Jane Austen never thought her books would be popular. She certainly didn’t expect any of her stories to spawn cinematic adaptations (because of course, movies didn’t exist at that time. There are different versions of the film: Gwyneth Paltrow stars in the 1996 adaptation, Romola Garai is ‘Emma’ in the 2009 TV mini-series, and there is Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film ‘Clueless,’ which is heavily inspired by the Jane Austen novel. While all versions bring their own unique spin on the story, director Autumn de Wilde wants to introduce a 19th-century character in a modern way. To bring that vision to life, she cast actress Anya Taylor-Joy to represent the Austen antihero.
“We’ve all been Emma and have Emma friends,” says the actress—and she’s right. We’ve all been there, that’s what gives the story a universal and timeless appeal.
At the beautiful Essex house hotel near central park, we spoke to the actress about Jane Austen, social commentary, and being the antihero.
You have a vast filmography which includes blockbusters, indie films, period dramas, and so on. What is the one thread that makes you connect to every script or every film that you’re part of?
It usually starts with the character and if I think I’m the right voice for it. I can love a script and love a character, but if I’m not the right person to tell that story, I have to let it go. Then it’s the story, and the world the character is living in. Then the final piece is the director. In the case with “Emma,” Autumn de Wilde is fantastic.
Which book of Jane Austen is your personal favorite?
It’s not really a book. It’s a collection of letters that Jane Austin wrote to her sister, Cassandra. Those are interesting because she never thought those letters would be published. However, they are a real insight into the genius of Austen. In these letters, she talks about how fascinated by the day to day life of a couple of individuals, and not keen to build big worlds with a lot of characters.
Do you consider Emma an antihero?
Definitely! Emma is a brat, arrogant, and at times, selfish and manipulative. She places her self-interest above all. I wanted people to watch this version and have moments where they want to reach through the screen and shake her. But remember this isn’t “The Taming of the Shrew.” Emma doesn’t become a completely different person by the end of the book. She’s still her but just an upstanding person who treats people with respect. It pays off in the end because it is a tale of redemption and she does grow up and learns a couple of lessons.
Every character is set in their ways at the beginning of the story, but by the end, everyone is unraveled. How did you work out what Emma’s vulnerability would look like?
I got to the root of why she behaved the way she does. She’s grown up in immense privilege with people who have known her whole life. The people around her gave her poor behavior positive reinforcement, so she didn’t see anything wrong with her actions. The fact that she’s manipulative comes from the fact that Emma’s incredibly lonely, and wants to make sure the people she loves stay close.
Now that you’ve said that, I’ve got more sympathy for Emma. I read Emma in high school and didn’t understand her motivations at that time, but it’s clearer to me now.
I found that explanation easier because in moments when she does terrible things such as encouraging Harriet to refuse Mr. Martin–as ugly as that scene is–I feet Emma’s panic. I assumed her inner dialogue would be: “Please don’t marry this man,” Please don’t run away from me.” I think that’s where I found her vulnerability
Something that occurred to me, even when I read the book in school, is that “Emma” isn’t just a love story, it’s a social commentary on class. What are your thoughts on the way the class hierarchy is portrayed in the book?
Austen is a brilliant satirist and is able to apply the commentary in a subtle fashion. She’s inviting you to both laugh with the characters and laugh at them. The reason why it’s funny is because anybody that has any real-life problems watching a whole bunch of wealthy people freaking out about small shit like ribbons and snow is funny.
This reminds me of a particular scene where Emma is talking to Harriet about Robert Martin, and she says, “A farmer can need none of my help, and thus is as much above my notice as he is below it.” It’s setting up what Emma is taught about class. She knows she’s at the top. However, entrepreneurs or people who make their own money, she doesn’t really bother with.
Autumn mentioned getting the tone for the film down was essential, and she had the cast watch films from the 40s so you all can study the cadence of the movies you saw.
I’ve always loved old films, but it was important to Autumn that we watch Bringing Up Baby because I don’t think we would’ve understood the level of slapstick that she wanted us to have without it. It was very liberating to do that because my acting is pretty grounded and naturalistic. I was a little worried but was able to pull it off!
As a viewer, there is a particular moment where all the fanciful comedy stops and things get dead serious.
The picnic scene! I’ve sat in on a few screenings and there is an audible gasp when Emma is intentionally cruel to Ms. Bates. I think the reason the moment hits so hard is that everyone is laughing along at the fact that Emma finds Ms. Bates tedious and boring. However, in that moment when Emma’s callousness cuts through all of that. I think it has a sobering effect on the audience.
What do you hope the audience takes away from this adaptation of Emma?
I hope they come out with a heart full of joy. I hope that they forget everything that’s going on outside in the world because it’s pure escapism and it’s good people who at the end of the day treat each other kindly and learn their lessons and, and it’s a story about love and don’t we always need a little bit more love, right?
“Emma” is playing in select theaters now.