...and Bret McKenzie who shows some impressive chops as a romantic leading man
But the star of Austenland has to be Flight of the Concords veteran and Oscar-winning songwriter for The Muppets, Bret McKenzie.
'Austenland' features unlikely pair, unlikely film
In "Austenland," Jane Austen meets "Flight of the Conchords."
Actors Bret McKenzie and Keri Russell at the time of release of "Austenland." (Photo by Steve Appleford / August 7, 2013)
By Katherine Tulich
August 23, 2013 | 3:48 p.m.
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.
"Bret [McKenzie, who costars in Austenland], and I were always invading each other's space and bringing out our most awkward selves around one another."
Bret McKenzie: Conchord flies into Prejudice
Bret McKenzie, one half of the Kiwi comedy duo, is doing a Darcy in a new rom-com written and directed by Mormons, he tells Gill Pringle
GILL PRINGLE FRIDAY 20 SEPTEMBER 2013
“I 'm not a crazy Jane Austen fan,” shrugs Kiwi comic actor Bret McKenzie, determined not to lose his credibility despite co-starring with Jane Seymour in the Jane Austen-themed regency romp that is Austenland.
“I was more of a Brontë fan. There weren't enough moors in the Austen books. I thought Wuthering Heights was miles better than Jane Austen, certainly a lot less repressed.”
Ask him if he's even read any of Jane Austen's novels, he has a quick punch-line: “I just read a book by Jane Austen Powers: Jane Austen has a super-power bonnet that she uses to solves crime,” quips McKenzie, best known as one half of TV comic duo Flight of the Conchords with long time stand-up partner Jemaine Clement.
If repartee is McKenzie's stock-in-trade, then his Best Original Song Oscar last year for “Man or Muppet” – featured in The Muppets movie – further cemented his serious reputation as a go-to songwriter.
When we meet over tea at the Windows Lounge in Beverly Hills, he's just completed music and lyrics for the hotly anticipated Muppets Most Wanted live-action sequel, which promises to be a far edgier proposition, starring Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey.
“Did you know Ricky Gervais was a singer in the Eighties? It's great because he's a really good singer and does a fantastic duet with a frog.
“This one is a lot less saccharine than the first,” he assures. Presently featuring alongside Seymour, Keri Russell and Jennifer Coolidge in Austenland, McKenzie tells of his surprise upon arriving at the film's Bath location to discover it was a Mormon production.
“People probably don't realise that,” he says of what is an entirely female Mormon enterprise, produced by Stephenie “Twilight” Meyer, written by Shannon Hale, and directed by Jerusha Hess.
“To be honest I'm pretty impressed by the Mormons. They're just really cool although I think I met the coolest Mormons. It wasn't like working on a Scientology film where they're secretly trying to screen my calls. Next time I'll do a Scientology film! But I love how Stephenie Meyer kind of heads up the Hollywood Mormon mafia. I'm making that up...” he laughs. “But I didn't realise it was a Mormon film until I got there and found everyone was a Mormon. When you think about it, the Austen world and the Mormon world are perfectly aligned because there is a sexual repression and the Mormons wear long dresses which is quite Jane Austen-worldy.”
Once on set, he admits to being a little scared of Jane Seymour: “I was intimidated to meet her because she's so famous, and is almost like royalty. She's real old school – from a whole other generation of Hollywood and she's got great stories and anecdotes. She was a trip, man.”
Unfortunately, he had to forgo Seymour's invitation to tea at her castle: “I had my kids with me and my son was 10 weeks old so it was not a good time and I couldn't really go out very much but she's a social bully – forcing the cast to go out and visit her castle in Bath. I don't think I'll ever meet anyone else who owns their own castle.”
While he's no Austen fan, he does confesses to the odd romantic gesture. “When I got engaged, I buried the ring in the sand for my wife to find on a beach at the top of the South Island. I drew a heart shape around it so she couldn't miss it,” he says of his college sweetheart Hannah Clarke, whom he finally wed four years ago, the couple now parents of two tots.
“So I think I am a little romantic, definitely more than pragmatic,” offers McKenzie, 37, who is still based in his New Zealand hometown of Wellington.
“I think that's quite a Kiwi thing to do, to be together for a long time before getting married, whereas in America everyone gets married in about a year or two and then you have a few marriages.
“I find LA very business-obsessed and NZ is not, so that's really refreshing. In LA everyone is constantly talking about films and if you go to a cafe in LA people are sitting there writing screenplays, so its healthy to get out of LA.”
He had a similar practical approach to his decision to walk away from Flight of the Conchords, at the peak of its success: “We weren't interested in doing it any more. They offered us quite a lot of money but it wasn't really about the money at that point. I think we're old enough to know that money isn't going to solve the problems.
“If we were younger we probably would have been bullied into it which I think a lot of people end up doing, and we didn't want the show to get worse. Often the first couple of seasons are great and then they go off the boil, in fact, most shows. We grew up with the British model where most TV shows are only two or three seasons of six. That's when the world starts to run out of ideas I think, but the corporate American machine has managed to create a system where you can keep it going for years,” says McKenzie, who met comedy partner Clement almost 20 years ago when they attended Victoria University of Wellington and became flatmates. Honing their act, they later took to the road performing around Australia, New Zealand, US and UK. Their TV show may no longer exist, but the fans have not forgotten: “Usually people ask, 'where's Jemaine?' or they yell 'band meeting!'”
Introduced to the arts early on, McKenzie's father Peter was an actor/singer and his mother a ballet teacher. “I thought I was going to be a professional ballet dancer until I was about 12. I've got some dangerous moves – but I can't do them here! My mum was a big influence on me because my parents were separated so we lived with her although our dad was around,” says McKenzie, who has two brothers. “We had lots of artists staying at our house and we were the kids ushering at small productions so we saw shows night after night. They had all these ballet productions with kids and it was really easy for the boys because there'd be like 300 girls trying to get the parts and only three guys, so the guys always got the jobs!”
Making his big screen debut 12 years ago in a uncredited role as an elf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, introduced to the franchise by his father Peter McKenzie who had the larger role of Elendil, Bret recently returned to the Hobbit fold, playing Lindir in last year's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
“My dad trains racehorses. He's got a real gambling streak in him which you need if you're in the entertainment industry. You never know when its gonna happen.”
'Austenland' opens on Friday
Faith wrote:My favorite part was at the end when Nobley accused Martin of being a Kiwi actor and then saying "What? You couldn't get a part in The Hobbit?"
Nancy wrote:Austenland had 8 people (this was during the day on a weekday), and they all laughed louder than I did, which if you know me is truly a feat.
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