In Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, out in theaters on February 5th, Matt Smith plays Mr. Collins, the stuffy, comedic parson who can’t seem to properly propose to any of the Bennet sisters. In most film versions of Jane Austen’s novel, Mr. Collins is a stuffy square. In this version, he comes across as fey and kind of dandyish. He is easily the funniest character in the film.
Matt Smith recently sat down with Crave to discuss his work on the film. He also talks about cracking up his fellow actors, and reveals the one big secret about Mr. Collins that only he and the director knew about. Also, as is our wont, we started the interview with a question about an obscure British TV movie he appeared in back in 2011.
Crave: I really loved Christopher and His Kind, the movie where you played Christopher Isherwood.
Matt Smith: It’s a fascinating story. He’s a fascinating man. I was really pleased to be part of that, and pleased to play that character. Because there was an eccentricity and extremity to him. And he was bold in his time. It’s fun to get inside the heads of those people.
I loved the way you played Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Of all the Pride and Prejudices I’ve seen, I’ve never seen him so broad and funny. He was like Bertie Wooster played by Roddy McDowall.
I don’t know those references, but I’m intrigued to know who they are. I’ll be sure to look them up. [Laughs.]
How much did you create for this version of the character?
I had an initial idea that he was, perhaps, in love with Mr. Darcy, and not with anyone else. Then, when you’re sort of holding onto that secret throughout it, it makes proposing slightly more interesting. It makes all of the sort of… it becomes about him having to oblige the period and the form of the time and the etiquette. And this is a film about manners and etiquette set in a world about manners and etiquette. But also, secretly, he’s sort of denying this instinct in him which I think makes him quite highly strung, and eager to please. It sort of allows you as an actor to express him in a slightly different way. I thought that could be funny, basically. That was the hope.
“I had an initial idea that [Mr. Collins] was, perhaps, in love with Mr. Darcy…”
And things from the book. I would go back to the original source material and it talks about… I thought he was quite greedy. He like muffins and scones and all those sorts of things. I tried to incorporate that.
So much of your dialogue is comprised of small improv-type throwaway jokes. Were those all scripted? How much did you improvise?
It wasn’t scripted, actually. Most of that stuff. A lot of it was improvised. Which I… Does that seem like it’s scripted? I knew that I would make choices based on those things I mentioned, and you get in the moment. You try to be inventive with it.
Did you break anyone on set because of your improvised lines?
Some of the girls did. During the dinner scene. I got them, they were sort of chortling away with themselves. Which was nice. That’s quite a nice energy of trying not to laugh. It’s got a good energy on a film set.
You don’t have any fight scenes or zombie scenes. What was the director’s dictate for you? Was it wholly Jane Austen-based?
He wanted everything to be played for truth and for real. So the love story, and indeed the comedy of it I suppose. Which is a good choice. You can’t send it up too much. But you can send it up just enough because there are zombies in the movie. The laws of that world change. That is what’s interesting I think. The success of the film, I think, slightly depends on judging that tone. Getting the zombies and a real threat, and getting the Pride and Prejudice love story. Because it is a movie about two people falling in love.
Several people, in fact. Mr. Collins with Mr. Darcy for one.
Unrequited love. Yeah, yeah.
Mr. Collins, since he doesn’t have too many interactions with zombies, could almost be considered the emotional anchor of the film.
Hm… No visits to zombieland, yeah. That’s interesting. It’s fun isn’t it? I hadn’t thought of that. I find these interviews so fun, because I don’t really have opinions on that. But I will muse on that.
What was your relationship with Jane Austen going in? Besides, of course, the fact that everyone’s read Jane Austen.
Everyone’s read Jane Austen. I was aware, and I had seen the adaptations. Colin Firth and Joe Wright’s. Colin Firth did have an amazing quality as Mr. Darcy. That show was such a huge hit in the UK, so it’s embedded in us somehow. But, uh, I had never read any. And I had never read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies either. So coming to those fresh was kind of cool, man. Because I was invested in the parson. So I really soaked up the books as a result.
Did you do Austen first, or Seth’s book first?
I dipped into both. I dipped into chapters of both in detail. Then dipped out. [Laughs.] Have you read Pride and Prejudice? Did you like it?
“You probably just think he’s a little bit flamboyant. Slightly misplaced. But I think it comes from dealing with a secret, you know?”
Yes. It thought it was like a classic musical comedy in a lot of ways.
I think with something like this, like Shakespeare or any other sort of classical work, I always think it’s nice to find an angle where you can reinvent and reinterpret. Find a fresh way of investigating these people. Like I said, I made one central, big choice, which I think ultimately came out.
How much of the cast was privy to your choice?
The director knew. It’s one of those things we may never really understand. Because you don’t understand that in the film. You probably just think he’s a little bit flamboyant. Slightly misplaced. But I think it comes from dealing with a secret, you know?
But I think when you have zombies in any movie, it allows you tonally to make slightly bigger choices. Which I like. It allowed [Mr. Collins] to be even more jittery. Because he’s the one character who’s not very good with the zombies, really. Bingley’s not really either, but Mr. Collins wants nothing to do with them. He wants to hide, he wants to run away and be in his parsonage.
What was the first record you bought with your own money?
That’s a good question. I’ve got to think. I can’t even… You know for the life of me I try to remember, and I can’t. I only remember the song. It was called “Shy Guy” [Sings several lines of “Shy Guy”]. It was that. I can’t remember who that was.
That sounds about right. That’s amazing cool. It might also have been “What’s the Story Morning Glory?”
Top Image: Screen Gems
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.