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Welcome to the club, guys

Times Staff Writer

The men of the romantic comedy “The Jane Austen Book Club,” which opens Friday, felt a different vibe on the set during production.

And for good reason. The majority of the cast was women, as was the writer-director.

“I was around women most of the time when we were on set and during rehearsals,” recalls actor Kevin Zegers. “I was not disappointed, needless to say! It was definitely the most laid-back movie I have ever done.”

Based on Karen Joy Fowler’s bestseller, “The Jane Austen Book Club” revolves around six members of a book club, each of whom is assigned to lead a discussion of a book by the beloved British novelist.

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Spanning six months -- they discuss one book a month -- the five female and one male club members find that their lives begin to parallel Austen’s own plots of pride, prejudice, sense, sensibility and love.

The primary focus of the film is on the five women in the group: Bernadette (Kathy Baker), a six-time married free spirit; Jocelyn (Maria Bello), a confirmed bachelorette who raises Rhodesian Ridgebacks; Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), Jocelyn’s friend who is going through a painful divorce; Allegra (Maggie Grace), Sylvia’s lesbian daughter; and Prudie (Emily Blunt), an unhappily married high school French teacher. But the four male characters aren’t given short shrift.

“It’s definitely a chick flick,” says Zegers, who plays Trey, a high school student to whom Prudie finds herself drawn. “But the men have to be equally as strong or else the balance of the film would have been thrown out.”

“The men are every bit as dimensional as the women,” echoes writer-director Robin Swicord, attributing that fact to Austen herself. “She has types in her novels -- the good parson, the relentless cad and the quiet man. She has her own kind of iconographic men, but equally they are very fleshed out in her books, easily as fleshed out as the women.”

So Swicord set out to find “really strong actors who had some theater background, were well-trained and who would hold up their end in the big ensemble scenes.”

For the role of Daniel, Sylvia’s husband, who leaves her after 25 years of marriage and three children, Swicord says she only had Jimmy Smits in mind.

“He has the stage background and he’s very soulful,” she says. “I knew for the character of Daniel, he starts the film behaving so badly he had to have something that drew you to him. He is one of these guys who is wearing his heart on his sleeve.”

Smits is pleased Daniel turned out to be such a flesh-and-blood character. He had plenty of discussions with Swicord and Brenneman before production began so he could create a “full” character on screen.

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“It was all about sitting down and having lunches and talking about relationships,” says Smits. “Robin really made time -- not only prior to the whole shooting process, but every day there was a chunk of time before we started to reacquaint ourselves to where we were.”

For Grigg, the only male member of the book club, Swicord was determined to cast British actor Hugh Dancy and called him immediately. But Dancy was committed to another women’s film, “Evening.”

“His dates would conflict with ours,” Swicord says. “I went out to another actor. But I don’t think either of us felt it was a perfect fit.”

So Swicord called up Dancy’s agent on the off-chance he would finish his role on “Evening” early. The stars must have been aligned because Dancy literally walked off the set of “Evening” one day and onto the set of “Book Club” the next.

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But don’t ask Dancy what it was like to do two “chick flicks” in a row. He loathes the term.

“I don’t think of the film that way,” he says. “I think about it as a script and a story. The exigencies of selling a movie today -- people can make intelligent, thoughtful movies and then think about ‘how can we simplify this movie to the highest possible degree so we can sell it?’ -- and they end up selling it short.”

A “chick flick,” he says, “implies a kind of frothiness, a surface quality and not really, in a way, related to life. These [‘Book Club’ characters] are people living real lives and facing real challenges.”

A longtime fan of Austen -- he admits to reading “Pride and Prejudice” more than once -- Dancy says that any man who thinks her novels are only for women simply hasn’t read them. “She blends incredibly well the feeling of what women and men are like and the feeling of what women and men would like each other to be,” he says.

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Rounding out the male side of the cast is Marc Blucas, who plays Dean, Prudie’s sports fanatic husband.

Swicord says she paid attention to Blunt’s reactions during auditions for the roles of Trey and Dean, watching to see which actors had chemistry with her.

When Blunt and Blucas read together, Swicord asked them to improvise their big fight in the film. “They began arguing and their fight was the most like a married fight I could have ever imagined,” says Swicord. Blucas was hired on the spot.

Zegers won his role by making Blunt blush during their reading. “I made her feel really uncomfortable, and obviously in a good way because they hired me,” he says. “My character is obviously intelligent and well-spoken and knows how to push a woman’s buttons.

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“Just getting to know Emily on the set, I sort of figured how to make her blush at the drop of a hat. Even in her personal life” -- Blunt dates singer Michael Bublé -- “I could poke into that and she would get clammy. I tried to use that as much as possible.”

He’s not offering examples, however. “She would call me and rip me a new one if I told,” Zegers says, laughing.

--

susan.king@latimes.com

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