Jessica Biel has made a career of playing tomboys and tough girls, which makes it a bit funny to hear the 24-year-old actress sound giddy about her new costume drama.
"It was just so much fun," she says of her turn as an aristocrat in "The Illusionist." "I mean, I dressed like a princess every day. And that wasn't necessarily a goal for me as a little girl. I wasn't necessarily princess-crazy. But as an adult, it was just so fun and lovely and living in Prague for a couple months was... you know, if I didn't have to come home, I wouldn't have. I would have stayed forever."
Set in Vienna more than 100 years ago, "The Illusionist" stars Edward Norton as the mystical magician Eisenheim, who enters into an increasingly dangerous conflict with the pragmatic and violent Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Caught between the two men is Biel's Sophie, a countess in love with Eisenheim, but betrothed to Leopold. It's a part that the "7th Heaven" veteran only won after a series of last-second interviews and a gutsy audition costume.
"I just thought, 'You know, I've got nothing to lose. I've got one opportunity. I'm gonna go for it.' So I bought this crazy outfit, fully decked from head-to-toe. I looked like some crazy person walking down the street," Biel recalls proudly. "And it worked. I thought, 'Either I'm gonna be totally laughed at or they're gonna love it. One or the other. And I have no inhibitions at this moment and put it out there.' And I walked in and I think there was a little shock at first and a little bit like, 'Oh God, no.' And then Michael London said, 'Oh, thank God. At least we have one costume out of the way.' It put me at ease. I was like, 'Awww. You love it. OK.'"
Biel, whose 2005 film credits included "London," "Stealth" and "Elizabethtown," purchased her gown the night before the audition, raising the obvious question of where you go to get a 19th Century princess costume after 6 p.m. in Los Angeles?
"Paris 1900 on Main Street in Santa Monica," Biel plugs eagerly. "It was a lifesaver. I bought it. I walked right in there and I said, 'I don't care what it costs. Put it on my credit card. Trust me. I have an hour. Let's go.' I actually went back later with a bouquet of flowers and I said, 'Thank you so much... I got it!'"
Since we have to take Biel's word that she was never princess-crazy, it must have been something beyond the corsets and tight bodices that led her to Neil Burger's film.
"I was really interested in this woman who, in my opinion, was stuck, this modern woman stuck in 1900, but I felt like she could have easily been me, just put back in a time where I was restricted by so many things, society's restrictions and family and all the stuff that you have to not do and not say and everything," Biel reflects. "I was intrigued with bringing that person to life. I also had only done modern characters, who were very expressive and talk with their hands and this and that and with her, she's just bubbling under the surface at every moment, there's so much going on, but everything's placid and perfect up here."
See what's bubbling beneath Biel's surface when "The Illusionist" opens in some major media markets on Friday, Aug. 18.