Published in the print and online version of Exit Weekly.
by Christina M. Hinke
Dec. 20, 2006
Once upon a time there was an author named Beatrix Potter. She lived with her parents and drew pictures of animals and wrote funny little stories. Her parents thought it was a silly occupation of her time, until one day she proved them wrong and became the best-selling author of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," first published in 1902. Today, her tales are still in print and are the best-selling children's books of all time. Another writer, though many people don't know her as such, is the apple-cheeked Renee Zellweger. She has had a secret passion for the written word since she learned how to write and has penned several books, none published, which she internally battles over whether or not to make public or keep to herself.
Zellweger has employed her love of writing through her latest on-screen character, Beatrix Potter. This magical biopic is part love story, part humanist story. It begins with an unmarried, 32-year-old Potter attempting to publish her "bunny book," as it's off-handedly termed by one of the publishing houses, in a day where women didn't go around having business meetings. In her second meeting with publisher Frederick Warne and Co. they decide to publish it, never thinking it worthy, but more of a means to keep their youngest brother, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), occupied. He is captivated by Potter's charming drawings. Soon they fall in love and get engaged, without the consent of her middle-class parents. The story also delves into Potter's commitment to preserve the land in the UK's Lake District, an enchanting mountainous valley area she summered at with her family.
Zellweger brings to life a cheerful, eccentric, opinionated, strong-willed lady that is Beatrix Potter. A more complex woman than many people might think about when reading tales concerning rabbits named Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter.
How has being a writer helped you with understanding the complexities and nuances of Beatrix Potter?
I don't think she's weird. I don't think it's strange at all that she speaks to her work [in the film, Beatrix talks to her animal drawings as she works] when she's in that creative place in her mind, when she's conjuring this magical world in her mind. It's not strange at all to me. I love her eccentricities. I think she's absolutely complicated in the most wonderful way.
Do you find yourself to be eccentric?
I had a lovely conversation with Ewan [McGregor] the other day about what is strange about myself and I wish I had something to blame it on, and then I thought, well, I'm an actress [laughs]. Now it all makes sense.
Why choose acting as a way to bring out your creativity?
A lot of creative people and actors need their medium, they need it; they are true artists. It's their basis of foundation, it's what helps them cope, and it's what channels their emotions. It gives them stability, it gives them purpose. I don't think I'm one of them. It's an important creative medium for me and it stops there. I don't know that acting is my first medium, it was more accidental. But it has become very important to me in my life and I do need it.
Who are some authors that have inspired your writing?
In terms of my own stuff, it changes. Charles Frazier, you can smell his words, unbelievable rich prose. I love African American writers and I like Southern writers. There are elements of the subculture that are exclusively rich, just historically. There is a musicality of Langston Hughes' work that jumps off the page that makes me need a pen - I need a pen, I need a pen. He's probably my favorite. There is just so much emotion. In Latin culture you have this passion of all elements of life. I find that the same with African American writers, there's just passion. I need a pen, I need a pen!
What was it about Potter's story that attracted you?
This is an important story, it's a beautiful story. It's just real. It's a human story. I think it's the most powerful kind of story to take advantage of the impact the medium can have, in terms of moving a person and being self aware in a way and recognizing the difference.
Why did you choose this film to be your first experience as an executive producer?
I didn't believe in how the script was being conceptualized on the page. I was afraid of it. I thought it was kind of silly. So I wanted to hear what Chris' [Noonan] feelings were and so many questions came up. I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to learn how to collaborate creatively in a different way and to participate on a more substantial level. Instead of just meddling with my opinion as an actor, I made it legal to have an opinion. In this case Chris and I got together and we sat on many couches, at many late hours, in many hotels, in many different parts of the UK. We threw everything on the table until the sun was coming up. It was fantastic; I enjoyed it very, very much.
What types of movies are you interested in making?
A movie that makes you question things, learn things and grow as a person. I know that if I feel like I've been there before I don't have much interest in repeating myself or going there again.
What do you do to escape from the daily grind?
[Shop for] these (she lifts her pant leg and points to her spiked heel, black leather boots). I go to the gym, I run, I physically get it out.
Many of today's film have a lot of violence in movies and are dealing with today's political standpoints and "Miss Potter" is charming and traditional. Are you finding it complex to market this film to a widely jaded public?
I don't think people are cynics. I think we're cynical about manipulation and things that are disingenuous, very cynical about manipulation. I'm not sure that it's necessarily true that we're cynical about simplicity. I think if things are honest, I think they're relatable. One of the things we discussed in the very beginning is that there is a very fine line there. This is not a woman who is overly sentimental. In a couple of scenes I discussed with Chris I would say, 'Please don't let me be corny, don't let me be schmaltzy.' He looked at me and he said, 'I don't do schmaltzy.' I think that if you're making a film that is a human story that people will connect with, they will connect with it. Whether or not it's simple is based on its truthfulness.
Director: Chris Noonan.
Cast: Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Bill Paterson, Lloyd Owen.
"Miss Potter" opens Dec. 29, 2006 in NY and L.A., Jan. 12, 2007 nationally.
Web site: http://www.misspottermovie.co.uk
Christina M. Hinke writes regular entertainment features for Exit. She also writes book reviews for Publisher's Weekly and writes a column for Picture. She has also written travel articles for Woman's Day and New Jersey's own Gateway Guide.
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