REEL TO REAL
Byline: Merle Ginsberg
NEW YORK — At first it’s hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not about Jennifer Ehle. The star of Broadway’s new Tom Stoppard revival, “The Real Thing” (a hit at the Donmar Warehouse in London, and later when it moved to London’s West End), is now a blazing redhead — she was a blonde in the BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice” and the big screen’s “Paradise Road” and “Wilde.” And although her accent is as clipped and British as can be, she’s actually American.
Half asleep from jet lag — the cast touched down in New York three days before this interview took place at the Cafe des Artistes — Ehle (pronounced EEH-leeh) sighs a lot and fusses with her hair.
“I haven’t really slept in three nights,” she says. “Yes, I’m adjusting to a new time zone, but I’m also adjusting to the adrenaline of New York.”
As for the bright red hair — which does seem to suit her “Real Thing” character, Annie, a contemporary actress who marries a famous playwright (Stephen Dillane, in the Stoppard-doppelganger role) and then adjusts to the realities of married life — Ehle’s got the perfect witty retort ready.
“I feel more comfortable being a not quite genuine redhead than a not quite genuine blonde. I was feeling like I was losing my dignity as a blonde.”
As for the English/American conflict, Ehle — the daughter of actress Rosemary Harris and novelist John Ehle of North Carolina — moved to England when she was 18 and attended the Central School of Speech and Drama and has lived there ever since. So both her accent and her American passport are real.
And even though she’s been a player in the Royal National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and won the BAFTA for “Pride and Prejudice,” Ehle says she and the rest of the British cast of “The Real Thing” haven’t really been able to adjust to what a hit the play became in London — and how likely it is to repeat that at the Ethel Barrymore in its run that opens tonight.
“None of us were expecting it. It’s not in any of our experience. What was so exciting in London is that ‘The Real Thing’ turned into a date night for everybody. It celebrates and explores love — and in the end, I don’t think it’s cynical. Most people think it’s Stoppard’s most accessible and upbeat play.”
It was Stoppard who sought out Ehle to play Annie. “I’d just finished ‘A Taste of Sunshine’ with Ralph Fiennes,” she says, about Istvan Szabo’s multi-generational film that is finally opening in the U.S. in June, “and I hadn’t worked for nine months. I just sat in Starbucks in London every day and nearly went mad. Then I got a call from my agent, who’d gotten a call from Tom Stoppard. He’d apparently read an interview with me in the Independent where I moaned about not working. He’d been told I was unavailable. I said, tell him I’m available — I’m over at Starbucks.”
The next day she was called in to read, but hadn’t actually read the play since she was 14. “I read very badly,” says the very self-deprecating actress. “I was shocked when they asked me to do it.”
Her character is adored by her first husband, worshiped by her playwright husband, and the object of lust of every other male character in the play.
“In rehearsal, I began to realize that every man in this play is fixated with her. And you know what? It’s great fun, and quite liberating! But what I love about Annie is that she’s not limited by the things about her that enable men to fixate on her. It’s quite rare — she’s flawed, she’s real, she’s still loved — and she was written by a man.”