a new flat in London.
But just as her accent shifts unconsciously when she crosses the Atlantic, so does her allegiance.
“I go through stages when I feel more English and stages when I feel more American,” she says. “I nearly bought a house this year [outside London], and just before it came time to sign everything, I panicked.”
She says she realizes “it would be stupid to ignore” America’s importance in the industry.
“I know I’ll do my trek out to Hollywood at some point,” she says, “but I don’t see it as a mecca.”
Despite her chiseled features and creamy complexion, she even admits to some insecurity about auditioning stateside: “I always thought you had to pass through radar that would say ‘cellulite on tummy’ or ‘spot on chin.’ “