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Plain and Dancy

Hugh Dancy finds his inner geek in The Jane Austen Book Club and Valerie Harper rises to the occasion in Golda's Balcony. logo
Hugh Dancy in The Jane Austen Book Club
(© Sony Pictures Classics)
For someone who looks so great in any kind of period gear -- from the Broadway production of Journey's End to HBO's Emmy Award-winning Elizabeth I -- Hugh Dancy manages to look equally dishy in the very ordinary outfits he sports as Grigg, an outgoing, if inept, Sci-Fi-loving computer geek in Robin Swicord's The Jane Austen Book Club, which opens in New York on Friday, September 21.

Grigg, the only male reader in an otherwise all-female book club, is a decided change from his other recent roles -- most particularly, Buddy, the charming, gay alcoholic he portrayed in his last film, Evening (on which he met his new lady love, Pygmalion star Claire Danes). "Robin's script was so rich and smart and it made me laugh, so I knew I had to play Grigg," says Dancy with his trademark boyish grin. "Buddy and Grigg are such polar opposites. Buddy is ill at ease and doesn't really know himself, while Grigg is silly, romantic, and not at all cool. But he's quite happy with who he is."

Swicord's masterful screen adaptation of Karen Joy Fowler's novel, which was written as separate but integrated stories, focuses on five women and one man, each of whom leads a book club session on one of Austen's six novels. In doing so, the sextet finds that the novelist's work is totally relevant to their lives. "What would Jane do?" is what they keep asking themselves. In addition to Dancy, the film boasts a large cast of recognizable names, including Kathy Baker, Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Amy Brenneman, Maggie Grace, Jimmy Smits, and Lynn Redgrave (in another of her memorable film cameos). "I was absolutely delighted to be surrounded by all those wonderful strong women," says Dancy.

Because of her working methods, Dancy's stage experience was a prerequisite for first-time director Swicord, whose own theatrical background dates back to Off-Broadway in the 1970s (and who is the mother of rising Off-Broadway star Zoe Kazan). "We had six full-on rehearsal days as if we were doing a play," she explains. "Shooting 10 pages at a clip for 30 days in 37 locations around Los Angeles, we'd run scenes from top to bottom using three cameras on six people with overlapping dialogue and no single coverage, so staying in character was mandatory. Those rehearsal days also helped us form the kind of 'family' that the book club actually becomes. In fact, actors were bringing in props from their homes."


Valerie Harper in Golda's Balcony
A film of the one-woman show Golda's Balcony -- sounds crazy, no? Not to Valerie Harper, who played Israel's first female prime minister for more than a year on the road, garnering the reviews of a lifetime along the way. So she and her husband Tony Cacciotti put together a movie version of William Gibson's play, which will open on October 10 at New York City's Quad Cinema, with other cities to follow.

"The message of Golda's Balcony is more timely than ever," says Harper. "Golda Meir was a great American and a great woman whose importance to the world -- not just to Jews -- must never be underestimated." Although the actress is not Jewish -- but is often thought to be, especially by fans of her work as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda -- putting on the mantle of Meir never daunted her.

A self-professed "theater actress," Harper started out as a Broadway chorus girl, later appeared on Broadway in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, and also toured with her own one-woman show, The Dragon and The Pearl, about the life and work of writer and humanitarian Pearl Buck. In asking Gibson for permission to make the film, the 93-year-old playwright told her: "You can do it, but you've got to do it the way I wrote it." Fortunately, that was okay by Harper. "I've always had a connection to Gibson's work. My earliest audition pieces were from his plays, The Miracle Worker and Two for the Seesaw."

Aside from getting Gibson's permission, what was Harper's biggest challenge in making the film? "It was never to fall short of this monumental figure, while the biggest acting challenge in taking it from stage to screen was to get small enough," she says. "Obviously I was used to the show the way Scott Schwartz originally directed it for the stage, but Jeremy Kagen re-blocked everything for the camera."

Equally nerve-wracking was the ultra-quick shooting schedule. "We shot it in only five days!" notes Harper. "I'd start a scene and say, 'No, I'm facing this way and Jeremy would assure me that now I'm facing that way. Plus we had to work out of order, so I'd do all of the younger Golda in a black wig, then we'd shoot the older Golda in a gray wig, and finally we'd add separate reaction shots of all the other characters that I also play. It was exciting, if a little confusing, to work against a green screen for the first time."

In the end, Harper and her husband feel they've achieved all their goals. "Of course it's still Mr. Gibson's play, but the film's a kind of hybrid with archival film footage and personal photos in the background that lend incredible veracity and historical perspective to the words," she says. "All I hope is that if Golda could see the film, she'd think I got it right."

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