Did you have to fight hard to land the role in Pride & Prejudice?
Yeah, I first heard they were doing it when I was making The Jacket and I’d been such a fan of the BBC version so I knew I’d really like to play Elizabeth Bennett. My agent got in touch with Working Title and Joe [Wright] the director and Paul [Webster] the producer flew over to Montreal, where I was shooting The Jacket. We didn’t have a very successful meeting because they were both jetlagged and I was terrified and it went a bit odd. So we met again in London. It was being said that I was too pretty for the part but they met me and realised I was a complete scruff. It was a backhanded compliment but it worked out well.
Had you read the book when you were younger?
I’m dyslexic so I couldn’t read and that was one of the reasons I got an agent. When I was six and a half they realised I couldn’t read. I’d been asking for an agent since I was three and my mum said to me, “If you come to me everyday with a book in your hand and a smile on your face, then as a prize, you will get an agent.” So my school life was always about keeping my grades up so I could carry on working. I got around it with book tapes – I actually got Pride & Prejudice when I was seven and became obsessed with it. When I was good enough to read, I did read it – but I’m not the best reader.
Is it more difficult to relate to the character because it’s a period piece?
I think the whole vibe of the film was not to treat it like a period film but to treat it like reality. Joe said to me at the beginning that in 50 years, when they make movies about 2005, we’re all going to have straight hair and fashionable clothes and everyone will look picture perfect for that time – but it’s not accurate. Sometimes you get dressed up and look fashionable but actually most of the time you just chuck your jeans on and don’t bother. We wanted to get away from that perfect period picture, where you feel like you can’t touch the characters because you might mess them up. The hair is messy and it looks like you did it yourself.
Does that make it easier to connect to Elizabeth?
Yeah, definitely and I think you can understand the desperation of women in those days because if you didn’t get a good marriage, then you were left destitute if your family couldn’t support you. It’s not the same nowadays but I think in a funny kind of way there is a desperation to find the perfect job to support yourself. Back then, marriage was a woman’s job and it was the only job they could get – so I think we can still understand what it was like.
She is quite outspoken at times…
When you’re young you think you know absolutely everything, you think you’ve got all the answers. Then there’s a moment when you realise you’ve been completely wrong and in a funny way, your whole life falls apart in an instant. She’s a character who’s experiencing things for the first time and so she’s making mistakes and that’s a very human quality – I can completely understand that, I think we all can.
You’re going head to head with Dame Judi Dench for an Oscar. How was it working with her?
Two of my favourite films of all time are Mrs Brown and Don’t Look Now and the thing about Judi Dench is she is one of the nicest women who has ever lived. I mean, she’s got such a sense of humour and she makes everybody laugh so it was a privilege really. What I will always remember is that there were a couple of lines that she just couldn’t remember – and it’s awfully nice as a young actress, who always forgets her lines, to see somebody like Judi Dench has exactly the same problems.
Were you at all daunted taking on a role so revered?
I was absolutely terrified. Part of the reason for that was just after I’d accepted the part, I had women come up to me and say, “No, you’re not Elizabeth Bennett, I am.” If you fall in love with the book, as a woman you see yourself as the character – so taking on that role became really scary. Especially because it was my first lead role. I was terrified to the point where I nearly said to my agent, “I don’t want to meet them because I can’t do this.” But she talked me into it and I’m glad she did because I see myself as Elizabeth Bennett too.
There is a line in the movie about how Elizabeth judges a person by the way they dance. Does that work for you?
I definitely judge a man by the way he dances. Also, what shoes he has. The shoes are very important.
No, you’ve got very nice shoes. You’re fine!