Jessica Biel still has a lot to prove. At least to herself.
After becoming a fixture on the TV show “7th Heaven,” Biel segued to a Hollywood movie career becoming a bigger star with flicks like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Blade: Trinity.” But it’s clear she wanted more respect, not necessarily more pretty young thing roles. She got that break with Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist” in 2006 where critics uniformly praised her performance more than co-star Edward Norton’s. Unfortunately a flood of premiere prestige picture parts didn’t follow, but she did get one she was incredibly passionate about: the role of Larita Whittaker in Stephan Elliott’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s “Easy Virtue.”
While “Virtue” has already opened in many European countries after its debut at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, the well-reviewed comedy is finally making it to the States this month. Obviously proud of the picture, Biel took some time to talk to the press in Los Angeles and admitted the role was a big opportunity she fought for.
“This woman is so interesting and complicated and vulnerable and strong and all the things that you dream of in a character or at least I dream of,” Biel says. “And I don’t get many of these opportunities. I don’t think anybody gets many of these opportunities. I just wanted to take advantage of it. I knew it could be something really special in the sense that we would make a great movie and we did.”
Based on Noel Coward’s classic play, “Virtue” follows an impromptu married couple John and Larita Whittaker heading to the British countryside to meet John’s parents (played by Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas). His mother is horrified that Larita is an American let alone a professional race car driver. With John facing pressure to assist in running the family’s estate, the couple face troubles from a family that’s less liberal then they’d like to believe. Honest to its origins, it’s an intriguing mix of drama and comedy set amongst a 1930s culture clash that still has relevance today. And as the only yankee amongst the cast, Biel said she could completely relate to her character.
“You do feel like the outsider. You can’t help it. You’re the ‘American.” You don’t know what a crumpet is, y’know? You’re sticking out like a sore thumb,” Biel says. But, she ads that working in the U.K. was “invigorating and kind of wonderful and it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. I love that. I like to do that; get out of my comfort zone and experience some other things.”
One of the smartest things Elliott has done is integrate a number of famous Coward songs into the film. Best known for helming the classic “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” Elliott had always planed on having Biel’s co-star Ben Barnes (“The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”) sing a few of the film’s key tracks, but, according to Biel, he had an inspiration in the middle of shooting.
Biel recalls, “Ben was singing, doing something in a scene and Stephen said, ‘You have such a great voice. You should sing the lead track. We want to do ‘Mad About the Boy.'”
Singing was never originally part of the gig when Biel signed on, but her participation more than help fill a need. Biel notes, “They found out looking into Noel Coward’s will and things he wrote about for his particular music, that he’d said that ‘no man can ever record [‘Mad About the Boy’] again.’ I guess he was in love with somebody and that was it. No man was gonna record that again and so you can only find women singing it and recording it. Then he heard me humming around or something and said, ‘No. You should do it.'”
It turns out that Biel was secretly thrilled having started out in musical theater as a kid in productions of “Annie” and “The Sound of Music.”
“I wanted to be Whitney Houston. That was my dream,” Biel admits with a smile. “I don’t know how it took a left turn. I don’t know what happened and I sort of got into this acting world but it was really fun for me to go back and do that.”
In fact, Biel is even more thrilled she’s doing it again. A note to all Los Angeles area residents, Biel will be playing the role of Sister Sarah in a three-night run of “Guys and Dolls” at the famed Hollywood Bowl this summer.. She had no qualms about admitting she went on numerous auditions for the part and has been working with a vocal coach to strengthen her voice (perhaps boyfriend Justin Timberlake can give some hints?).
“It’s kind of perfect,” Biel says. “You get your feet wet, see what it would be like to be on stage again and do something live again and not have to have a commitment for six months or a year.”
And career wise, a great way to showcase those musical talents for all the industry attendees in the audience.
“Easy Virtue” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It expands across the country in June.
Check out Biel singing the charming swing version of “When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going” (yep, the Billy Ocean tune) with Ben Barnes and “Mad About The Boy” from “Easy Virtue” below.