JJ Feild, Gentleman Spy
ABOVE: JJ FEILD. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEPHEN BUSKEN
Although his character in Jerusha Hess’ Austenland is rather reserved, off-screen JJ Feild is gregarious and open. Feild’s resume is eclectic, and the Colorado-born, London-raised actor has certainly paid his dues. Since his first television role in 1999, Field has appeared in everything from period dramas (Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke), to superhero franchises (Captain America), cult action films (Centurion), romantic comedies, and, of course, a vampire movie. The 35-year-old’s profile is about to increase dramatically. This month, Feild stars as a Mr. Darcy composite working at a Jane Austen-themed resort in Austenland alongside Kerri Russell, Jane Seymour, Jennifer Coolidge, and Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie. Next year, he’ll join Jamie Bell on AMC’s War of Independence drama, Turn, as the polemical British spy John Andre.
We recently spoke with the actor, who currently lives in Los Angeles with his partner Neve Campbell and their son, via phone.
EMMA BROWN: I’ve been told that you are very funny and that you were in a film that involved certain parts of you being covered in honey in the vicinity of some bees.
JJ FEILD: [laughs] Oh, dear god. We were talking about nudity on camera. I’ve done three films for Peter Greenaway, and Peter is quite renowned for exposing his actors, especially in the elements. In one of the scenes I was crucified in the desert— completely naked—and I had my… nether regions dunked in honey while a clad sort of Nazi in leathers threatened me with a knife.
BROWN: Oh my.
FEILD: Yeah. There’s not much alive in the desert, but as soon as you cover yourself in honey, every insect known to mankind comes flying in from the horizon to attach themselves to you. It was a harrowing experience. I’m still suffering from it.
BROWN: Are you a Jane Austen fan?
FEILD: Before Austenland I got do a lead role in Northanger Abbey, which is Jane Austen. Growing up in England, you can’t really ignore Jane Austen. It’s always been there. Colin Firth has made every male actor doing Jane Austen want to live up to his performance.
BROWN: I feel like the sentiments surrounding Jane Austen are quite different in England than in America, though. I grew up in England—
FEILD: Oh, I knew there was something wonderful about you.
BROWN: And it’s just like reading Mark Twain. But in the U.S. there is this image that, like Keri Russell’s character in Austenland, if you like Jane Austen you must be some sort of tea-cozy-knitting, obsessive weirdo.
FEILD: Yes, however it’s not just America. There are Jane Austen fans all over the world who are very sweet ladies of a certain age who are very devoted. There is a strange obsession with the Royal Family in America as well, which goes far beyond how we actually feel in Britain. I think that America has an obsession with history, really. And Jane Austen is such pretty history. Men just want to get back to fighting wars and being men. The women get to do Jane Austen. Look at TV, from The Tudors to The Borgias—it’s all history, history, history.
BROWN: Would you say that your character in Austenland is a cross between Mr. Darcy and the character you played in Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney?
FEILD: When I met Jerusha Hess she asked me if I would laugh at myself or if I would set myself up, because they had seen Henry Tilney and they liked that character. So that was my starting point. Mr. Darcy is what everyone expects; that’s the expectation that you put up there. And then there’s the character underneath. Who the person actually is underneath is the middle ground. But yes, it’s a very silly, fun look at all of those characters.
BROWN: Was it an amusing set to be on?
FEILD: If you look at it carefully, I don’t think I’m looking at anyone [in the film] because I’m trying to so hard not to laugh. Jennifer Coolidge is one of the funniest and sweetest human beings on Earth. I’m not sure if she said anything from the script. Everything that she says comes from her brilliant imagination. If I could pack someone up in my suitcase and take them anywhere to keep me happy, it would be Jennifer Coolidge. She’s genius. There’s a scene were she sews her hands to her tapestry. That wasn’t a joke; that was real. Jennifer just can’t help but be hilarious.
BROWN: I know that you were born in Colorado and your mother is American. Do you feel at all American?
FEILD: I’m not sure I feel anything. I guess I feel like a Londoner. I couldn’t even say British. I would definitely say London, and I don’t mean London like some Lahndan geezer. London is the most multicultural, mixed race place on Earth. And I love that. I grew up in a neighborhood in London where English wasn’t necessarily the first language—maybe because of that, I love to travel. Every penny I’ve ever saved has been spent on airline tickets to different corners of the world. I think that’s partly from growing up in London. I’ve taken that bit with me—this ability to fit in with any culture and be fascinated and respectful with any culture all started from growing up in London.
BROWN: Have you seen Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis series?
FIELD: I’ve been a huge fan of Salgado since I was younger. I didn’t see it in London. It’s on in London right now. My brother gave me a poster for my wall—a print—of a Salgado photograph of two horses fighting. It’s an extraordinary picture of him lying underneath two horses fighting. I’ve always been fascinated by his work. His landscape exhibition is my idea of Heaven. I’ve got to find an excuse to get to London. Austenland opens in London in September. I don’t know if they’ve planned a premiere yet, but if they do I will do everything I can to go see Salgado.
BROWN: Your show Turn just got picked up by AMC. Can you tell me a little bit about your character?
FEILD: Turn is about the War of Independence—the war where the wrong side won. [laughs] It’s about the birth of a spy and the invention of institution-like spying. Up until then, spying was seen as an un-gentlemanly thing and something that people didn’t really want to admit that they did. During the War of Independence, Washington and Britain all needed more information so they started these organized spy rings culminating in American history—which we don’t learn in England, funnily enough—with the turning of Benedict Arnold and the gaining of West Point. I play the head of the British spy ring, Major John Andre, who the American historians aren’t too kind about. But if you read the British side of the history, he was an extraordinary human being who was buried at Westminster Abbey—one of the few non-royals to ever be buried there. Even Washington had great admiration for him. He was a Huguenot from France. His family was French, he grew up in England, went to Canada, joined the British Army and was multilingual. He was a painter and a poet. He was the first real gentleman spy. Apparently Ian Fleming, who wrote James Bond, was greatly inspired by Major John Andre when writing the concept of the gentleman spy.
BROWN: What did the American historians say about him that was so unflattering?
FEILD: That he was not to be trusted. No one had much information about him, so they liked to make things up. He was a great socialite, and there’s a lot of mystery about his love life. It was said that his sources were the wives of very powerful people, so he was untoward about how he got his information. Ultimately, when he was captured he was an officer—and an officer is meant to be treated with a certain amount of decorum as it said in the rules of combat—he was treated like a common thug and not with very much respect. I don’t think Washington wanted him treated badly, but the American forces wanted to make an example of him.
BROWN: I know that Jamie Bell is in Turn as well. Does the show focus more on the English side?
FEILD: Jamie Bell plays an American. It’s Jamie Bell, Seth Numrich, and a wonderful actor named Daniel Henshall, who are all friends living under occupation. I think it’s a fantastic story for today, where so many countries are caught in occupation. It’s about three friends and their very different approaches to dealing with life under occupation—whether they join guerilla warfare, whether they become spies, or whether they actually fight head on. Those three young men are the protagonists of the story, and I’m the antagonist.
BROWN: How is your character portrayed in the show—do they take a more neutral line towards him?
FEILD: Yeah, when they asked me to do the project I wanted to see how they viewed it. I sat down with [writer] Craig Silverstein and I asked him, “How do you view the British side of the war in terms of history? Because it was written by the victors…” And he was very open and very intelligent about seeing both sides as equal. Up until one side wins, their objectives are very similar. I think he was very respectful of the British and what they had achieved. But also, in that sense, what an incredible shock it was for them to lose.
AUSTENLAND IS OUT IN NEW YORK AN L.A. THIS FRIDAY, AUGUST 16.