Move Over, Mr. Darcy

23 February 2008

Over the past year, JJ Feild has been a Jane Austen hero in Northanger Abbey (swoon!) and kissed Billie Piper in The Shadow of the North; now he’s making his West End debut in Ring Round the Moon. Ryan Roark catches up with him at the end of the show’s first week of previews to talk about stage fright, Hollywood and how much he loves acting. She forgot to ask him how he got to be so damned charismatic.

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A reviewer once called JJ Feild magnetic, and that is exactly right. After seeing his play, I head to the stage door, where I’ve been told he’s expecting me. Within seconds of being paged to the door, JJ bounds up the steps, still full of energy after an action-packed show, flashes his winning smile, and apologetically begs a few minutes to chat with his director.  Meanwhile, he suggests I wait for him in the pub next door.

As soon as he catches up with me in the Ship and Shovell pub, he notes my American accent, asks me where I’m from, and tells me he was born in Colorado; his mother is American. Then he offers to buy me a drink, pointing out that I’m a student. Wow–he really is that nice. I already want to be best friends with this guy, and we haven’t even started talking Jane Austen yet.

Once we’re safely tucked away in the quietest table we can find in the “Crow’s Nest”, we get down to business–and it immediately comes out just how much JJ loves what he does. He says he always knew he wanted to act. When I ask him if there is anything he doesn’t like about acting, he quickly replies, “Nothing, I love it, I love acting!” After thinking about it,  though: “Oh, auditioning… this is an easy question! You’re put on the spot, in order to be judged within a millisecond, and you don’t really know what you’ve got to do.” But otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be anything he doesn’t love about acting.

He makes a good case for it too; he has gotten to do some pretty cool stuff recently in the name of his craft. After shooting four period dramas in 2006 (“I hadn’t taken a tophat off or stood away from a horse in a year!”), in 2007 he did three very different projects. “I love mountains,” he tells me, so it was good luck when he was offered a role in the first live-action manga film, based on the best-selling manga series Blood. “At first I thought, oh, that’s not really my style, but then it was produced and created and designed by the people who did Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. It was filmed in Argentina and the Himalayas, and I got to fly on all these wires through bamboo forests.”

Also in 2007, he shot Telstar, in which he plays a musician who is the muse of the “gifted but troubled” record producer Joe Meek. JJ seems quite keen on this project; he plays opposite Kevin Spacey and bands like the Libertines and the Darkness. I ask him if he sings: “Absolutely not! But I play the guitar… Carl Barât of the Libertines taught me how to play the guitar. How cool is that?!?” Pretty cool.

To top it all off, he has a film about the 2006 FIFA World Cup coming out in 2008, Goal! III. “That was a bit of fun. I got to go and play football for a couple of months.”

I’m starting to get a bit jealous, so I ask what is the absolute worst thing he has ever had to do for a film. He thinks for a minute before responding, “I did a film in the Borneo rainforest, and I had to eat steak tartare in the Borneo rainforest. The meat had all gone off. Twelve takes later I was still eating this meat; it was the worst thing I’ve ever done.” Even that sounds pretty cool.

2007 was a busy year for JJ, but somehow he found time to audition for Ring Round the Moon. “I’d been dying to do for a long time…. It’s just about finding the right play at the right time. This one just came out of nowhere. I got a call to go and audition, and I auditioned, and then I heard nothing for nearly a year, because the play got put back. So I just assumed that didn’t happen, and then got a call just before Christmas, asking me if I wanted to do it, so I said ‘yeah!'”

I ask whether he gets stage fright. “Everyone gets nervous. Oddly enough, the first preview we had, we were dress rehearsing right up until we started, so I had no nerves. There was no turn-over time, and when the interval came, I sat in my chair, and then the nerves arrived, because that’s the first time I sat still. I thought ‘Oh my God,’ and I suddenly got nervous before the second half…. You have to have some nerves, you need the adrenalin.”

Indeed, he seems to have an endless supply of energy, though he admits that performing every night requires some adjustments to his lifestyle: “I finish the show very wired. I won’t eat a big meal before, because that makes you lethargic. So you eat at different times, and you go to bed at different times and get up at different times. You change your patterns to the working hours. I’ve just heard a story about Paul Scofield, who played the original Hugo/ Frederic…. Someone asked him if he was enjoying himself, and Paul Scofield said, ‘Oh, I’m loving it! But when do you find time to eat dinner?'”

Though stage acting–especially in a farcical comedy like Ring Round the Moon–is more physically draining than acting for the camera, in the end, JJ says, “I don’t think the acting is any different. Acting is the emotional truth of the part and the character that you bring to it…. It’s the technique that’s different.”

I’m curious about what sorts of roles he would like to do in the future, but he tells me, “I don’t in any way pigeonhole myself. I try to change what I do each job…. The joy is, as an actor, you don’t know what’s going to be written for you. I don’t know what I’ll be doing next year or the year after. Unless it’s classical theatre, you have no idea what you’re going to play next year. So there’s no way I can envisage what I’d like to do.”

He has worked mostly in the UK so far, but he has a lot of interest in European filmmakers, and respect for the industry in America. “I identify with the sort of positive ambition in America…. In LA the business is a business. It’s a process that’s very transparent. Here, it’s a bit more mysterious. It’s kind of romantic, but there it’s very transparent. British film is phenomenal, but I think sometimes we sort of bash America, and they do a lot of incredible work. What’s amazing about British film is that we’ve come out with almost an equal amount of work, and we’re so small.”

Despite everything, JJ is a humble guy. I ask him if he gets recognised. “The day after you’re on telly, people recognise you on the tube, and the next day they’ve forgotten you and they’re on to the next costume drama.” I’m not buying it completely, but then I’ve seen his fan sites. He admits he knows about them, and he hastens to add “They are so sweet. I received this ginormous sort of canoe of fruit (he gestures to indicate it was over three feet long!) from one of my fan sites. It was incredible, very very sweet, but they didn’t put a return address! I wanted to write and say thank you, but I couldn’t.”

JJ has been quoted out of context as saying he would be kicked out of nineteenth-century English society for “lewd behaviour”, so, thinking that’s something Cambridge students are familiar with, I ask him what that’s all about. “You can never take a quote seriously. I’ve read interviews with me that I never did. There’s a sixty-second interview in Metro newspaper, but I never met anyone from Metro! It’s fantastic… it’s actually a really good interview. I want to write them a thank you letter.” You might notice he dodged the question! So maybe there was some lewd behaviour after all… As it turns out, the quote was from a Behind the Scenes on Northanger Abbey: “We had all these etiquette lessons about the dance and so on, and with my sick, twisted sense of humour, I was just making some pranks or whatever… it was probably just something about the bust lines of the dresses.”

Finally, I ask JJ to give me his best piece of relationship advice, in light of Valentine’s Day coming up. He says, “Never take someone who loves you for granted.” Just the sort of advice you’d want from your best friend. He wants to talk American politics and university versus drama school (much more work than university, he says!)–and I could talk to this guy all night–but he has to go rest up for the next day, because it’s Saturday and he has to do two performances of Ring Round the Moon.