'Austenland' features unlikely pair, unlikely film

It may not seem like your typical rom-com duo: Keri Russell, known as a clandestine Russian spy in FX's retro thriller “The Americans,” and Bret McKenzie of New Zealand's comic-music duo, “Flight of the Conchords.” Put them both in regency costumes in a faux British amusement park devoted to Jane Austen fanatics, and things are bound to get a little freaky.

That's the premise of the new film “Austenland,” directed by Jerusha Hess, the co-screenwriter of “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Gentlemen Broncos.” Based on the book by Shannon Hale, Russell plays a plain Jane unable to sustain a relationship while absorbed in her time-warp fantasies of romance and ruffles in Jane Austen books.

Her home is a shrine to Colin Firth's portrayal of the dashing Mr. Darcy from the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice,” complete with life-size cut-outs of the actor in costume and pillows and throws emblazoned with “I (heart) Darcy” symbols. She blows her life savings on a full-emersion experience at a British resort devoted to role-playing Austen where male actors are hired to fulfill guests' romantic fantasies.

“It started with a lot of giggling about British men in britches,” says Hess, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hale and makes her directing debut. “I wanted to do something different and this is unashamedly a girl's movie.”

“Twilight” author Stephanie Meyer produced the movie under her Fickle Fish Films banner. “It's not just about Austen fans; everyone has a fandom, some world that they would love to go role-play in,” Meyer says. “We would all like to go to a version of our favorite theme park.”

For Russell, it was a welcome break from the more intense roles — including in the horror thriller “Dark Skies” and the upcoming sci-fi sequel, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” — she has been playing lately. “I knew it would be fun and poppy, and knowing what Jerusha had done in the past, I knew she would make it weird and specific and funky and I think that's what she achieved,” says Russell.

For McKenzie, who was been spending his “Conchords” break time writing songs for “The Muppets” cinema re-boot (including last year's Academy Award-winning song “Man or Muppet”), it was an offer too good to refuse: playing a Kiwi actor hired to romance the coiffed and corseted women. “It's weird to watch myself do a romantic role. Acting is not really something I have been pursuing, but I did like dressing up in piratey costumes,” he deadpans.

“We didn't have anyone to fill that spot so it was nice to go with a non-actor and someone who is not typically a hunk,” says Hess.” Brett is funny and charming and has his own fan base.”

Teamed again for a recent all-day L.A. press day, Russell can barely contain her laughter, as one joke roles after another between them. “It was like that on set,” she says, as they both reminisce on awkward kissing scenes.

“It was all new to me, but you were used to this, right?” McKenzie asks Russell.

“Sure, I was on ‘Felicity,' [and] she was constantly kissing someone,” says Russell.

“The worse thing is Jerusha couldn't bear to watch. It didn't exactly fill me with confidence,” quips McKenzie.

While filming HBO's “Flight of the Conchords” series, McKenzie was more used to improvising than to following the script. He was in good company with “Austenland” co-star Jennifer Coolidge, playing a loud, buxom, rich American who comes more for the costumes and men than for any real Austen experience.

“My favorite thing was to make Keri crack,” says McKenzie. “She comes from a more scripted background, while for me a script is just an outline. I would just throw all these lines at her and she would look at me in horror and then go straight back to the script, even if it didn't make any sense. After a few days, she learned to roll with it.”

“I was really just hanging on for dear life, as they are just riffing with you in scenes,” says Russell. “It was nerve-racking because they are so fast on their feet. You just hope you don't mess up the moment.”

One of the film's most outrageous scenes was a music video version of Nelly's “Hot in Here,” with cast members in Regency garb dancing to the song. “I was so embarrassed and nervous,” says Russell.

“But weren't you in that Mickey Mouse Club with Justin Timberlake?” McKenzie asks, referring to Russell's first television appearance at 15 as part of the All-New Mickey Mouse Club on the Disney Channel (along with future stars Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera).

“Yes, I guess you could say I was rekindling that, but I don't think I will be doing a rap album with Nelly any time soon,” says Russell.

“I thought you would be more confident because you have all that music video experience,” adds McKenzie. “I think wearing those britches makes you nervous, whatever you are doing.”

Russell was also six months pregnant with second child Willa at the time of filming. “We had these stretchy corsets but it was a little creepy doing romantic scenes, getting close and rubbing your pregnant belly against them,” she says.

“I recall there was a lot of snacking in between scenes,” adds McKenzie.

“Well, I was lucky you could hide a whole suitcase under some of those dresses,” Russell says.

While McKenzie is returning to “Flight of the Conchords” with a national tour beginning in August as part of the Oddball comedy festival, Russell will be back to her role in FX's “The Americans,” with a second season beginning production in October.

“Do you wear bonnets in that?” asks McKenzie.

“That might be a little hard as we are undercover,” says Russell.

“I am actually trying to get Keri interested in a new project of mine which will incorporate her Jane Austen and spy skills,” says McKenzie. “It's called ‘Jane Austen Powers.'”

“Austenland” opened this weekend at The Playhouse in Pasadena.


KATHERINE TULICH writes about movies and pop culture for Marquee.

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