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O'CONNOR, FRANCES: Mansfield Park

WHEN FRANCES MET STEVEN
When Steven Spielberg saw Frances O'Connor in Mansfield Park, he knew he'd found his leading lady for his ambitious futuristic drama, A.I. The decision was announced the week before Mansfield Park opened in Australia, on the very day ANDREW L. URBAN interviewed O'Connor in Sydney.

After Steven Spielberg (pic) had seen Frances O'Connor's engaging performance as Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, he expressed interest in seeing her for his next film, A.I. Soon after, O'Connor's Los Angeles agent sent the legendary filmmaker a tape of O'Connor in the BBC TV drama, Madame Bovary (to be screened on ABC TV in Australia later in 2000). "Steven Spielberg doesn't audition, so we just met," says O'Connor, "and then he wanted to see me with Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense), then I heard he offered me the part."

"a little oasis that's very human friendly"

The meeting took place at the Amblin estate, "in the style of a Spanish hacienda or ranch in the middle of Universal Studios, a little oasis that's very human friendly." It's a big break for O'Connor, who celebrated the news with friends. But it didn't really sink in until two weeks later when she finished shooting the comedy Bedazzled, with Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley, directed by Harold Ramis (Analyze This, Groundhog Day). "Oh, that was lots of fun, Harold Ramis is great, Brendan Frazer is just so normal and gentle and nice. . . and it's a very funny script."

Meeting Spielberg was the first time O'Connor had met a world famous somebody about whom she felt a sense of awe. "His work's phenomenal, you know…he's a genius and you're aware of that when you're with him. Just the ideas he has and the way he perceives things . . . he's got a big brain, I think, and obviously he also has a big heart."

When she walked out of the meeting with Spielberg, she though to herself, "Oh, I totally ballsed that up . . . as you would … then an hour later my agent rang to say I'd got the part." Her first call after that was to her mum, who - very pragmatically - said, "That's good, dear; how much are they paying you, darling?" she says laughing uproariously.

Madame Bovary had come up after a small Irish film, she made, called About Adam, completed late last year, which she made after finishing Mansfield Park.

"what a clever commentary it was"

Not a Jane Austen fan as a teenager ("I was more into the Bronte sisters"), O'Connor had nevertheless read Mansfield Park when she was about 18. So it was with a pleasant surprise she discovered when she re-read the book prior to auditioning for the film "what a clever commentary it was on society at that time and its judgement on women. [The central character] Fanny Price was whatever people wanted to imprint on her - even though her internal life is very different from how people perceive her."

But Patricia Rozema's screenplay for her film had made some significant changes, which meant leaping from O'Connor's mental image of Fanny Price to something different. "Patricia made it clear from the very beginning that she didn't want to recreate the novel, she wanted to make something new that would exist as a film unto itself. She did that by combining some of Jane Austen's early writings and some of her character to create Fanny Price - a positive role model for young women particularly. So that's what we set about doing."

But as O'Connor says, Rozema is still true to the novel and to Austen herself. "She's still an internal kind of person, for example."

But what were the attractions of the role in the first place, if not sheer admiration for Jane Austen? Working with Rozema was certainly one: "I remember seeing Patricia Rozema's I Heard The Mermaids Singing, that's one of my favourite films, I just love it. So when I knew she was directing Mansfield Park, I really wanted to meet this woman. And when we met, we got on really well straight away."

"it was a very different direction"

When O'Connor auditioned, it was originally for the part of Mary Crawford (finally played by Embeth Davidtz). "After I read for Mary, Patricia asked if I wanted to read for Fanny Price which I did - and by the end of that day they'd offered me the part." Oddly enough, O'Connor felt Patricia had made a mistake; "I thought I was better for Mary, to be really honest. . .but the as I started working on it I really fell in love with who she was. Also it was a very different direction for me to go in, because everything else I'd done had been more flamboyant, more kinda attractive in an overt kind of way. Whereas Fanny Price is probably the last person you'd notice in a room, yet if you sat down and talked to her she'd probably the most interesting."

O'Connor's grounding in filmmaking in Australia has prepared her well. "Making Kiss or Kill really changed the way I looked at things as an actor," she says. "It made me realise how much you can actually contribute to a scene and to the script… so it has made me take a lot more responsibility in terms of adding things or twisting things. And so to take that into something as structured as the screenplay for Mansfield Park was interesting."

[This is what she said on the set of Kiss or Kill: "Working with Bill Bennett is great. He gives you the parameters and then you can do what you want and he'll work out a shooting style around that. He's very open to changing things…. look, it's an actor's dream!"]

Rozema, says O'Connor, is very open and if she doesn't like what you're doing she'll just say. "But then at the same time she's got this great balance of letting you in at certain moments…."

At one point the actress and the director had a difference of opinion over how to play a scene - "in the carriage scene, when I say goodbye to Edmund, she wanted to break down a lot more and I felt I'd actually played it a certain way the scene before and I didn't feel I needed to go there again . . . so we talked about that a lot. But there were lots of moments we talked about."

"I just do what is in front of me"

Now comes the next stage in O'Connor's career: and as many Australians who wonder the world from one film location to the next, O'Connor's email address is the only permanent one she has. When asked where she'd like to set up house, she deliberates and tosses up between Sydney and New York … or maybe Paris … or London . . .not California, even though she likes the lifestyle. "But I'm not really a plan person… I just do what is in front of me."

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Mansfield Park
At the age of 10, Fanny Price is sent by her poor family in Portsmouth to live with rich relatives The Bertrams in Northamptonshire. Growing up at Mansfield Park among the aristocratic Bertrams, Fanny (Frances O'Connor) is treated as a servant by her socially ambitious cousins Maria (Victoria Hamilton) and Julia (Justine Waddell). Her closest ally is youngest son Edmund (Johnny Lee Miller) who falls under the spell of dashing Londoner Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz) whose brother Henry makes a similar impression on Julia and Maria, despite the latter's engagement to dim but rich Rushworth (Hugh Bonneville). When Henry finally settles his attentions on Fanny and proposes marriage she rejects his overtures and is sent back to Portsmouth by a displeased Lord Bertram (Harold Pinter). While Henry maintains his efforts to win Fanny's love she realises that her heart truly belongs to Edmund....


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