Bright Star (both written and directed by Jane Campion)highlights an unconventional romance between British poet, John Keats, and the young Fanny Brawne. While Keats didn’t live past 25, he’s still remembered as one of Britain’s most beloved writers, and his most acclaimed work was allegedly inspired by Ms. Brawne during the finals years of his life.
Check out our interviews with Jane Campion and Ben Wishaw below…
What attracted you to the role of John Keats?
Ben Whishaw: I really, really learned to love him as a man and as a human being. He was someone of immense sensitivity. But also someone with a kind of robustness and kind of common sense and kind of straight forwardness. Kind of ethereal, but also of the earth. That really appealed to me. The thing about the letters is that he was just so human, so he experienced every kind of emotion very intensely. He had a jealousy and a capacity to lose his temper and be furious, but he could be very funny. Some of these are elements the film doesn’t go into, but they were exciting to discover.
Talk about the pressure that came along with playing a non-fictional character…
BW: I don’t prefer having that pressure, but for some reason a few of these characters have come my way. I think you have to be as prepared as you can possibly be, then let go of a lot of stuff. It has to be an imaginative exercise. I mean, we don’t know what he did day to day, there’s a lot recorded in letters, but there’s a lot that we don’t know. We don’t know particularly what he looked like, there’s no video footage. We don’t know how he sounded. So there is a license, a poetic license. But it’s also really great to not have to invent things – I didn’t have to invent a biography for the character. Sometimes real life is much more peculiar and interesting than what your imagination can invent.
Were you nervous about delivering an honest and adequate portrayal of Keat’s story?
Jane Campion: The story is unknown to most people. What we have at the heart of it is completely accurate which are his love letters – first degree evidence. That’s what really took my attention, that I could be reading what she read and access that intimacy. I guess in some ways I fell in love with them because of their courage and what they went through and I felt protective towards them. I also knew that it would be my understanding of it – I barely know who I am let alone who anyone else is. What you’re doing is always creating fiction, even if you apparently have a fact. I was telling the ballad of Keats and Fanny in a way, that their life story inspired me, because it was an account of the idea of that tragic, pure first love.
With that in mind, how did you prepare for the role?
BW: I certainly didn’t know any of the details of his life and I really didn’t know about his poetry either – so, for me, it was a journey of discovery. A journey into the unknown. So much has been written, which I’ve scratched the surface of. You realize that everybody has a slightly different take on who he was. And that gives you a sense that your take is valid as well.
I spoke with a poet when I was preparing, and we were reading some of Keats’ poetry together and discussing him, and this poet said there’s no way that Keats could have possibly been this delicate sort of sickly person lying about all the time. To produce that amount of work he must have been furiously alive and active and full of vitality. He produced so much but was dead by the age of 25, when you remember that fact it’s truly astonishing.
Keats’ relationship with Mr. Brown is arguably spiked with a homosexual vibe. Can you attest to that?
BW: I don’t personally think there was anything on Keats’ part, I don’t think there was any evidence in the letters that that was the case. I think much more than today men formed these “boys clubs” and the poetry was a male activity – so there was very intense male bonding. I don’t think it was homo-erotic or homosexual, just strong and defining. They’re best friends, they hang out all the time, they write poetry together, and suddenly there’s this girl. He doesn’t have the attention all the time.
How did you land the part?
BW: Jane sent me a note with her script saying, ‘I’ve seen some pictures of you and I heard you did Hamlet in London and I think you might be interesting in this role, we should meet.’ I wrote her an e-mail back saying that I loved it, told her what I understood about Keats from the screenplay and that my imagination had sort of been ignited. I wanted to know more. Then we did an audition in London. It was fairly straight forward, accept about 15 minutes in I was reading with an actress who was auditioning for the role of Fanny, and I became utterly convinced that Jane was interested in her and not me and that the whole audition was about this actress. So I remember thinking, ‘oh well, fuck it!’ Maybe that’s why I was relaxed or resigned to failure.
What kind of impression of Keats would you like to leave on the audience?
BW: I suppose, what I feel about Keats is that he was a very rare human being, a very good person. He had a kind of nobility about him of spirit and a generosity. Jane talks about him almost as if he were an angel or divine being. He was very human but he had some quality of divinity. I’d like the audience to be aware of this kind of capacity to channel something higher than himself. When you look at the manuscripts of the poems, like “Ode To A Nightingale” – that he wasn’t writing laboriously, but at high speed, like he was possessed.
What inspired your decision to tell the story through Ms. Brawne’s point of view?
JC: I didn’t want to do a bio-pic…Baby Keats, etc. I knew that if we started like that it’d become diluted. I came up with the idea that if I just started with the first day Fanny Brawne met Keats and told it from her point of view, (because history is not often remembered that way) but as a woman I’m always seeing things female-centric. What’s the girl doing here? How does she think? Natural for women I guess.
What was the nature of your casting process?
JC: I think we ended up having a special opportunity that doesn’t happen all that often when you need to fund a film these days. It was kind of clear that Keira Knightley, all the usual suspects, had just done period and weren’t interested in doing period films. We were put in a position that we could actually just cast the best people. So it’s a sort of finance nightmare and a director’s dream to audition and find out who’s really in love with the roles. Abbie Cornish was a surprise to us. Not that we weren’t aware of her work, we were. She’d responded very strongly to the script. She said something, which I think shows you how smart she is, she said ‘When I read the script I thought I could feel it breathing, it was alive in a way I don’t normally feel about a film’ – and she worked really hard on her audition and did a really transcendent job on it. She became impossible to ignore.
Many directors argue that with romance films, you can have the best actors – but if there’s no chemistry, the relationship won’t transcend honestly…
JC: I really can’t figure out what chemistry is. Obviously people are saying it’s some sort of mystery between people. I’ve had people who are actors in romantic roles that don’t particularly like each other – it doesn’t seem to make any difference. I think it’s the story that contains the key. With these two, they hadn’t met before rehearsals. There was one key moment, Abby and Ben saw each other and went ‘Yes. We like each other.’ Ben isn’t the controlling alpha male type, and Abby’s got a mystery about her, where she could be so strong and not so obedient. Abby has to feel it’s correct before she will do it.
There was a moment when we were looking at the scene where Ben touches her for the first time at Christmas, and I was reading it around a little table, we weren’t really acting it out. But Ben is very bold, we got to that bit, and before she knew where she was he had reached out and grabbed her hand and I just saw the flush. I realized that it was such a useful moment for her. We felt the moment.
Bright Star is currently playing in theaters nationwide.