“His feelings are warm, but I can imagine them rather changeable.”
So says Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse about Frank Churchill in Emma — but in the newest adaptation of the classic novel, in theaters Feb. 21, it’s Johnny Flynn’s Mr. Knightley who is the changeable one. Literally.
In Autumn de Wilde’s feature directing debut, Flynn strips Knightley down to bare essentials with an early dressing scene of the sort usually reserved for female protagonists in lush period pieces. EW recently caught up with Flynn to break down Knightley’s garb and that particular sequence from head to toe.
We first meet Mr. Knightley as he dresses for the day. “Autumn was really interested in the stuff you don’t see — what is actually involved in living like an upper-class person in 1815,” Flynn says. “We got to know our dressers in the way real people from this period knew their valets or maids.” Getting meta, Knightley’s valet is played by one of the production’s actual wardrobe assistants, Connor Dalton.
Introducing Kightley this way also helps establish the intimacy between him and Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) right away. “In the novel, you’re in Emma’s psychological space all of the time, and you very slowly get the picture of the things that she is preoccupied with,” Flynn says. “By seeing Knightley in his intimate space, in his household, you get a little bit of what Emma’s sense of him is as well. They’re so intimate with each other; they’ve known each other for years.”
Flipping the script
We’re used to seeing women in states of dishabille as they don period dress, and de Wilde wanted to turn that trope on its head. “She said quite openly she wanted to have this moment of objectifying a man’s body — not in a sexual way, but having him dressing,” Flynn says. “That day I was pretty much the only guy on set, and I had to be properly naked. It was the opposite of my experience of getting naked on set usually. It was such a gentle and loving and sweet and family-oriented set. [De Wilde] was really honest about it being a male body intimately seen from the female gaze.”
Flynn says this was a feeling persistent throughout production, one he felt stemmed from having a female-driven set with de Wilde at the helm. “I’m always grateful to be in a female-led environment,” he says. “I get on better instinctively with women. There is a flow. In the spirit of men, there is often a level of competition, and I don’t feel that often when you’re working and being led by a woman. There is not necessarily the same need to prove themselves.”
Your favorite Austen hero is buff in more ways than one. “They didn’t wear underwear,” Flynn notes. “The shirt basically was the underwear, so you tucked it between your legs and twist it, and it keeps everything in place. You have to be naked underneath, so I was, and then Connor was twisting the shirt — they struggled to get an angle where you didn’t see everything.”
Suited and booted
Getting dressed in this era was more complicated than throwing on jeans and a T-shirt. “We did it from beginning to end a few times, with a few different angles,” Flynn says. “You have to kick somebody from behind while they tug the boot. The cravat takes a long time, sometimes you have to do it like five times before it is right. All the buttons and the cuff links and the things — it’s crazy there’s so many levels to it.”
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