By Claire Bueno
For actor, writer and Jane Austen enthusiast Alice Victoria Winslow the opportunity to adapt Austen’s last completed book Persuasion for Netflix was a dream come true.
Now residing in LA Winslow’s acting roots are firmly anchored in the UK having trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London. And it was these acting roots that piqued my interest. For an actor it always starts with the story. So it was fascinating for me to learn how Alice has applied the craft of acting to adapting a screenplay based on one of our most beloved authors. Persuasion stars Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot and Cosmo Jarvis as Wentworth.
Alice you must be very excited you’ve been given the opportunity to write Persuasion a Jane Austen book and adapt it for Netflix, it must be like a dream come true?!
I know, I have to tell you it really, really felt like proof that God exists (laughs). It was like a miracle because not only; I’m a Jane Austen fan, but also Persuasion in particular has always been one of my favourites. I actually had this experience back at university where I remember so clearly sitting with my best friend at a coffee shop, and I was in an Austen seminar at the time. We were talking about Persuasion and how I feel it’s her best book, and we’re like, ‘Why aren’t there more adaptations of it.’ So cut to years later, I’m handed this opportunity, it just felt, it was really outstanding.
You’re an actress, so story and character are paramount, so how have you been able to use your skills as an actor to create a rich story and characters?
Yeah it’s funny, they’re different in a lot of ways, but I do end up using a lot of the same skills in terms of really, really going there and being the character and living out those moments. And in a way it feels like I’ve played the parts of all of the roles (laughs) in the film because I’ve gotten inside of their heads. It’s lucky too when adapting, to have this beautiful blueprint to go off of and so much interiority.
What’s great as well with this adaptation, there’s an internal monologue, it’s written in the first person, so this gives the audience an opportunity to connect and get into the psyche of the character?
Yeah that was really important to me. It’s always a problem when you’re adapting a book of; how do you get the interiority you get in the prose into a dramatic form? And I felt I really wanted to give Anne the opportunity to tell her own story and that was part of the decision to break the forth wall. You know she’s in a position, living at a time where she doesn’t have very much control over her life. But I wanted to give her control over her story, and the ability to share with us the full range of her emotional experience as she goes through.
Well you definitely succeed there. What I admire so much is how you can deconstruct a book and cherry pick the key parts and turn it into a visual medium. Can you talk to us a little about the technical aspects of deconstructing the book and adapting it?
Yeah, well in some ways it’s a lot easier (laughs) particularly Jane Austen, she’s sort of the original rom-com. The structure of Austen’s stories are the structure of every romantic comedy ever written, she’s the master of that. The thing I find in a writing process for me, this isn’t for everyone, but the most difficult is story development. So when you have the basic structure arc of that story already there for you, it’s a lot easier (laughs). Like, ‘I know exactly where this is going.’ And then it just becomes about, like you said figuring out, ‘How do I translate this to something that’s more visual?’ And then, unless you’re doing a limited series, there’s just not space, you have to condense the plot a little bit to make it fit an hour and a half (laughs).
Absolutely. And I wanted to ask you about Dakota (Johnson) and Cosmo Jarvis, they are just phenomenal actors and they breathe a whole new life into those characters.
They really are .Yeah they are both fantastic, I was blown away. I got to be on set for a bit of the shoot, not all of it, but I was just incredibly impressed with both of them. They have great work ethic, they care a lot about what they do. They both brought a lot of care, and play, and intelligence to the roles and I think you see that on screen.
This was written in the early 1800s, women were a commodity; marriages were much more transactional. How do the themes from back then translate to a modern audience?
Yeah that is really interesting because obviously things have changed a lot, but there’s also a lot that hasn’t changed. I think it’s sort of a given to a modern audience that people would marry for love and not for money, but at the time it wasn’t a given at all. That was what Jane Austen was doing, she was pushing the envelope suggesting that was an option. And another part of our modernisation was; it was really important to me that although Anne, part of her central journey is this marriage plot, she wants to re-unite with Wentworth, she has this deep longing for that relationship, the one that got away. But I really also wanted her to give her a point of view and a whole life that wasn’t just about longing for a man and create a version of Anne who… And actually, I think this is true within the book as well. But she’s specifically longing for Wentworth in particular, but she’s not just looking for a marriage for the sake of marriage. It was really important to me that people watching the film not walk away with the idea that the only way for a woman to be happy is to end in a wedding. Which I think is my modern equivalent of those themes that the book is addressing.
Yeah you’re right there, she is a woman ahead of her time isn’t she and I think even in today’s society that there is a certain expectation that we grow up, we get married, we have children and there’s all these boxes to tick. And actually it takes, not sure if brave is the word, but taking agency of your own life and saying, ‘I’m not gonna follow convention. And actually it’s ok.’ It’s better to follow your own path and follow your own heart than just be pushed and coerced and penned into something that is expected of you.
Yeah I think it’s really true. I mean women have public lives in a way that they didn’t in Regency England. But there’s still this expectation, the underlying messaging that if you are a woman and you’re not a mother and a wife, what are you doing? So it’s funny, it is a lot of the same themes. And then Anne, the thing she comes to terms with in the book is, ‘Oh I made a decision early in my life based on what other people told me I had to do and not what my heart was telling me I had to do, and now I regret that. And how do I make amends.’ So it is exactly what you said. It’s how do I live according to my value system? As opposed to the one imposed upon me.
And do you consider yourself an actor first or a writer? And how does writing better inform you as an actor?
I do consider myself both obviously (laughs). Acting feels more primary to me in terms of what I feel I need to do within this lifetime. But writing has always been a way I have expressed myself and when I was a kid, I would spend my weekends with my notebook writing stories. Other kids were out playing soccer and I was writing stories. So it has always been the place I’ve gone to, to explore and to play. I think in that sense it will always be part of my life in some form. One way they come together in addition to writing material for myself, which I think is a great way to bring those things together, but also just in terms of prepping for a role, I’ll often journal in character and that will help me get inside the character.
An actor’s life is not an easy life, how important for you is writing to aid you take control of your career and taking control of your own story telling?
Yeah, yeah it’s funny cos I really don’t think I would have gone down this road had I found some big, easy success early on, I think I probably never would have thought to write on a professional level. But it is true the life of an actor can feel disempowering. I’ve tons and tons of actor friends that [have a] wide range of success, some who I’m like, ‘You’re living my dream career,’ and some who are really struggling. All across that spectrum friends feel disempowered within the industry, and it doesn’t of course have to be that way. And in some ways it can be that way as a writer, but it is true there is something really special about having the ability to say, ‘Now this is the story I want to tell. And I’m gonna tell it using my words.’ It’s not something I would have chosen for myself cos it’s very hard (laughs). But now that I’m finding myself in the position to be doing it, I’m grateful for what it offers me.
What have you taken away with you from writing Persuasion is there an experience that you’ve learned for your next project?
Oh God I learned so, so much. I’m not even sure I could even sift through it all for a while. I’m still letting it process (laughs). But one thing was just really coming to trust my voice and this is my first feature and in a lot of ways it was a process of continually realising, ‘Oh I can do this. And this is going forward and people are laughing at this joke.’ It takes that experience to really come to a place, ‘Oh ok, this is a viable path for me, I can do this professionally.’ So that’s one big thing.
ALICE VICTORIA WINSLOW’s adaptation of PERSUASION
is available now, exclusively on NETFLIX
Photographer: Jemima Mariott Stylist: Harriet Byczok
Hair and Makeup: Dani Guinsberg @ Carol Hayes Management, Ouai Haircare, Surratt Beauty
Production Stills: © Netflix
With special thanks to Epilogue