Director Douglas McGrath originally intended only to cast British actors for the film, but was impressed with
American Gwyneth Paltrow's ability to mimic an authentic Texas accent:
"I chose her because I'd seen her in [a previous film] and she'd done the
most immaculate Texas accent. I grew up in Texas, and when my friends and
I would go to the movies, we would just kill ourselves laughing whenever
anyone tried to do a Texas accent. But Gwyneth's regional accent was perfect;
she sounded like girls I'd grown up with. So I knew she had a phenomenal
ear." McGrath was confident that Paltrow would also be able to pull off
an English accent in "Emma."
Paltrow's audition secured the lead
role for her, as McGrath recalls: "We had many actresses, big and small,
who wanted to play this part. The minute she started the read-through,
the very first line, I thought, 'Everything is going to be fine; she's
going to be brilliant'... We didn't even open up the audition process,
and a lot of actresses were miffed about it."
Paltrow was asked to do a second read-through
with the already chosen English cast members, including Jeremy Northam.
Although it gave her a chance to try out her English accent, Paltrow admits
being very nervous. McGrath, however, recalls that she did beautifully:
"The British actors were all terribly polite, but when we did our first
reading [with Paltrow] it began in an atmosphere of 'Okay, we'd better
help the little American girl with her part.' Then Gwyneth opened her mouth
and spoke her first line. Her accent was perfect and everybody sat up all
at once, realizing that not only were they not going to have to help her,
they were going to have to race to keep up with her."
Northam, a native Brit, was asked to
audition for "Emma" after a director spotted him in Los Angeles filming
"The Net." After reading the script, Northam was ready to beg for the part
of Knightley: "I was being considered for another part and I remember thinking,
‘Oh, no Knightley is the part I really want to be seen for.' When I met
the director, we got on very well and we talked about everything except
the film. At the end of it, he said he thought Knightley was the part for
me, so I didn't have to bring up the issue at all."
Northam was surprised to be cast as
the charming Knightley, as he has always considered himself "ugly": "I
don't know [how I could be cast as Knightley]! I really don't. I suppose
because I'm a good reactor, rather than a good actor. I suppose that's
why it works."
Northam was intrigued by Knightley's
reticence, a trait which he notes is rare in Hollywood's leading male roles.
He remarks that it was Knightley's quiet demeanor which led him to accept
Real-life mother and daughter, Phyllida
Law and Sophie Thompson (mother and sister to actress Emma Thompson), were
cast by coincidence to play mother and daughter, Mrs. and Miss Bates. Casting
director Mary Selway didn't have a clue that they were related, as they
were placed on separate casting lists. Thompson was almost not cast as
the chatty Miss Bates because she was too young for the part (Thompson
had only recently played a young bride in "Four Weddings and a Funeral"):
"In the book, Miss Bates is older than me, and when I first read, Doug
thought I wasn't right. But when I went back, Mary let my hair down to
look older. And I got glasses, which helped. You'll see a miraculous change
When his proud parents came to visit
the English set from Texas, McGrath decided to include them as extras in
a ballroom scene. McGrath's mom proudly teases: "It was so much fun. Do
you know what they call the extras now? Background artists! We're working
on getting an agent now."
Ewan McGregor (Frank Churchill) decided
to take a chance on his first period film with "Emma": "I've read a lot
of period adaptations and most of them bore me to death in the script form.
This one managed to get very witty dialogue; I thought it had a really
good pace to it." McGregor also remarks that the chance to work with the
other actors was one reason for signing on to do "Emma": "[There were]
great people on [the film]... Toni Collette, she's brilliant, so funny
and such a nice person... And Jamie Cosmo, who played my dad in [a prior
film], played my dad in Emma as well." In addition, McGregor admits that
he wanted a chance to try out the period costumes: "All actors like dressing
up, regardless of what they might say. It's fun. All that [clothing], it's
Barely any of the actors were Jane
Austen fans before signing on to do "Emma." For example, Paltrow remarks:
"[In school I] found Jane Austen too chatty and a little less accessible."
Toni Collette (Harriet Smith) also confesses: "I just found [Austen] to
be a complete bore. [But
Emma] is so clever and funny... The older
I get, I appreciate her more."
To bring the proper English poise to
the film, the cast members, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam,
were required to learn from a movement teacher. Northam recalls: "It was
like trying to understand the steps of a dance, one that came out of a
certain etiquette. In this world, when they sometimes seem to be saying
nothing, there actually is a great deal being communicated."
Paltrow confesses that one challenge
in playing Emma was wearing the costumes: Unlike her co-stars, she was
too flat chested to fit into most of the "Wonderbra meets a nightgown"
dresses, as she describes them.
In order to play the Rubenesque Harriett,
actress Toni Collette had to gain weight. Collette, however, didn't mind:
"I think it's important for people to look real in films. There's a tendency
to go Barbie doll and I don't agree with that at all."
When first-time director McGrath had
questions during the shoot, he called friend and one-time co-writer, Woody
Allen for help: "It helps to know a big genius who you can call. My questions
were really rudimentary, and he was really helpful and acted glad to say
things like, ‘The camera is the one on the wheels.' He sent a really sweet
encouraging note before we began [filming]."
McGrath recalls that Paltrow was especially
good at jumping into character: "The amazing thing about [Paltrow] is that
as a rule she can be running around the set, singing, dancing, curled up
like a cat, and then the minute action is called, she completely changes.
She adopts every feature of a young woman in 19th century England of that
breeding and station."
Paltrow already knew how to shoot a
bow and arrow before filming the archery scene with Northam. However, she
was required to take lessons in ballroom dancing and horseback riding.
Paltrow also took singing lessons for the film, and McGrath thought she
did so well that he decided to use Paltrow's real singing voice in the
scene where Emma performs on the piano-forte.
McGrath had an English etiquette expert
on hand during the shoot to make sure every gesture and detail was historically
Although "Emma" has been praised for
its lush scenery and costuming, it took a mere $7 million (considered rock-bottom
cheap by Hollywood standards) to complete. McGrath's film cost less than
half of the total cost for "Sense and Sensibility," which wrapped up filming
just as the "Emma" shoot concluded.
Relationships On and Off the Set
Of Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam
remarks: "Technically she's brilliant, but she was also a lot of fun...
She just sails through and seems to have a blast doing it, and I think
it shows on the screen because there's a real sense of fun and mischief...
I'm not saying there are not things an English actress couldn't bring to
[her role as Emma] but I think Gwyneth brings something which is different.
I think by nature she has got a sort of New York, urban attitude... There
is a sharpness about Emma and a kind of sharpness about Austen's writing
which is probably more akin to late 20th-century urban sensibility than
we might at first believe."
Similarly, Paltrow enjoyed working
with Northam: "Jeremy's a wonderful actor and a very sweet guy. Our approaches
were very different -- he's very schooled in the theater, which is not
my background. So that alone provided a lot of stimulation. He's also really
Of Paltrow, co-star Greta Scacci (Mrs.
Weston) remarks: "I was already very fond of Gwyneth because we'd done
‘Jefferson in Paris' together, and I already had a kind of maternal relationship
with her, so it felt very natural to play her governess."
Paltrow especially enjoyed working
with her director, McGrath: "[The movie] was extraordinary because he is
extraordinary. He is as witty and insightful as anyone I have ever met.
No matter how pressured the situation, he was calm, focused and delightful.
He was so involved with the spirit of the film that he would watch the
monitors and act out all our parts with us."
Toni Collette (Harriet Smith) enjoyed
working with the entire cast, especially Paltrow: "[The shoot] was a wonderful
reminder that I could have fun while I'm working. Just a fabulous group.
Gwyneth and I became very close, as the resident non-Brits." Of Collette,
Paltrow remarks: "She's such a nut! I just adore her. We were always off
in a corner, cracking jokes."
The Actors on Their Roles
On playing Emma, Gwyneth Paltrow remarks:
"It was fun to play Emma because I don't think I share many qualities with her. I'm certainly not a matchmaker and I don't meddle in people's lives.
But she's very spirited, thinks she knows everything, and I really love and appreciate all her faults.
I think it's really important to see a film heroine who's not perfect, who makes mistakes, feels the pain of
those mistakes and ultimately learns and grows from them."
Paltrow also praises Jane Austen: "The
wonderful thing about Jane Austen is that [her work] translates brilliantly
to screen... The stories are so cleverly conceived and the characters are
so well drawn that they make wonderful film."
On Jane Austen, Jeremy Northam remarks:
"Hers is an age of innocence, compared to ours. And Austen's are indeed
very romantic stories, written by a young woman projecting her future.
But that's coupled with Austen's acerbic wit and almost cynical view of
people. In other words, she encourages us to delve beneath the surface,
to not trust the surface of things, and I think that appeals to our hard-headedness.
It's not that we're cynical but... well, look at the way we look at our
politicians. We're skeptical. So is Austen. And I think when romance flourishes
in that sort of environment, it is truly romantic because it embraces human
nature, warts and all."
Concerning Knightley, Northam remarks:
"I wanted an ambivalence in the character. [Knightley is] not sure what
he's feeling -- or what he is allowing himself to feel... He's quiet, he's
not tearing up the scenery. It's a quiet journey from being this person
who regards Emma as almost a sister with a protective, avuncular affection
to somebody who has come to terms with different kinds of feelings. The
thing about Knightley is that he has learned to be altruistic, he has learned
to be kind and selfless and for various reasons, which aren't really explained
in the book. I imagine that his life has somehow become circumscribed by duty and responsibility -- so much so that he has to learn to be selfless
and I think in the course of the story he has to learn to be selfish again.
He has to learn to remember things which he has long forgotten... He's
faithful [to Emma], he always has the strongest faith that she will change,
be better. That's what I love about Knightley." Referring to a recent breakup
with a longtime girlfriend, however, Northam confesses: "I guess I don't
have Mr. Knightley's altruism."
On her character, Harriet Smith, Toni
Collette remarks: "I think the movie has much to say to [young people].
About peer pressure, and trusting yourself. Harriet spends all her time
trying to please and be like Emma. And eventually she goes full circle,
to listen to her own heart again."