Actor and comedian Miranda Hart says her crucial scene in 2020’s Emma caused her to be the most nervous she’s ever been while on set.
The film’s sparkling cast, headed by Anya Taylor-Joy, includes Hart in the pivotal role of Miss Bates, a single woman of limited means desperately trying to find her place in society. It’s a role that combines humour and pathos in equal measure, it gives Hart the opportunity to flex her dramatic and comedic talents to the full but one particular scene gave her a bad case of nerves on set.
“I knew the importance of the scene and not only did I want to get it right as an actor and for Miss Bates – who I was totally in love with – but it’s such a crucial moment in the film,” Hart tells Yahoo Movies UK. The scene in question sees Taylor-Joy’s matchmaking Emma Woodhouse being unspeakably cruel to Miss Bates, and Hart’s reaction is so beautifully played, you can feel her quiet anguish land like a punch to the stomach.
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“I was definitely the most nervous I’ve ever been on set that day,” Hart adds.
In the latest incarnation of Emma (on Blu-ray and DVD from 22 June) director Autumn de Wilde takes a feminist approach, delicately disguised by Empire line gowns and polite dinner parties, to give us an Emma for the 2020s.
Elsewhere in our interview Hart praises the film’s silent star, opens up about some recent “Miranda moments” during lockdown – and doesn’t rule out the possibility of a Miranda reunion.
Yahoo Movies UK: How are you coping with the current situation? Have you had any of the dreaded Miranda moments?
Miranda Hart: The Miranda moments aren’t remotely dreaded! They are moments of joy and wonder! (laughter) I have had some Miranda moments actually, which I rarely do, but lockdown has provided me with some, including one when I was in my towel and I’d lost my dog and I didn’t realise that someone was doing a Zoom personal training session. I was in my towel, shouting for my dog and was in a live Zoom!
And in another Miranda moment, when I was also wearing a towel, I yawned and the towel dropped to the floor and I was completely stark naked!
Everybody took Miranda, your TV character, very much to their hearts so has it been quite difficult to shake off.
In terms of playing other parts? No, I think when you play an eponymous part, people will often say that she still seems like Miranda, but every actor has themselves in every role they play. It might look like I can’t shake her off but I can. For me, I can shake her off and play someone different.
Was there anything in Miss Bates that reminded you of Miranda – an older version of her, perhaps?
I don’t think like that at all. Miranda is a character I haven’t played for five years now and she was absolutely a part, she was my comedy clown. Now I play other parts without any reference to Miranda but there are similarities, as with Chummy from Call The Midwife. Here I’m playing somebody who’s vulnerable, a fish out of water – as is Miranda as well – and a woman who hopes to find her place in society. So there is a through line in terms of that vulnerability.
So are you a fan of Jane Austen’s novels?
Moreso now. I’ve watched more adaptations than I’ve read, but reading Emma and delving more into Jane Austen, I’ve such respect for her and I think she’s extraordinary. I think Emma is an amazingly good story and I just didn’t realise how funny Jane Austen is. With comic characters such as Miss Bates and Emma herself, she’s such a brilliant comic observational writer. And I’ve become very grateful for her.
You’ve said Miss Bates is a comic character, which she is, but it’s almost too easy to make her a figure of fun and a little pathetic as well. How did you go about making her a fully rounded character?
What I got from the book was that it would be easy just to play her for laughs, the busybody of the village sitcom type character. But she isn’t that. She’s an extraordinarily resilient woman who finds life really difficult and shows cheeriness despite everything. She’s humble and forgiving and kind and it was more important to me to get that across. And if there were laughs that came with her as a chatterbox, then great, but it was more important that I told the story of her forgiving Emma and what that meant to Emma.
She does have a real generosity of spirit.
Yes, her father was a vicar. It sounds like I’m talking about a real person! (laughs) But I assumed that when I played her that she was coming from a Christian values point of view and that she was so pure and noble that it was cheeriness and humility and kindness over anything else. No grudges, just being grateful despite her lot. It’s very inspiring, actually.
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That moment at the picnic is at the heart of the story, but what it also does is change our view of Miss Bates. Up until then she’s been nice but a little irritating. Now she has a real dignity and I wondered how you approached that scene. It’s so crucial to get it right.
I was definitely the most nervous I’ve ever been on set that day. I knew the importance of the scene and not only did I want to get it right as an actor and for Miss Bates – who I was totally in love with – but it’s such a crucial moment in the film. If it’s not done right, then we don’t understand why Mr Knightly is so cross with Emma and that has a bearing on their romance, so it’s such an important scene.
I definitely felt the pressure so I thought ‘remove all that, remove that worry and just think about what is actually happening in that scene’. Here was a woman who thought she had finally found a social standing, was accepted and happy and vaguely confident - and suddenly that world’s not there.
She’s laughed at, the rug has been pulled from under her feet and she’s made a laughing stock and I thought ‘it’s just that’. So I really got in touch with that and thought how Miss Bates must feel, her pain at not being included.
Everybody wants that, so to not have it must be devastating.
You said earlier how funny the film is and I wondered how much corpsing there was on set. I’m thinking especially of the dinner party scene and that moment when you tell your mother to try the tart! Were there a lot of takes for that one?
What always makes me laugh are people’s reactions. When you’re in the moment – and I was shouting – I was just trying to work out how big I could go and I was asking the director ‘Is this too big?’ because working in a period drama you want to keep it as real as possible. Working with somebody like Bill Nighy, his reactions are always so funny – the classic Nighy double take – and that made me laugh.
So, yes, we did have a few scenes where we laughed, especially in Miss Bates’ sitting room when all the girls were there and Miss Bates would not stop talking. I think the DVD might have a gag reel [Editor’s note: It does]. The reactions from Miss Bates’ mother, the way she despairs of her – Myra McFadyen plays my mother – and all her reactions made us laugh.
She never says a word – it’s the best acting gig in the world! She was brilliant. We did loads of shots of her reactions. I hope they’re on the DVD because they’d be fantastic.
We do tend to think of you in terms of comedy, but you have done more serious work. Is there a part that you’ve always wanted to play but hasn’t come your way yet?
The one I would have always said in the past was Miss Hannigan [in Annie] and I was lucky enough to do that a few years ago and I would love to play her again because I think I’d be better at her now. I could play her as brasher which would be quite fun because I love playing vulnerable characters that the audience connect with. I think they’re really important. I’d be really happy if that’s all I played. To have the chance to play somebody who’s really confident and angry and rash would be fun as well – really different.
After appearing in Spy with Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham, would you have another go at Hollywood?
Yeah! I’m an actor for hire. I’m ready! (laughs) There aren’t hundreds of scripts coming through the door every day so I would love to do more films and my heart is always in comedy. I always look for the laughter in things and making people laugh is such a privilege. I feel more confident, now I’m middle aged, with my dramatic acting so to be able to do both would be fabulous.
Of late, we’ve had lots of online reunions – you did one with your on-screen husband. Do you think there’s going to be a proper Miranda reunion online?
We did a tenth anniversary celebration last year, so we were all on stage together and that was a reunion – it felt like a real celebration. It was just so incredible to see the love for it and that there are still people coming to it. There are young kids now coming with people who were fans in their late teens or twenties and now have children of their own. It’s lovely. I felt that last year we had our big reunion so whether we do more I don’t know. I’m the writer and performer and I need to ask myself that and I haven’t yet.
So you wouldn’t rule it out?
I wouldn’t rule it out, no. I need to have a meeting with myself. Sit down and ask myself ‘what do we think about this ….?’
Can I sit in on that?
You’ll be the first to know! (laughs)
I’ll hold you to that!
I know! It’s on record now! (laughs)
Emma. is available on Digital now and on Blu-Ray and DVD 22 June from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.