IT’S been a circuitous journey for Jennifer Ehle, from costume drama heroine to top Spook - but that has a lot to do with an unscheduled side trip to Scotland, writes Claire Black
Jennifer ehle is unusual. She seems absolutely at ease with stardom – not really that interested or exercised by the stuff that often gets people hot under the collar. She’s funny and thoughtful, but there’s also a sense that when it comes to her career she’s not really that introspective, or, dare I say it, interested.
When I suggest her career path has been “idiosyncratic”, for such a revered actress, she prefers “eccentric”, so that’s the description I plump for. “Oh I love that word, plump,” says Ehle, sounding genuinely delighted. “Yes, let’s plump for that.”
Perhaps the best thing about Ehle as an interviewee is the number of times she says, “I don’t know.” How did you get the part in Spooks: The Greater Good, the film we’re ostensibly here to discuss? “I have absolutely no idea.” Why do you describe your career as strange? “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” The same phrase three times in a row, with a slightly different intonation each time. The truth is she does know, or at least she has some inkling. But she seems to prefer to have a giggle. It’s very likeable. No false authority. No insistence upon getting everything absolutely right and clear and sorted out.
This couldn’t be further from Dame Geraldine Maltby, the character she plays in Spooks. Deputy director general of MI5, Dame Geraldine is a woman with a world-class poker face. She is all restraint and steeliness and inscrutability. “I love her,” Ehle says. “I love the whole thing. It’s a rollercoaster and a lot of fun.” She must be very different to you I say – I’ve glanced at Ehle’s Twitter feed and inscrutable and steely aren’t the words that spring to mind.
“I don’t know,” she says again. “Aren’t we just all bundles of contradictions? I know I am. It was fun playing somebody with a still surface, but with eddies and currents running underneath. The landscape is constantly changing plot-wise in terms both of what the characters know and what the audience knows, which is fun.”
For the first time in a while I’ve been interested in what’s going to happen nextJennifer Ehle
Without giving too much away about Spooks’ big screen incarnation, if you liked the TV programme that ran for a decade, you’ll like the movie. You’ll enjoy seeing old faithfuls like Sir Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) looking concerned and Tim McInnerny being a smug git as Director General Oliver Mace. You’ll probably enjoy another newcomer to the franchise, Kit Harington, eschewing his Game Of Thrones scowling for some badass spy scowling instead. With a host of foreign locations and plenty of spy shenanigans, it feels like a mega episode of the TV show. “I think it’s a very high compliment to say it’s like a bumper Spooks episode,” says Ehle, “because Spooks is great.”
Here’s a surprising thing, for those who will always remember Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet opposite Colin Firth’s soggy-shirted Mr Darcy – she speaks with an American accent. She was, in fact, born in North Carolina. Her childhood was peripatetic, she moved extensively with her American father, the writer John Ehle, and her English mother, the actress Rosemary Harris, from place to place on both sides of the Atlantic, attending both English and American schools. She went to drama school in London and lived in the city on and off during her twenties, but she has lived in the US since 2001. The 45-year-old is married to writer Michael Ryan, and they have two children aged 12 and six.
Ehle has since made a well-regarded career for herself which spans American TV and movies, with the odd award-winning appearance on stage too (she has won two Tony awards on Broadway, for The Real Thing in 2000 and in 2007 for The Coast Of Utopia). But we possibly haven’t seen as much of that definitive Jane Austen heroine as we’d have liked, as Ehle seems absolutely to have picked her own path.
She laughs. “I guess a path is what’s there when you look behind you, but I never looked ahead and planned one.” What follows is a lengthy chunk of hesitation, umm-ing and ah-ing and erms. “I don’t know, I don’t know if I feel established in anything but I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. I guess that’s just about being older, I guess things just get established if you do them long enough.” She laughs. “If you keep doing something for 20 years then something becomes established.” What she will concede is that, “it’s unusual and I really like that about it”.
What Ehle means is that she hasn’t really followed a trajectory. “I think I’m quite glad about that. I like what I get to do and I like that I don’t have to do it all the time and I like that I don’t feel defined by it. Being an actor wouldn’t be amongst the first words I would use if I had to declare or describe myself. I’m a babbler, that’s what I’d say. I’m just babbling now.”
She’s not. What she says makes perfect sense. After she won a Bafta for playing Elizabeth Bennet, Ehle didn’t capitalise on it by doing a whole load of TV, building her profile and securing ever bigger, more mainstream parts. She upped and went to the RSC for a season. She’s never, it seems, been intentionally building a career. That she has one is almost an accident, which is our loss, as she’s a really fine actor who we wish we had got to see more of. There have been supporting roles in The Ides Of March and Zero Dark Thirty, The King’s Speech and even Fifty Shades Of Grey. Let’s hope Spooks is a turning point.
“I just go choice by choice,” she says. “The most important thing is making sure that my real life feels right and good and full, happy and fed and wonderful. That’s the defining thing, I suppose.”
She has, she says, always had a “complicated” relationship with acting. In fact, there was a time, in her early 30s, when she’d had enough. “I stepped away for about three years,” she says. “I had been working quite a lot through my 20s and had been quite transient. When I met my husband I wanted to pay attention to that. I knew what my priority was.
“Where are you from?” Ehle asks me suddenly. I suspect that she is moving me away from questions about her personal life, but it turns out she has an important connection to Scotland. “I got married in Skye,” she says. How was the weather is obviously the only question to ask. She hoots with laughter. “It was beautiful. I lived in Scotland for three months and I never saw any weather that didn’t suit Scotland, that wasn’t spectacularly appropriate for the landscape. I loved it so much.” I assume that as she stayed so long, she was filming in Scotland, but I’m wrong.
“We were planning to get married in the States in the autumn of 2001. We came over to London to decide what to do about my flat in London – to rent it or sell it.” They decided to sell and were due to fly back to America on 12 September.
“After 9/11 we were camping out in the almost completely empty London flat in front of the television like everyone else.” A couple of days later they went out for lunch and while they were out the flat caught fire. It was badly damaged. “We weren’t quite sure what to do, there was a lot going on at once.”
At dinner with Jeremy Northam (with whom she’d worked on Possession) and a friend of his who it turned out was from Blairgowrie, they described their predicament. “We asked this friend if he knew anywhere in Scotland where we could go and wait while the insurance and all that was sorted out. He called his mum. Then he said, ‘Can you afford £65 a week?’ and we said yes, and he said. ‘Well my mum knows a place…’ The next day we got on the train.”
They lived in Blairgowrie for the next few months and while there decided to get married on Skye. “We had to post our banns in Portree and then we got married in the registry office. It was wonderful. Perfect. Our time in Scotland was perfect.
“Every day I got some cookbooks from the library in Blairgowrie. I’d never really done much cooking, but we’d pick out what I’d make and then we’d walk into town to the grocery store and the butcher and the fishmonger, buy whatever it was, then I’d go home and cook and practise. We ate well and walked a lot. Our landlords called us the dormice because we were so in love and so happy we were hunkered down and they didn’t see us very much. It was very romantic and lovely.”
I’m now starting to really understand what she means by having a life outside of acting is her priority. “Exactly,” she says. “But it will give you a very eccentric trajectory. But that’s OK. It’s what’s happening around the work that’s most interesting to me. I do love the work. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with it but it’s in a really good place at the moment and I’m really enjoying it.”
What didn’t she enjoy about acting? Why did she step away? Her answer isn’t entirely clear. On the one hand, she loves the storytelling and working as part of an ensemble. On the other, she had two babies to whom she “attached ferociously” and working didn’t much appeal. “I’ve come back into it quite slowly over the past ten years through having babies. I found it very hard to be a working mother when they were very young. I’ve been very grateful that I’m in a profession in which I don’t have to work continually, I can take breaks. Just now I feel a little bit more that maybe it’s getting to be time to show them a different kind of working mother, to work more, to make choices not just of things that take me away from home for a very short time but to pick things that allow me to be creatively satisfied as well.”
Which characters have been creatively satisfying? “There are some characters who move you more than others. I’ve been very fortunate to play four of Tom Stoppard’s women on stage and I’ve been very attached to them. Still. Especially the three from The Coast Of Utopia but that might be because that was most recent.”
Actors may get attached to some characters but audiences get attached to them too. We all know that sometimes that’s not an easy predicament. I hesitate to tell her, but when I knew I’d be talking to Ehle, no matter how good she is in Spooks, my heart leapt because I, along with millions of others, love her Elizabeth Bennet.
“That’s not a bad thing,” she says. “I mean my goodness what a wonderful person to get lumbered with. I can’t think of any character from literature I’d rather have people associate me with. I don’t have any weariness about that at all. I’m very grateful.”
I wonder when she last saw an episode. I ask because it feels that on an almost weekly basis, when I flick through the channels on the TV, I come across that version of Pride And Prejudice. She laughs. “That’s a bit of an unfair question,” she says. “It was definitely over 15 years ago.”
What? How could anyone live without watching it for so long? I tell her that it’s on all the time here and I watch it every chance I get. I can’t help it. “I’ve had people tell me that they’ve been really sick and that’s what gave them pleasure,” she says. “It’s wonderful. How great to be a part of something that people find comforting. It’s nice.”
There is a sense that Ehle is on the verge of a new chapter in her career, although I’m sure she’d object to me describing it in such a way. There’s still no plan after all. What she will say is that Spooks marked the beginning of a new feeling about work.
“For the first time in a while I’ve been very interested in what’s going to happen next. I didn’t have that feeling of creative excitement before. Amazing things have happened – doing Contagion with Steven Soderbergh and Zero Dark Thirty with Kathryn Bigelow, being a part of Spooks. I’ve had amazing things happen but I feel now an excitement looking forward that I haven’t felt for a while. I think we’re ready as a family for me to step away a little more and explore that.”
It will be a welcome return.
• Spooks: The Greater Good is in cinemas from 8 May
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