In person at least, Anne Hathaway looks reasonably Judy Garland-esque. Shortly after entering the conference room for our round-table discussion, she even belts out what sounds like a quickie Garland impression. This prompts questions of her long-in-the-works Garland biopic, which she says now has a writer (who can’t yet be named). That’s scary. Once it’s ready, she then has to follow through.
She compares it to nabbing the lead role in the new One Day, in which she plays shy, self-effacing Emma, who spends most of the film’s time span—20-plus years—in a friends-without-benefits scenario with rakish Dexter, played by Jim Sturgess. “I had to move mountains to get the part,” she says. “Then once I got it I froze up and realized, ‘Oh, now I have to actually do it.”
It wasn’t playing the same character over two decades that vexed her; at 28 she’s at an ideal age to pass for both early 20s and, with evidently minimal makeup, late 30s. It was the accent. Emma is British, a nationality Hathaway essayed in Becoming Jane. (“That was a challenge, too! Haven’t you seen that film?”) But One Day was more ambitious.
“People’s voices change, particularly people with regional dialects who leave the region they’re from. Their accents have a tendency to change. I spent a lot of time with people transplanted from Yorkshire. Their accents were so wildly different form eachother. It changed based on where they went to school,” Hathaway explains. “I had to notice [Emma’s] accent slowly evolving over 20 years. And the scenes where she gets drunk or angry, her accent comes out more strongly.”
But back to moving mountains: Hathaway admits to having the script “slipped” to her back when the producers weren’t considering American actresses. She flew to London only to have what she called a “terrible" meeting with director Lone Scherfig, in which she was, “inarticulate, couldn’t put two words together and coming up with the most banal reasons why I should play Emma.” Afterward, she wrote down a bunch of songs for Scherfig. “I said, ‘I couldn’t articulate what this role means for me, but hopefully these songs should do it.”
“She thinks it’s because she played some music to me that was her idea of Emma, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s right!,’” Scherfig recounts, chuckling, during a visit to Philadelphia. “What I fell for is that she’s so experienced and so devoted and so hard-working. No fuss. Because it’s a hard part.” Hathaway’s Emma is even different from the novel’s Emma. “In the book she’s a little lighter and not nearly as good-looking.”
“I love Emma. I aspire to be like her. I think she’s better than me. She’s funnier and quicker and way more lovable. She’s more badass than me,” Hathaway confesses. “She’s one of the most honestly drawn characters I’ve had since Kym in Rachel Getting Married. I made that film in 2007 and it’s 2011. So, clearly those roles don’t come around often.”
Sturgess didn’t feel similarly about his character. “I didn’t really like him particulary at first,” he says during his own round-table. Though he describes Dexter as a “posh, arrogant, over-privileged idiot,” he eventually came around on him. “I found myself defending him against these girls who hated him. He’s no worse than anyone else.”
One Day’s gimmick is we only see Emma and Dexter on one day per year. That means most of the character detail is off-screen or alluded to. The book fills in some details; Sturgess mentions a favorite scene, not in the film, where Dexter tries to find an occupation and settles on photographer, only because it sounds appealing to women. Hathaway says Nicholls would tell her things not in the book, like how Emma at one point formed a girl band.
This challenge also extended to Scherfig. “It was almost like 23 little films that are cut together. Each has a specific style,” Scherfig says. They would shoot at different types of day, or try handheld for some scenes and tripods for others—all so it stays fresh. “It’s been fantastic to be able to use so many facets of the craft in the same film. Hopefully it feels like it is the same film. Because there really are very different types of film vocabulary in it.”
One Day is Scherfig’s first film after scoring a major hit with An Education. She first gained widespread attention with Italian for Beginners (2000), made as part of the (in)famous Dogme 95 movement, in which filmmakers—among them Lars Von Trier, Susanne Bier and Harmony Korine - were forbidden from using most comforts of filmmaking, from artificial lighting to buying props to accepting director’s credits.
“It’s good to know you can live without all the equipment if you have to—that you can come up with fast solutions,” she says of her Dogme 95 spell. “It helps keep your mind open for something that adds life and unexpected spontaneity to a scene.” But it doesn’t help with scenes that require more planning, like a car crash scene with Dexter that wound up cut. “That’s all craft. You can’t just stand there and Dogme away. You have to plan it like a bank robbery.”
“She’s is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met,” Hathaway says of her director. “Her humor catches you sideways. You never see her jokes coming. That’s the way she approaches material, too. Nothing’s obvious. She constantly surprised me.”