Though he’s only starting his career in features, Australian Christopher Egan has already had the chance to work with veterans like Ian McShane, with whom he made the short-lived TV series “Kings,” and Vanessa Redgrave, with whom he stars (along with Amanda Seyfried) in “Letters to Juliet,” a romantic comedy set in Italy.
The movie’s about Sophie (Seyfried), a young American woman visiting Verona with her husband-to-be who finds a letter written over fifty years earlier by a British girl and inserted into the bricks of the house of Shakespeare’s Juliet—the traditional place where heartbroken lovers leave messages asking for advice. She responds to the query, and the writer—now an elderly widow named Claire (Redgrave)—soon arrives to find the man she loved but lost so long ago. She’s accompanied by her uptight grandson Charlie (Egan), who initially berates the girl who initiated what he considers a mad search but comes to having feelings for Sophie as their journey continues.
“I’ve had supporting characters in a lot of films, but this was my first time really getting to grab hold of a character and have a lot of fun with it, and work with a fantastic director and cast,” Egan said in a recent interview in Dallas, where the film was being screened at the USA Film Festival.
“Charlie’s completely unpleasant and negative,” Egan continued. “But I wanted to show in Charlie a transformation, something in the series of events on that journey in which his eyes would be opened, so that people watching it could relate to that—the same thing Charlie goes through. I think [the key is] what he sees happen to his grandmother, and what [Sophie] brings out in his grandmother. But Charlie doesn’t understand why she’s bringing this out in him. For some reason he just can get it. He’s kind of being torn apart. He doesn’t realize she’s going to be so beautiful, which I feel makes him even more angry—that this beautiful girl could not only take him but have his grandmother so wrapped up in this journey. I don’t think he’s seen his grandmother like this [before]. Charlie’s a little bit of a control freak, so he can’t stand…to hear things that he doesn’t know much about.
“I feel like this story needed a Charlie, and that’s why it’s such a beautiful combination of different characters. You really needed the one you see transformed…by the end.”
Egan explained that he was able to bring some of his own experience to his understanding of Claire, even if in a limited way, through a relationship he’d had just before leaving Australia. “My memory of this relationship that I had—it was very short-lived, it was three months, and I was like eighteen years old, it was just before I was going to America,” he recalled. “And it did seem like a dreamlike thing. We never got to that stage where you start learning each others’ habits and each others’ ways. But it was magical, it was like this young love thing. She couldn’t travel, she was young, and I had to move overseas. In later years I’ve looked back—I feel like I’m talking like I’m fifty!—but I really did break her heart, and it would be impossible to go back to it.”
Charlie, of course, is British, which meant that the Australian had to exchange his Down Under accent for an English one. “I tried to do an accumulation of a lot of things—a lot of characters and actors that I’ve watched,” Egan said. “You get your Hugh Grants and your Colin Firths, that classic British thing. It just goes with Charlie’s character—that whole pompous, priggish, kind of uptight thing. It just sounded very, very natural. I couldn’t imagine doing him in any other way. But I did want to keep it constant throughout the whole movie, so we had a dialect coach that was on the ball.”
Egan was enthused about his colleagues on the film. “Amanda was fantastic,” he said. “But that was a real treasure for me, working with Vanessa, and working with McShane. You’re working around guys that have been on hundreds of movies and worked with all sorts of actors, and I’m just starting out. So you like to watch them and banter with them. It’s pretty cool. Both Ian and Vanessa to me were similar. Not that I’ve worked with heaps of veteran actors, but they were both just so open and generous and willing to give advice and tips—and willing to work on scenes with you. They were very nice.
And Egan was equally enthusiastic about his director: “Gary [Winick] was really great…in moments where he’d just throw little things at us and let us improvise and do our own thing, because he wanted it to be real. There are lots of moments in the movie like that.”
He remembered the hours Winick and the cast spent together before filming scenes, tossing ideas around. “We’d have a writer in the room, and we’d rewrite it together, and we’d have different idea,” he said. “That was when watching Vanessa was amazing, because Vanessa would talk for about an hour on one thing. Some people would say too much, but I loved that. I could have listened to her talk all day. To see her pull apart scenes and [listen to] her talk about her character, it was just so new to me. It was like Acting 101, to watch someone who’s been doing it their whole life and to gain so much knowledge and wisdom.”
Egan felt equally strongly about McShane. “He’s got an authority about him that’s just so powerful—it’s only a guy who’s just lived a life, really lived a life, and worked with from A to Z or different actors or writers and seen it all. When you see this veteran turning up on time, prepared, a complete gentleman, you’re like, ‘That’s how I want to be.’ And Vanessa’s the same. She and Ian have a very similar work ethic.”