Brow Beat

New Yorker Festival Dispatch: Period Acting

John Slattery at The New Yorker Festival on October 6

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Putting together a panel for an event like this weekend’s New Yorker Festival is inevitably a random exercise, but I imagine the task of selecting four actors to discuss “Period Acting” was particularly challenging. After all, most working actors have donned knee breeches or bonnets at some point in their careers. And since the panel was scheduled for 10 on a Saturday morning—the Manhattan equivalent of 7 a.m. in Kansas City—the participants needed serious juice to fill the seats. Whatever complex calculation involving availability and box office appeal was employed to gather John Slattery, Jennifer Ehle, Dan Stevens, and Cherry Jones, it was a winning formula. Moderator Rebecca Mead was nimble and well prepared, and the panelists were gracious with each other—not a microphone-hogger in the bunch—and with the audience, doling out the perfect mix of gossip and insight.

Dan Stevens, who was scheduled to make his Broadway debut in The Heiress that evening, pleased the Downton Abbey fans in the audience by describing his preparations for the show—including intense sessions with the show’s etiquette consultant, Alistair Bruce, on the lost art of hat doffing. He also admitted that in the show’s second season, he and Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary, listened to “Matthew and Mary’s Theme” from the show’s soundtrack to get in the mood for love scenes. (“So do I,” said Mad Men’s John Slattery.)

Costumes are a big part of Cherry Jones’ preparation—indeed she tied her bonnet so tight when playing Sister Aloysius in the Broadway production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt that she had a mark on her neck long after the show closed. Asked by Mead, “How far down does the period costume go?” Jones answered, “All the way down to Florida.”

Jennifer Ehle said that when she played three characters in Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, she wore a different perfume for each one. When she first took to the stage with co-star Brian F. O’Byrne, “the color drained out of him.” It turned out that one of the perfumes was the same scent as the candle he burned every night when playing suspected child molester Father Flynn alongside Cherry Jones in Doubt.

All the panelists agreed that it’s a mistake to think of characters in period drama as being very different from us. They just follow different rules. “That’s part of the attraction,” Slattery said. “They resemble us, but their restrictions are different.” Actors have to treat the rules of the era like obstacles—“you have to find a way to get to where you want to go.” Nor do long frocks and strange hats mean that actors should take themselves too seriously: Ehle revealed that Andrew Davies’ script for the BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice was full of irreverent instructions, including the suggestion that Mr. Darcy might have an erection at one point. Dan Stevens, who has also performed in Davies adaptations, including the 2008 Sense & Sensibility, said there were intimations of tumescence in the marginalia of that script, too.

Why are period dramas—especially class-based shows like Downton Abbey—so popular? Stevens said it’s all about a desire to understand the world. “Class is a system. It’s not that we all want to be high-class. It’s that we want to understand systems.” But Jones had another idea: “There’s been no period as sloppy or relaxed as our own. America has championed that. We’re starved for rigor and vigor and style. And discipline. When something as gorgeous as Downton Abbey comes across our waves, we grab it, because we’re starved.”