Anne Hathaway became America's princess opposite Julie Andrews in 2001's The Princess Diaries, its sequel The Princess Diaries II: Royal Engagement, and Ella Enchanted. She took on more sophisticated roles in Nicholas Nickleby, Havoc, Brokeback Mountain, and The Devil Wears Prada. On the heels of playing young Jane Austen in Becoming Jane, Hathaway signed on to play iconic spy Agent 99 in the big-screen remake of Get Smart, opposite Steve Carell. I spoke with Hathaway backstage at San Francisco's WonderCon 2008.
Anne Hathaway: Hi—how are you doin'? (Indicating her beverage:) My suspiciously colored drink...
Groucho: Anne, on the TV show, 99 was very forgiving of Max, because she saw him as kind of a puppy or a little boy, and she had affection for him. What's the relationship in the film like: how does 99 see 86, and who is she?
AH: Well, I think in the original series, 99 was always more forgiving of Max—as you said, she kind of looked at him like a puppy; I think she found him charming. Initially my character doesn't; she's actually a little antagonized by him. And then once she realizes Max is a good agent—he's just kind of an idiosyncratic agent—then she begins to warm to him a lot. She realizes that there is a method to his madness. And that appeals to her because—it's something that I think we've done with our series. The original series, by the way, I personally think is perfection, so please understand that when I say "different," I do just mean different, not better, not competing, nothing: we don't think we could possibly improve on anything. So I think 99's a little more aware of her own mortality. So she tries to explain to Max that, you know, if he doesn't follow the rules and do things right, that they will die. And yet, Max perseveres. (Laughs...)
G: Seeing the new footage that just ran, the thing that's very striking about it is the scale of it, how big a film it is in addition to the comedy aspect. Can you talk a little bit about that? You mentioned shooting in Red Square—what were some of the more extreme things you had to do?
AH: Um, one of the more extreme—keep a straight face around Steve Carell: that was pretty extreme. Not melt every time Alan Arkin looked at me. Um, you know, be at the receiving end of Dwayne Johnson's pranks. He's a prankster. That was pretty extreme. But getting to be strapped to a harness, flying through the air, simulating falling through the sky, learning how to shoot a gun—which I hated—doing fight sequences, beating up half a dozen KAOS spies while running away from gunfire. It was—the whole thing, I was called upon to do things that I never, ever in a million years thought I'd be able to do. And it was so much fun. And I had a great stunt double who did so much better. Oh, and there's a dance-off in the film. So I'll just throw that little note in there...
G: Every film has its own unique demands, so what is your working process like as an actor? When you take the script and you know "I'm going to report to the set in a few weeks or months," how do you set out to prepare to do the work?
AH: I just think you try to figure out, as a—(laughs) I'm just going to repeat myself—you figure out what the story is and figure out what's the most honest way to tell it. And that's what makes it change from beat to beat. you know, sometimes it's better to take a step back from the role. Sometimes you don't want to overthink it; you just want to dive in. Sometimes you want a year to prepare for it. Sometimes research is involved; sometimes imagination is involved. You just kind of—I think I'm probably more of an intuitive actress than a technical, by-the-book actress, so I probably rely more on my intuition for whatever that character needs than like a set process.
G: That said, was there any research into the spy world that you did for this? I know it's a fantasy comedy but—
AH: This was the most fun research I ever got to do, 'cause I just got to watch a lot of episodes of Get Smart. But I knew that—and I watched a ton of episodes of The Office. And I just tried to watch comedies—
G: Brush up your comedy.
AH: Yeah, really, brush up with comedy. You know, I watched anything I could get my hands on that Lily Tomlin was in. I'd watch a lot of Meryl Streep movies. Women who have spectacular timing. I just wanted to kind of—to watch them. And then the thing that you realize when you watch them, and it's something that—then I went and talked to Steve about it, and he just reinforced it—comedy's about timing, but it's also about listening. So that was kind of the thing, once (laughs) Steve, you know, illuminated that for me. I'm like (adopting ditzy voice) "Oh, it's just like acting, right, that's awesome." Um, it was fun.
G: And so how would a scene get honed? When you're in the middle of the scene, and you're more intuitive, how would you tweak the timing with the director?
AH: It's not such a science as that. You know, I think we all—you know, it's not like "Dial it up five percent here; dial it back seventeen percent here." You just do what you think is right. You throw it out there. Pete created a non-judgmental environment where it was impossible to fail. Sometimes things worked; sometimes they didn't work, and if they didn't work, you knew he was never, ever going to put them in the movie. So it was a really safe environment to play in, which I think is really great for any performer putting themselves out on a limb, but especially someone like me, who I don't have training or a background in improv, and has to do it against Alan Arkin and Steve Carell, arguably two of the improv masters, well, ever. And so the environment went a long way to creating the end result...Just a quick remark on Barbara Feldon: I grew up watching the series, and she was such an idol for me growing up. I really looked up to her. And so it was very, very daunting to step into her terribly elegant shoes. But I really love where we took 99 in this movie, because I feel like our version of 99—I feel like a lot of women were influenced by Barbara Feldon and her portrayal. Being a woman who had a very elegant sex appeal, who is obviously so intelligent, who is also kind and sophisticated, and I feel like a lot of women were inspired by her. So I feel like our 99 couldn't have existed without hers in so many more ways than one.