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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

July 29, 2006

Based on a Pulitzer-winning short story, The Illusionist is set in the waning years of 19th century Vienna, and follows the exploits of Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton), a stage performer whose feats of magic seem to border on the supernatural. When the skeptical Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) attends one of the acclaimed shows with his beautiful bride-to-be, the Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), Eisenheim and Sophie recognize each other--the two having been childhood sweethearts whose disparate stations in life kept them apart, making any potential romance forbidden.

But Sophie, now displeased with her arranged marriage to the pompous and domineering Crown Prince, longs for liberation. Determined to help her, Eisenheim devises a scheme that will allow the both of them to break free from their social constraints, even as he is constantly harassed by the Prince and his associate, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti).

In this interview, Jessica talks about working on the movie, in which she delivers a fantastic performance (arguably her strongest to date) opposite the formidable trio of Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Rufus Sewell. And being a good sport, she also briefly talks about having the title of "Sexiest Woman Alive" thrust upon her.

The Interview

MEDIA: Has it been difficult talking about this movie without spoiling the mystery?

JESSICA: [laughs] Yes, actually. Don't want to give anything away, and don't want to sort of lead anybody to think that they know what's coming before they see it, so I try to say nothing at all. I try to say, "It's a romantic mystery period piece love story. Go see it!" I'm really vague about it when I talk to people.

What do you think about the art of illusionism?

I think illusions are fascinating, and I love to be stumped. I enjoy that. I love not knowing how a trick is done.

A period piece like this can be daunting for an actor. Did you feel that this was a big step for you?

It was a big step. It was extremely nerve-wracking. But I knew that if it terrified me, it means I should do it. And I was enamored with the story and with the character and with the idea of that time period and being in that wardrobe and really creating this person and stepping into the shoes of somebody that I have no idea about. I felt that it was very different from previous roles that I've played that were modern roles. I feel like there was very much [of] me in lots of those roles, just changing it up a little bit. But this, I felt like I was stepping into the abyss. [laughs] I didn't know what was going to happen, really. I just enjoyed the challenge and was excited to surprise people. And I'm just so happy that it turned out the way that it did.

Did you identify with your character Sophie on a personal level?

I identified with this character in many ways. I had an experience in my life where I fell in love with somebody that my parents absolutely hated, every friend hated. And I didn't care. I rebelled against everything, and I was going to go to the ends of the earth just to be...I was 16 years old, by the way. [laughs] It was a radical and dumb idea, but it was a cool experience when I look back to it.

How old was the guy?

He was 17...It was young love. My heart was breaking if I wasn't in the same room with him. I felt that I related to [my character Sophie] in that respect, where she was in love with somebody. She's in love with this person, and she can't be with him because of why? Because of these restraints that society and family and time is putting on her? And being a woman? I mean, this is unfair. And I loved the idea that to bring her to life would be bringing a modern woman into this time where she doesn't fit...And I guess I sort of felt like that as a kid. I was like, "I don't fit here!" So I did feel I understood her rebellious kind of attitude.

Both you and Paul Giamatti make your voices amazingly unrecognizable for your respective roles. Did you guys work with a voice coach?

We definitely had a dialect coach, Brendan Gunn. He's just incredible. And you know, it was interesting: with the dialect, my register sort of changed. It kind of lifted a little bit, because everything was just a little bit airy, and kind of round and small and little. And it changed the way my voice sounded. I listen to it, too, and I think, "That doesn't even sound like me. This is fantastic." [laughs]

It's a very good thing for your characterizations...

Yeah, it's a great thing. But I worked with him a lot. He was on set with us every day. I'd do a take, look over at him, and he'd go, [makes a disapproving sound]. And he'd come over and we'd go over the word that was maybe a little off or whatever, and we'd do it again.

Was having that kind of voice training a new process for you?

Oh, yeah. I've never had to have that before. It was amazing. It was just another part of the challenging aspects of bringing this person to life and making this film work. Because in my opinion, when an accent is off, I'm out of it. I'm sitting back going, [groans]. I can't get involved in a film if my ear is not agreeing with what's coming out of somebody's mouth.

At one point, Sophie is struck by the Crown Prince. Many of your past characters would have probably struck back in that situation, but here, you play it much differently. Do you remember your emotional state for that scene?

I think the way I felt as a character was I just felt so violated by that, the best response--better than attacking back or hitting back--is to really say [calmly], "That doesn't bother me. I'm leaving." And that's what was so cool about Sophie in that scene.

Did you really catch a hit in that scene? Your cheek looked red...

My cheek did get really red, huh? I saw that, too. [Rufus Sewell] did not ever hit me, but it startled me every time, I think. And I just felt demeaned by it, for some reason. I was very involved in that scene. I felt very in the moment in that scene, and I do remember my face just sort of blushing.

What role do you feel 7th Heaven played in the scope of your acting career?

It was a platform for me. It was kind of like my coming out party a little bit, you know? I was on television at 14 years old...That's where I became comfortable with a camera, that's where I became comfortable in front of lots and lots of people holding booms and random adults that I didn't know and wasn't comfortable with, and I got comfortable being emotional in front of strangers. I remember working with [Ronald E. High], our cameraman, about how to stand up and sit down [properly]. Because I would stand up [awkwardly] all over the place, and he would be with the camera going up and down. And he taught me how to gracefully stand up and sit back down. I remember going through little lessons like that.

In relation to other films you've done since your television run, how significant is The Illusionist?

I think this one is extremely significant and important for me. I think it's my favorite film that I've worked on yet. It fulfilled a creative bug that I had not been able to fulfill. And in terms of my career, I think it's sort of a jumping off point. I also feel like, "I can do this. Check it out. Take me seriously. And please respect me." Because I'm not going to give up doing interesting things. I'm going to do it as long as I possibly can and hopefully have longevity in this business.

Do you feel that people don't take you seriously?

Maybe not necessarily "[not] take me seriously," but I think people think of me as, "She's an action girl. She does good action, she's tough. She's good at that kind of stuff."

On the subject of image, what was your initial reaction when Esquire named you "The Sexiest Woman Alive"?

[laughs] You know, I actually thought...When this whole thing went down, I was flattered and honored and a little shocked at the whole thing. But I thought, "Oh, this is going to be great! I'm going to get so many jobs from this! This is great! Great, great, great!" [laughs] That wasn't really the case. I mean, it wasn't negative by any [means], but it's kind of an unattainable sort of label. "Sexiest Woman Alive!" I mean, who can hang out with the Sexiest Woman Alive?...I felt like I was kind of on this pedestal a little bit, and it definitely didn't just open all the doors for me, which I thought it would. I thought, "Oh wow, this is a huge honor. I mean, this is going to be huge for me." And it really kind of wasn't at all. It was really interesting.

How did your friends and family react to the article?

The worst was for my brother. He was like, "Ew, gross." And my friends just gave me a lot of crap for it, really. [laughs] So it was an interesting experience, but a lovely honor.

Thanks for your time.

Thank you very much. Have a good day.

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