Anyone who caught Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian last year was probably impressed with the performance by 28-year-old Ben Barnes as the title character, and as is often the case when an actor or actress is introduced in such a prominent way, some might wonder where they go from there.
In Easy Virtue, the new film from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert creators Stephan Elliot and Sheridan Jobbins based on Noel Coward’s play, Barnes plays John Whittaker, a young man who brings his significantly older American wife to his parents’ British countryside mansion where they’re put under intense scrutiny by his deeply eccentric family. In the movie, Barnes’ wife is played by the vivacious Jessica Biel, who rumor has it, so enamored Barnes that he was bringing flowers to her on their first meeting and didn’t necessarily have to act to be smitten with her.
Having interviewed Barnes a number of times before, we already knew that he was more than just a pretty face, but actually a rather articulate and intelligent young man, so it was great to talk to him about something other than the Telemarine prince… although we did throw in a question or two about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, since that’s going to start shooting soon, as well as his title role in the new period thriller Dorian Gray.
ComingSoon.net: I think you might have already had this role lined up when we first met on the set of “Prince Caspian,” is that right?
Ben Barnes: Not on the set I didn’t. I got this after I finished, I went to L.A., and I got this while I was there. I just got an Email from Steph, “I saw you in ‘Stardust,’ you have to do this film, that’s it.” And then he wanted me to send a tape of one of the scenes, which I then did in L.A. and I sent to him and he then gave me the part. He said (puts on Aussie accent) “I never give actors parts without actually meeting them,” and I was like, “Well, you just did.”
CS: Were you familiar with Noel Coward’s work? You went to drama school so you must have known some of it.
Barnes: I actually went to university. I did English and drama at university, which is more academic. It’s more critical analysis, but I got to read a lot of plays and write essays about them, read a lot of books and poetry, and I think that’s very helpful when you’re reading and analyzing scripts that you’re going to be involved with.
CS: And was Noel Coward one of the playwrights you read or liked?
Barnes: Not particularly. He wasn’t my biggest influence, but I had seen a couple of his plays and read a few and liked them very much. “Blithe Spirit” is a tremendous premise, which has been used over and over again.
CS: Had you seen the play before seeing it on Broadway yesterday?
Barnes: I read it. It’s funny even when you read it, because there’s the great dramatic irony that you know that one character can hear another but they haven’t worked it out yet, and it’s fantastic. No one I knew of had heard of “Easy Virtue” though. I was literally ringing college professors, my old ones, saying “‘Easy Virtue’ – anything to say about that?” and they were like, “What? Which one?” It’s this kind of claustrophobic odd play that’s a little dark and it’s not so much fun.
CS: Were you able to find the original play to read? I understand that it’s not easy to find.
Barnes: Yeah, I read it. I found it in a compilation of Noel Coward.
CS: What did you think of what Stephan and Sheridan did with it?
Barnes: I was a huge fan of everything they did with it. They were very mischievous with it and stripped it bare. There’s 20 lines left of it probably, I don’t know. They kept the gems and they kept the premise and they kept the characters, but actually made all of the characters more sympathetic.
CS: What did they tell you about your character John? Did they say he was a mama’s boy?
Barnes: Yeah, that was my hesitation at first. He’s a mother’s boy, and he’s kind of weak and do I want to be seen as that guy? And I thought, “Well, people are smart. They know I’m acting.” And they don’t. People are not. They’re like “Oh, I didn’t like your character. I didn’t like you in that,” and I’m like, “Well, you do realize I was doing a job, which was fueling this war of wits between the women?” You have to be rooting for the couple at the beginning and by the end, you don’t have to mind that (SPOILER). So actually, it was quite a difficult job for me. If you go with the story and you like the film, then you did like what I did ’cause I would have ruined it otherwise. But he’s not the shiny hero character and I don’t necessarily think that’s important to do all the time. I’m learning as I go that people tend to see characters more than they see the actor.
CS: Which as an actor is actually a good thing because you’ve sold the audience and made them believe in your character.
Barnes: Yeah, yeah, I hope so. I just think it’s all in the name of fun really, this particular one. It’s got some interesting subtext and things, and it seems more relevant than it probably was intended to be.
CS: Were you bummed that you didn’t get to be as big a part in the comedy aspects of the story?
Barnes: There are a few dry throwaway lines which I like. I get a few laughs. It was great to be in Toronto when it came out and have that sort of festival audience enjoy it as much as they did. It’s terrific to be a part of a comedy where the reaction is audible. It’s visceral, it’s right there in front of you, it’s instant. But yeah, I’d love to do more out ‘n’ out funny parts at some point, but I’ll have to wait until they come along. (Barnes mentioned earlier that he’d love to do an Apatow-like comedy.)
CS: We’ve heard the stories about you bringing Jessica flowers, but what was it like bringing in an American actor who hadn’t been trained into this environment with all of these trained British actors? Was it hard getting her into that environment or did that add to her working in the role?
Barnes: I think that’s just the point. That’s why she came so late I think, just because it was helpful to her actually to be unprepared and it was helpful for her to be a stranger, because then when you’re introduced to the family in the scene, it helps. Anything you can do to imbue yourself with that sense of… to immerse yourself in the world you’re supposed to be in, to put yourself in the mood you’re supposed to be in that day. Filming is so microcosmic, so about the specific moment, to be in the mood you need to be in character is so helpful.
CS: What about working with Colin Firth and the relationship you established with him? It’s really interesting that the two of you are doing two movies together, practically back-to-back. What was it like the first time you met him? Were you a fan of his work?
Barnes: Absolutely. I’ve always thought he was very, very funny, even the silly films like the “Love Actuallys” and the “Bridget Jones” and things like that, I always thought he stole those films, because he was always so dry. I always thought this guy must be so funny in real life, but I wasn’t sure… ’cause maybe he’s just grumpy. And then it turns out… both! No, I just think he’s a wonderful guy and so funny. Yeah, I was very happy when they cast him in “Dorian Gray” as well, because I didn’t know who they were going to get for that. And they said, “What about Colin?” and I was like, “What, again?” He is that mentor-like figure.
CS: But they did ask you about casting him?
Barnes: Yeah, they did. Not that I had approval or anything. They were like, “What do you think?” and I was like “Yeah, brilliant, terrific.”
CS: You should tell Colin that you had approval.
Barnes: He knows that’s not true.
CS: I heard that it’s going to be a very different take on “Dorian Gray,” that it’s not the traditional take on it.
Barnes: It’s fairly traditional, I think. It’s tradition in the context of trying to make a film that hasn’t been seen before, because they made one in the ’50s. So they have the museum version so now our job is to make one that’s exciting to a 19-year-old today, as well as the book lovers.
CS: Which is interesting because “Easy Virtue” is trying to do a similar thing.
Barnes: It is, yeah. I think Coward you have a tough sell with a teenage crowd. I think “Dorian Gray,” you have a better chance because it’s sort of got the “Sweeney Todd” element. Also, because it’s so much more adult and gory, I think that’s why you’ve got a better shot at getting the teenagers.
CS: I was curious about that because when I heard about this, I didn’t think it was really going to go for a lot of gore, but it might be tamer.
Barnes: Well, it starts off that way, it teases, but we’ve done all we can to make it exciting. There’s a bit of horror and some cool stuff.
CS: Have you seen the final movie yet?
Barnes: No, I’ve seen bits. But I hope it works. It’s a very tough challenge tonally, I think, but they’re just getting the music just right and they’re doing it right now, trimming it down a little bit, but it tested really well, so we’ll see. I hope it’s good. I’m most precious about that one out of all the films I’ve done. I want that one to work the most, because it’s such a great story. I don’t want to be accused of messing… We’ve changed a few things. We’ve added a character.
CS: I can’t imagine it being a huge problem, because I’m not sure how many people are really aware of the original Oscar Wilde story.
Barnes: That’s what I think and there’ll be a few people up in arms about giving one of the lead characters a daughter and things like that, but actually, it helps serve the story and make it more visual, and that’s the point of a movie. The book exists already!
CS: Of course, you’re going to go shoot “Dawn Treader” very soon. Have you read a script or started training or anything for it yet? Obviously, it was pushed back six or seven months.
Barnes: Twice. It was supposed to go the January before last, that was the original plan.
CS: You’ve known for a long time that you were going to do the movie eventually.
Barnes: But yeah, I know nothing about it. I know as much as anyone who has read the “Dawn Treader” book. Literally, that’s how much I know.
CS: Is there anything in the book you’re excited about doing?
Barnes: Yeah, there’s a lot of it! Obviously, I’m hoping Ramandu’s daughter is hot… there’s the beginning where he dives in and saves Lucy, there’s all the cool stuff with the golden pond. I think the Lucy stuff, and the monopods where she goes to the Professor’s room and sees her past, that’ll be cool. The sea serpent and the mermaids and mermen will be cool.
CS: A lot of that stuff is visual FX though.
Barnes: It’s all very fantastical though, and I think just to be a part of that will be exciting. Make it a bit younger again and more fantasy world like the first one, more kind of discovery.
CS: Have you met with Michael Apted again since the first time?
Barnes: I met him on the set of “Prince Caspian” and I met him once after that.
CS: So they’ve just been off doing their own thing preparing.
Barnes: Yeah, I assume they’ve been working hard on it. I just don’t really know. I don’t have any information for you, I’m afraid, because I’m in the dark myself. I WISH I was one of those people who knew everything and were still like, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you.” I wish I was that guy.
CS: Well, I’m assuming that it’s basically the book.
Barnes: Yeah, but I’m still very intrigued and anxious about what stuff they’re going to leave… because “Dawn Treader” is such an episodic book. Read a chapter and that’s a kid’s book, and it doesn’t link together as a story. Apart from the fact they’re on this voyage, but you need motivation in a film, so the way they sew it together is going to be the interesting thing.
CS: Do you have your sea legs together to be able to do a lot of stuff on water? Or are you just going to have to…
Barnes: (shaking head) Wing it. I swim a lot. I swim most days. So no, I like that.
Easy Virtue opens in select cities on Friday, May 22. Look for our interview with the creators of this adaptation sometime next week.