One tough cookie
Frances O'Connor, in residence at 'Mansfield Park'
November 30, 1999
By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- In "Mansfield Park," the latest Jane Austen novel to be adapted for the big screen, the young Australian actress Frances O'Connor plays Fanny Price. The characters is a pauper who nearly ends up a reluctant princess.
As a child, Fanny is shipped off by her impoverished mother to live with wealthy relatives in Mansfield Park, a gorgeous stone mansion outside London. She grows into a smart, thoughtful young woman, but remains a poor relation until she's wooed by a man (Alessandro Nivola) who can elevate her station.
Looking like a young, wispy Barbara Hershey, O'Connor is being praised by some as the film industry's flavor of the month. Her performance in "Mansfield Park" prompted Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman to dub O'Connor "a true find."
But this brown-eyed girl, an actress who has been shielding her privacy since she first caught movie critics' eyes in the 1996 "Love and Other Catastrophes," says she's not exactly the thunder from Down Under.
Q: Were you an Austen fan before making this movie?
O'Connor: I didn't really enjoy the novel. I actually didn't like Austen very much. I was much more into the Brontes. Rainstorms and romance and that kind of thing. I re-read all the stuff in my early 20s and I think I appreciated her work a lot more.
Q: Given that this novel was written some 200 years ago, are there any aspects of it that you could relate to?
O'Connor: That conflict between what's inside yourself that you feel is real and what everyone is telling you outside. Just the conflict of that, I often experience. Now, it's all right to make an easy choice, it's all right to be greedy and it's all right to do what's good for you. Kind of doing the real thing isn't rewarded as much, I think.
We've always been in that situation where you just doubt that that person will ever come. God, this is really depressing. Yeah, life is s--t.
Q: Did anything about the movie surprise you?
O'Connor: I think it's much funnier than I thought it was going to be. It's actually quite biting and modern, more than I thought. It's a lot warmer than I thought it would be.
I know it comes at the end of a long line of Austen films, but I think it's actually quite different in terms of what Patricia (Rozema, writer-director) has done with it. It's not like an adaptation of "Mansfield Park." It's really a Patricia Rozema film. I think the dynamics are different, because it's the journey of one woman against the establishment to finding love and finding her own sense of self.
Don't call her a corset girl
Q: What did you think of "Love and Other Catastrophes," which really vaulted you to public attention?
O'Connor: That was the first film I did. We made it for like $30,000 with a bunch of friends and we really didn't think anything would happen with it, we really didn't think we'd be in Cannes the next year. It was all a bit surreal.
I guess I just want to keep pushing my craft at things. I know it sounds like such a cliche, but I want to keep getting better at what I do, so any role that comes along, it's like, 'I can do that.'
Q: Do you have any worries about doing too many period dramas, given that you're starring in "Madame Bovary" for television? (That adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's 1857 novel, directed by Tim Fywell, is scheduled to air next year.)
O'Connor: The thing about period pieces -- that's often the best character, I think. That's when people could really write, I think. I just want to keep playing good characters. Whether they're period pieces, I don't really care. As long as I don't get labeled too much as the corset girl.
I've always been a really imaginative kind of person. Acting is always something I've always done. I really love people and working out why we do what we do. It's a fascinating thing. I think everyone is interested in that.
That's why people love the movies so much.
19th century author Austen, at home on the Web
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