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Can go from tiaras to plain Jane

Times Staff Writer

According to Anne Hathaway, if it hadn’t been for her sick chocolate lab keeping her awake all night, she might not have gotten the role of the much-loved British author Jane Austen in the new film “Becoming Jane,” which opens Friday.

“I have to thank the maker of the hotel slipper that poisoned my dog,” the gamin 24-year-old actress says with a wide smile. (Her lab recovered from the incident.)

Flash back to two years ago. Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” for which Hathaway received nice notices for her dramatic turn as Jake Gyllenhaal’s social-climbing wife, had yet to be released. She was months away from costarring in the blockbuster comedy “The Devil Wears Prada” with Meryl Streep.

Filmmakers and audiences knew her primarily for her goody-two-shoes image in Disney’s “Princess Diaries” comedies.

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“I was associated with tiara flicks,” she says, relaxing in her hotel suite at the Four Seasons during a recent visit to Los Angeles.

So Hathaway says she had to beg for an audition to play the writer of the classic novels “Pride and Prejudice,” “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility.”

Director Julian Jarrold (“Kinky Boots”), she admits, wasn’t very excited about seeing her. “ ‘Brokeback’ wasn’t out, and I hadn’t done anything that would show anyone any kind of depth. But when he screened a few of my scenes in ‘Brokeback,’ he said he would meet with me.”

The first audition didn’t go well. “I was at a different stage as an actress,” says Hathaway. “I can’t explain it without going into a lot of back story, but the point was I was very polite and safe in my interview. It wasn’t right. So Julian called my manager and said, ‘It’s not a no, but certainly not a yes.’ ”

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Hathaway asked for another audition, which brings her back to her sick pooch.

“The night before my audition, my dog decided to eat the hotel slipper, so she was up the whole night vomiting,” she says. “I slept maybe an hour. When I arrived at the interview, I was tired and wasn’t in a very good mood. I guess Julian realized that I wasn’t the bright, happy, smiley, untroubled girl from ‘The Princess Diaries.’ He offered me the role after that.”

Jarrold diplomatically says that he had forgotten all about the audition drama. “I am very glad she did it,” he says. “Annie is somebody who is able to access sort of a period side compared to some other actresses who do feel incredibly modern. It was really a fine balance to find somebody the audience could relate to and provide access into the world of the 18th century.”

“Becoming Jane,” which is based on Jon Spence’s book “Becoming Jane Austen,” revolves around young Austen’s possible love affair with Scottish attorney Thomas Lefroy (James Mc- Avoy), who many believe was the model for her “Pride and Prejudice” leading man, Mr. Darcy.

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Hathaway acknowledges that no one will ever know if the two had a harmless flirtation or a real love affair.

“We know she had a relationship with him,” she says. “Right now, it’s divided in the Jane Austen community. Jon Spence found information that suggested a two-year-long hidden affair and a trip to London, and their relationship was over after that. It’s conjecture and hearsay. It’s not that we were so pleased to create liberties, but we didn’t have any choice.”

She says that in her mind, the movie is not about whether this relationship inspired Austen, who died of cancer at 41, to write “Pride and Prejudice.”

“I think that’s missing the forest for the trees,” Hathaway explains. “We have taken a stab in trying to show Jane Austen’s influences -- to show what her immediate world was like, to show what dinner-party conversations were like and to show what expectations of love were like.”

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Needless to say, the British were quite taken back that an American actress had been hired to play their beloved Jane Austen.

“There was outrage,” Hathaway says. “You know, it sounds very self-serving for me to say this, but at this point I don’t really get the problem between Americans playing British and Brits playing Americans. At the end of the day, enough actors have proved it really makes no difference. I do understand the Brits feeling a certain ownership for Jane Austen, but Jane Austen more than anyone else has become the property of the world. She has meant so much to so many people.”

The ire subsided once the film was released in England.

“They begrudgingly accepted me,” Hathaway says. “From a Brit, that’s a love letter. Now apparently I’m an actress. Who knew?”

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Hathaway arrived in England a month before filming began to soak up the culture and work on her accent for several hours a day with a coach.

“Professionally, I have never given more to a role than this one,” she says. “This was the first time I really disappeared. I didn’t let Annie come out for two months -- sorry, I talk about myself in the third person -- but I let Jane’s personality traits be the dominant ones in my life. I stayed close to the accent.”

This devotion to Jane took its toll on the actress. After filming ended, Hathaway became so ill that she was bedridden for a week. She also was even more whippet-thin than usual because she encountered eating problems during the filming that she believes were due to either anxiety or wearing a tight corset. “I couldn’t keep anything down for a month.”

So even though “The Devil Wears Prada” became the biggest success of her career, she was too exhausted to fully enjoy the shoot.

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“If you look at the press pictures in ‘Devil Wears Prada,’ I look so thin and pale and sick. It took me the rest of the year to recover.”

susan.king@latimes.com


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