Luck­ily for RMTC, ac­tress frankly gives a damn

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - KEVIN PROKOSH

FOR two years in the 1930s, Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer David O. Selznick barn­stormed around the United States in a head­line-grab­bing search for the woman who would por­tray Scar­lett O’Hara in his movie ver­sion of Mar­garet Mitchell’s most pop­u­lar novel ever writ­ten, Gone With the Wind.

Thou­sands of women were au­di­tioned, in­clud­ing fe­male stu­dents at­tend­ing ev­ery south­ern col­lege with a drama de­part­ment, while big-screen lovelies like orig­i­nal front-run­ner Talul­lah Bankhead, Paulette God­dard, Lana Turner and Jean Arthur lined up for their screen tests. The cast­ing ques­tion be­came a na­tional par­lour game with ev­ery new name floated draw­ing im­me­di­ate ap­proval or con­dem­na­tion — “Dear God, Lois, NOT Janet Gaynor,” Mitchell wrote to a friend.

When Steven Schip­per, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Royal Man­i­toba The­atre Cen­tre, launched a hush­hush project to have Toronto ac­tress/play­wright Niki Lan­dau pen a new GWTW stage adap­ta­tion, he con­ducted no au­di­tions for the role of the con­niv­ing Ge­or­gia peach. He knew who would play Scar­lett be­fore the ac­tress did.

Dur­ing last Jan­uary’s run of Pa­trick Mar­ber’s Af­ter Miss Julie, in which fast-ris­ing Toronto ac­tress Bethany Jil­lard starred as the haughty and horny aris­to­cratic ti­tle char­ac­ter, Schip­per took her aside to mea­sure her will­ing­ness to re­turn in 2013 to be in what has known sim­ply as the se­cret play. Jil­lard was cu­ri­ous and keen, agree­ing to sign a con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ment that did noth­ing to re­veal what she was get­ting her­self into.

“I was so stoked about it,” Jil­lard re­calls dur­ing a re­cent lunch break at the the­atre. “It was the role of a life­time but I had no idea what it was. It was all cloak and dag­ger.”

She went home to Toronto, at­tempt­ing to fig­ure out which novel was be­ing adapted. She in­ves­ti­gated what was new in the pub­lic do­main, but when she sat down with the package sent from RMTC, she had no idea what was on the ti­tle page of the script in­side.

GWTW was never on her radar — she hadn’t read the book and had never seen the fa­mous movie star­ring 26-year-old Bri­tish ac­tress Vivien Leigh as Scar­lett and Clark Gable as Rhett But­ler.

“So I opened up the en­ve­lope and saw it was Gone With the Wind and I went, ‘Oh, my good­ness,’” says Jil­lard, 29. “I only said it be­cause it was so iconic, not be­cause I really knew it.”

She sat down and read an early draft of Lan­dau’s adap­ta­tion in one sit­ting. Like so many be­fore her, Jil­lard fell un­der the spell of the Amer­i­can Civil War epic that fol­lows Scar­lett’s riches-to-rags-to-riches story.

“What I got from it right away is why Gone With the Wind is un­der peo­ple’s skin, why it is what it is,” Jil­lard says. “I got swept away by the story. I knew why we want to tell this story.”

Jil­lard’s ca­reer is on the up­swing af­ter well­re­ceived Strat­ford Fes­ti­val per­for­mances as the in­no­cent Cé­cile Volanges in Dan­ger­ous Li­aisons, Lady Anne in Richard III and young Kate in The Lit­tle Years. She showed she could carry a show by her­self with her 2008 star turn as the tit­u­lar peace ac­tivist in My Name is Rachel Cor­rie. Her Af­ter Miss Julie made a con­vert out of Schip­per.

“Bethany is sim­ply an act­ing phe­nom, a lu­mi­nous star in the Cana­dian the­atre sky,” says Schip­per. “A shape-shifter, wise be­yond her years, Bethany is gen­uinely mes­mer­iz­ing. Off­stage, she’s friendly, down-to-earth, vi­brant and gen­er­ous. Luck­i­est for us, she’s one of the few ac­tors in the coun­try with a waist small enough to play Scar­lett.”

Yes, what about that cel­e­brated corseted waist Mitchell fa­mously de­scribes as be­ing 17 inches, “the small­est in three coun­ties?” Any ac­tress with the au­dac­ity to ap­pear on stage as 16-yearold Scar­lett knows she will be scru­ti­nized for that im­pos­si­bly nar­row waist, green eyes and per­fect brown curls.

“Well, Scar­lett would love it, to have peo­ple check­ing her out all of the time,” says Jil­lard, a nat­u­ral blond who will wear a wig. “I’m aware of the chal­lenge she rep­re­sents be­cause peo­ple will be look­ing me over. Does she have green eyes? Let’s mea­sure that waist for real. For the record, it’s not 17. I’d say 25. That’s su­per­fi­cial stuff. For me, that’s not who Scar­lett is.”

Lan­dau was re­spon­si­ble for whis­per­ing to Schip­per that Jil­lard was her only cast­ing sug­ges­tion.

“Bethany has got this amaz­ing charm,” Lan­dau says. “Scar­lett O’Hara has got to charm the pants off of you. It’s the ac­tor that puts the phys­i­cal de­scrip­tions out of your mind. Once Bethany read for me, she was Scar­lett O’Hara. I never had to think about it again.”

Jil­lard thought her temptress char­ac­ter in Af­ter Miss Ju­lia was a great prepa­ra­tion to play Scar­lett. The former lived with a reck­less aban­don and in her flout­ing so­cial con­ven­tion paid the price. Both characters have a yearn­ing to be more alive, to not set­tle.

“The tragic thing is that Miss Julie kills her­self be­cause she has been so hurt,” says Jil­lard. “Her vic­tory is killing her­self as the end of the play. Scar­lett, be­cause of who she is, de­stroys her life, too. She dis­cov­ers too late that she and Rhett, who she was con­vinced never loved her, were a love match.”

And what’s not to like about don­ning a closet full of great gowns that have been cus­tom-fash­ioned for her with the most ex­trav­a­gant ma­te­rial? Some­times the hoop skirts that boast a 1.2-me­tre di­am­e­ter make it hard for her to get through a door.

She gig­gles: “They are such an in­te­gral part of the telling of the story that it doesn’t seem so shal­low to say I’m ex­cited about wear­ing the dresses.”


Jil­lard tries on one of the dresses she’ll be wear­ing in the play, which opens Jan. 10.

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