After cutting her teeth on a couple shoe-string independent films that were barely noticed outside her native Australia, Frances O'Connor is on her way to notoriety, at least, and possibly real stardom, as Fanny Price, the heroine of "Mansfield Park," the latest Jane Austen novel to be put to film.
The potential for stardom seems to be part of the aura of Austen adaptations -- look what it did for Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow. But why notoriety?
Well, this Fanny Price is not exactly as Austen wrote her in 1814. Writer-director Patricia Rozema envisioned the character as something more than the now-familiar, prim and romantically acquiescent Austen archetypes. Rozema has created a hybrid Fanny, based partly on the character from the book, but largely on Austen herself.
"I think the character in the novel is kind of a blank page that everyone imprints whatever they want onto -- which I think is a kind of comment of the women of the time," O'Connor said on a recent visit to San Francisco. "I think (the character I play) starts off as the Fanny Price in the book but she blossoms in some ways."
In preparing to write her screenplay, Rozema read reams of Austen's personal papers -- journals, letters and the like -- a task O'Connor duplicated when she was cast, learning all about the author in order to instill her spirit in the role. But ironically, O'Connor didn't cotton to Austen's works, especially "Mansfield Park," until recently.
"I read it when I was like 18, and I hated it," she confessed. "I actually didn't like Jane Austen. I was more into the Brontes. They were so wild and passionate. I thought there was something a bit tame about Austen."
The outgoing, wholesome-looking actress (she's the kind of girl who doesn't get hit on in bars because she's more a keeper than a one-night stand) doesn't mind laughing at herself over such childhood misgivings. "Re-reading...the text, I think I missed a lot. The irony, the wit and just the intelligence. They're such smart novels and they're so carefully observed about human nature."
Fanny isn't the only character revamped by Rozema for this film version. Henry Crawford, the heroine's most determined suitor and a habitual seducer has been given additional depth, says American actor Alessandro Nivola (Pollux Troy in "Face/Off"), who accompanied O'Connor on her trip.
"I was grateful for the complexity the film script brought to him," Nivola said. "I think in the book he's more of a traditional cad, (but) in the film he...also gets to be romantic."
The story of "Mansfield Park" features a poor but predictably resolute heroine living with wealthy relations at their country estate. Relegated to near servant status, she observes from a distance (at first) the politics of courting and marriage, remarking with sarcasm on such proceedings in letters home. In the film Fanny is also something of an author on the sly, making her a celluloid symbol of the intelligence, independence and bridled frustration Austen must have felt herself in the sexist Regency era.
"The frustration and pain of not being able to express yourself that way manifests itself in the way that these relationships play out," Nivola said, speaking of both Fanny and Henry's social coercion. "Bringing them into the modern world is really difficult in that sense because people now don't have that kind of restraint."
Restraint of a different kind was O'Connor's only real complaint about working on a period piece like "Mansfield Park."
"You in a corset for 14 hours a day," she laughs, "and basically it means you're not getting as much oxygen to your brain!"
Other than the restrictive costumes, though, both actors agree the film was a very comfortable experience. Nivola tells a story about driving the wardrobe people crazy by scuffing his boots in pick-up soccer games with the crew during breaks in filming, and while this wasn't exactly a big Hollywood production, O'Connor was just happy to be a party to a film with a measurable budget.
"The first film I did, we didn't even have trailers. We had, like, a lecture hall basically, to get changed in," she smiled at the memory. "So (this felt like) a graduation."
But most of all, O'Connor said, it was a learning experience submerging herself in the mind set of a period piece.
"You get to be in a world that is immediately removed from your own existence," she said. "That's just really interesting, I think, as an actor. And it's very romantic."
Whether the future holds more corseted roles for O'Connor, she can't say yet. But if Hollywood comes calling with a "Titanic" costume piece like it did for Winslet after "Sense and Sensibility," don't be surprised to see her becoming another actress for whom Jane Austen was a springboard to fame and fortune.
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