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Take It Easy

Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Colin Firth, and Stephan Elliott discuss the film Easy Virtue, based on the play by Noel Coward.

Jessica Biel in Easy Virtue
(© Sony Pictures Classics)
Even those people who consider themselves big Noel Coward fans may not be entirely familiar with Easy Virtue, a drawing room dramedy about the clash between the World War I generation and the freer spirits of the Roaring Twenties, which has been turned into a charming film (opening May 22) by director and co-writer Stephan Elliott.

The plot revolves around Larita (Jessica Biel), a young American who marries the weak-willed John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), thus turning his staid British upper-class (if impoverished) family upside down. Indeed, his mum, an acid-tongued harridan (played by a gray-wigged Kristin Scott Thomas), staunchly, if wittily, disapproves of the union, while his dad (Colin Firth), a dissolute battle-scarred WW I vet, is intrigued.

Elliott is best known for his sophomore film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert -- which opened in the West End in March as a stage musical -- and he acknowledges that the two properties aren't quite the same. "Ah yes," he says smiling broadly, "this certainly isn't Priscilla is it? Except maybe the pantyless Can-Can number, but that's just me straining to get out! When we first came to this film, I said to the producers, 'Let me do me schtick -- and they did.'" His so-called "schtick" includes mixing a few contemporary tunes (Car Wash and Sex Bomb) with such obligatory Coward ditties as "A Room with a View," "I'll See You Again," and "Mad About the Boy." "I used music to speak to the clash of generations," he explains.

But his biggest innovation was to turn Larita into an American race car driver -- sort of a flapper version of Danica Patrick. "It was really different for me," says Biel. "I was way out of my comfort zone. I drive a Lexus Hybrid. And I'm not really feisty at all, so I wouldn't mind being more like Larita. In the original play, she's much colder, but Stephan changed a lot of things." As for her future singing career, Biel modestly notes: "Of course I'd love to collaborate with Justin [her boyfriend, pop superstar Justin Timberlake], "but I'm just not good enough."

Barnes, best known for playing Prince Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia series, seems nothing like the callow youth he plays in Easy Virtue. "I was having quite a laugh being a puppy to everyone else in the film," he recalls. "And then of course, I get to go to bed with Jessica, but it's not that sexy really with everyone telling us to look up or to the left all the time."

As for Firth, his character is the latest in a long line of memorable Brits, including Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice the other Mr. Darcy in the two Bridget Jones films, one of the the three dads in Mamma Mia!, and his upcoming role as Lord Henry Wotton in a new version of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (alongside Barnes in the title role). "I'm not really worried about typecasting, although I have played more than my share of archetypical aristocrats," he says. "But I've learned that people who are going to hire you like to know what they're getting."