A Gifted Man’s Leading Lady
Many viewers will forever associate Jennifer Ehle with her career-making role as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice, the sumptuous adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel. But the 41-year old actress, the daughter of the actress Rosemary Harris and the writer John Ehle and now a mother of two, has been producing a steady body of work for both the stage and film, since she first donned a curly black wig to play Austen’s outspoken romantic heroine back in 1995. On Broadway, she won a Tony award in 2000 for The Real Thing and another in 2007 for The Coast of Utopia.
Recently, Ehle starred alongside her Darcy, Colin Firth, in The King’s Speech, though the two only shared one brief scene together; she played Lady Catelyn Stark in the original pilot for HBO’s Game of Thrones, but departed the role before it went to series. This month, she’s in Steven Soderbergh’s big-budget germaphobe’s-worst-nightmare flick, Contagion, in which she plays a CDC scientist, and next month she’ll appear as the wife of George Clooney’s politician character in The Ides of March.
Ehle also stars in CBS’s new supernatural/medical/personal journey drama, A Gifted Man, created by Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) and launching tonight. She plays Anna Paul, the ghost of a free clinic doctor on a mission to improve the character of her arrogant ex-husband, Michael (Patrick Wilson), a brilliant neurosurgeon who has lost his way.
The Daily Beast sat down with Ehle, and in these excerpts we discussed A Gifted Man, why she left Game of Thrones, attachment parenting, why she’s never recognized on the street, and ghost sex.
Why did you decide to do a weekly series now?
Jennifer Ehle: I never thought in a million years that I would do a weekly series. I met Jonathan Demme when I’d auditioned for him for Rachel Getting Married. It hadn’t worked out, but I knew he liked me. Without Patrick being attached to this and Jonathan directing it I don’t think I would have even read it or looked at it. Then I just sort of started taking baby steps because if they’re both seeing something in this then maybe what I see is not an illusion.
Your character, Anna, seems almost saintly, but she does have flaws.
Ehle: She does have flaws. My kids don’t really know what I do. They kind of do, but it’s just always been “We help to tell stories,” and that’s what we’ve always said that we do as a family. It’s kind of hard to tell a story when you don’t know where it’s going to end so, it’s a steep learning curve. The way that I’ve adjusted it in my head to kind of make sense for me is that Anna, she is a new fresh spirit in the pilot: like in a photograph, she’s not fully developed yet. Then she begins to come into focus as we’re all discovering who she is along with the audience. It’s very important to me that she not be someone who ever wants him to just be good solely because he should be good or just for his own sake, because I know that’s not somebody that I would particularly want to watch. Her objective is to continue the work that she was doing and she was so passionate about since she finds herself here. She didn’t choose this.
I think that’s an important distinction to make.
Ehle: They are being given a sort of odd second chance. They’re not quite ready to let go of each other now that they’ve found each other, even though it’s not all roses and Champagne, one of them happens to be dead, and also they still have the same clashes personality-wise and ethics-wise that is perhaps what ended their relationship.
You were in the original pilot for HBO’s Game of Thrones, but opted not to return for the series. (The part is now played by Michelle Fairley.) Why did you ultimately decided to not stick with the show?
Ehle: Well, it was entirely personal. My daughter was seven months old when we did the pilot. It was too soon for me to be working, emotionally and bonding-wise, but I needed to do it and I was also passionate about the books. I loved the idea of telling that story. I finished the first book when I was in the hospital getting ready to have my daughter. My husband actually went out and got the second book for me. I handed the first book to the midwife and started the second one. When I went back for my six-week checkup with the midwife, she had started the second book.
I love Game of Thrones, but it was too soon, and I did The King’s Speech immediately after. Then did a play immediately after that. I found out that the series was then picked up at the end of working through six months when I really just wanted to hold my baby, even though I was aware of the incredible privilege of having done the three pieces of work that I got to do in a row. I think everything worked out beautifully, because clearly the show is what it was meant to be.
What is your relationship with Twitter? You share in a way that most celebrities don’t. We find out all sorts of interesting things about you, like you own hens or that Rebekah Brooks introduced you to Tony Blair in 1997.
Ehle: I’m a little more self-conscious now because I know people are going to be coming onboard just out of curiosity. I started so slowly and had so few followers and then it kind of sort of snowballed. I still feel an intimacy on Twitter, which I think a lot of us do. It feels intimate, doesn’t it? I love it. I never thought I would. I’ve always been so private, but there’s something about sharing who you really are which is so different from having it siphoned or sieved through just journalists and through interviews. So much of my life is not about work and that is usually mainly what I do tweet about. We live a very quiet life.
You often tweet about child rearing. Do you subscribe to a particular school of parenting?
Ehle: I didn’t choose a parenting style, but I just attach ferociously. I guess attachment parenting is what we do. With our daughter, who is almost two-and-a-half, we did EC, elimination communication. She was primarily a diaper-free baby. That was an absolutely wonderful experience. That is one of the reasons that I first got on Twitter. I thought, hey, there’s this amazing thing. I wanted to know if anyone would be interested in knowing about it. It is fascinating and it was an extraordinary journey, and I would recommend it to anybody because you don’t have to do it full time. You can do it whenever you’re comfortable with.
Why would we be one of the only species on earth that doesn’t mind soiling its nest? That seems odd. I sort of panicked before Talulah, my daughter, was born. We didn’t know about it with George so we didn’t do it. Before she was born, I said, oh, this is just too much. This is going to be overwhelming with a newborn and she’s not going to have a diaper. I’m going to have to have a bowl under her when I nurse and this all going to be too much. Then I realized I had read too much and I had learned too much. I had to go forward with it. It really was a delight.
Was it assumed that, being from a theatrical family, you might go into acting?
Ehle: I think it was natural that I might. People used to always ask, and I would say I wanted to be an actress. When they would ask why, I would say because my mother has so much fun. Compared to your friends’ parents there is a lot of what you see that is a lot of fun. There was always a party in the dressing room. We were traveling all over the place. She got to change and do something completely different all the time. Also, one of the great things about doing it as a parent is you do get to spend months at a time at home.
Did you once accidently apply to a school in Michigan thinking it was in New York?
Ehle: Yes. (Laughs.) I had been going to school at Miss Hewitt’s Classes on the Upper East Side. I had been sneaking out and going to Area. Life felt really exciting and fabulous. I was a rebellious 14-year-old. My mother’s play had closed or she was between jobs. We would normally move back to North Carolina, where they still lived when my mother was not working. I thought that Interlochen Arts Academy—my father mentioned at one point of me maybe going to the national music camp there—was in upstate New York. I thought I’d be able to just pop into the city and go to the clubs and sneak out. In my rebellion, I said, “No, I’m not going back to North Carolina, I’m going to go to Interlochen Arts Academy.” My father called back about an hour and a half later and said, “Okay, you’re going to Interlochen Arts Academy, but it’s actually in upstate Michigan.”
You’re perhaps best known for playing Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Are you still recognized by fans for that role even without the wig?
Ehle: I really never get recognized at all for anything. I’m a little concerned that’s going to change with [A Gifted Man]. If we go to a second season, I think Anna will wear a wig, and I will bleach my hair and cut it to two inches long because I’m not sure what that will be like. It’s not something that I’ve envied in the people I know that it happens to. I went to my local library where we live in upstate New York and I was taking my son to story hour for a couple of years, before I walked into the library one day and the librarian who I knew well just suddenly stopped and her mouth fell open. I didn’t know her well, but I had seen her for years. She just said, “Oh my God, you look like Jennifer Ehle.” I said, “I am.” They all know me as Jennifer Ryan. It’s very rare that it happens. It will be interesting.
Of your romantic relationship with Colin Firth, with whom you were together for almost a year, you said, “It was a blessing that our relationship ended before the show was aired.”
Ehle: It was so unexpected to people that the show took on a life of its own the way it did. I was unaware. I was just at the [Royal Shakespeare Company] and I can’t imagine what it would have been to have been defined as a couple as Elizabeth and Darcy. I can’t imagine that either one of us would have been comfortable with that.
Speaking of romance, I guess we’re not going to see that recreation of that Ghost scene with the clay anytime soon on A Gifted Man then?
Ehle: Patrick was joking about that earlier because I was being asked, “Is she corporal?” I mean, she kisses him on the cheek that first night before he knows that she is dead. It does lead onto to: Do they explore a sex life? We haven’t gotten there yet. Right now, I think there’s way too much and everything happens so fast, especially in [Episodes] 1 and 2. I can only assume it’s going to continue this momentum that there really isn’t time for them to wine and dine each other.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story mentioned Susannah Grant in an erroneous context.