Jessica Biel Is Not Your Typical Costume-Drama Heroine In ‘Easy Virtue’

The actress says she studied hard to hold her own opposite Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas.

When the man who directed the drag-queen extravaganza “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” is conscripted into directing a comedy of manners set in post-World War I England, audiences can be sure they won’t be getting the usual staid, overly serious awards-season-driven period piece.

No, with Stephan Elliott behind the camera for “Easy Virtue” (out Friday, May 22), expect big-band takes on contemporary tunes like “Sex Bomb.” Expect a wicked story about a young couple who fall in love and pop in on the groom’s uptight British family, only to get sucked into a dysfunctional, bitingly funny domestic hullabaloo. And expect to see Jessica Biel like you’ve never seen her before: a delicious blond bombshell concoction of proto-feminist, femme fatale and razor-sharp jokester.

To prepare for the role of saucy American race-car driver and recent bride Larita the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” actress plowed into the golden age of film history. “I looked at a lot of old Katharine Hepburn movies for that kill-’em-with-a-smile, fantastic, witty, dry delivery,” Biel told MTV News, adding that she also studied Jean Harlow for her “sex appeal, diva quality.”

Not that all this schoolwork calmed her nerves. “Stepping into the room for the read-through, I was freaking out,” Biel said. “I’m the only American. I’m just sitting there feeling weird and out of place.”

Still, the preparation must have paid off, because British period-drama veteran Colin Firth, who plays the disillusioned family patriarch Mr. Whittaker in “Virtue,” said he found Biel immediately enchanting. He wasn’t the only one.

“The entire crew was reduced to poor saps,” Firth laughed. “It’s not the only time I’ve seen everybody in love with a beautiful actress. [But] you’d be surprised how often that isn’t the case. She came in with such grace and apparent confidence.”

Those traits are just what made Elliott decide to give the role to Biel. The first time they met, the director told her the dirtiest joke he knew. Biel cracked a sly smile and Elliott realized the actress had a “wicked sense of humor.” By the time shooting had wrapped, the director knew Biel had “pretty much walked away with the entire film.”

Of course, in “Virture” she is assisted not only by Firth but by Kristin Scott Thomas (Mrs. Whittaker), Ben Barnes (Larita’s new husband John Whittaker) and a host of British stage actors in sparkling supporting roles. When Thomas and Firth initially resisted joining the cast because they’d appeared in a few too many period pieces, Elliott responded, “Honey, not my way!”

Biel recently told Allure magazine that she’s had trouble getting cast in meaty roles because of her beauty, according to UsMagazine.com. For the role of Larita, though, she didn’t have to audition. Elliott was confident Biel could pull off the role, and Biel was dead-set on grabbing it.

“My heart would have broken if I couldn’t do it,” she said.

Will the vampires grab more trophies than the slumdog? What was the year’s ultimate onscreen WTF moment? It’s up to you to decide the winners of the 2009 MTV Movie Awards. Vote now, and tune in on May 31 at 9 p.m. ET, when the big show airs live from the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, California.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Easy Virtue.”

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