Brace yourselves, Austenites: PBS’s Pride & Prejudice-inspired miniseries Death Comes to Pemberley will not feature any soaked shirts. But it will showcase The Americans’ always swoonworthy Matthew Rhys, second from left, as the esteemed Fitzwilliam Darcy.
The action in Pemberley—adapted from British author P.D. James’ best-seller—picks up six years after the events of Jane Austen’s classic novel and finds Lizzy Bennet’s better half reluctantly helping defend his troublemaking in-law George Wickham (Matthew Goode, restrained at right) after Wickham crashes an important event and confesses to committing the ultimate party foul: murder. Talking to EW, Rhys insists Pemberley (airing Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 on Masterpiece) will show unexpected facets of the iconic character.
Below, view an exclusive First Look at the miniseries, then learn more about Rhys’s take on Darcy and the Colin Firth-specific affliction Rhys calls “White Shirt Syndrome.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Mr. Darcy is an incredibly well-known character whom many actors have played already. Did fans’ expectations affect how you approached or prepared for the role?
Matthew Rhys: Yes and no. I think if I was offered to play Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, I would have said no for the simple reason [that] so many people have done it before. The readership of Pride & Prejudice is so enormous, and Darcy has now become this iconic figure… part of the heritage. People believe they have this right to him. When you then put those characters on screen, usually it’s met with a great adverse reaction because people are like, “No, that’s not who Darcy should be.” So when my agent said, “Do you want to play Darcy?” I went, “Absolutely not.” And then he said, “Hear me out….” After listening to him, I thought, “This is an opportunity. This isn’t the Darcy that everyone knows. This is a different Darcy, [six] years on. He’s been mellowed by Elizabeth.” But the beauty of it was, as much as he is different and having [children] has changed him, he reverts back to who Darcy was, certainly in Pride & Prejudice, because his name is on the line, the estate is on the line, and those sort of intrinsic Darcy morals come back. So it’s the best of both worlds. I’ve got the scope to mess up spectacularly, but I’ve also got a great reason or excuse [to play him].
Were you a fan of Darcy as a character before taking him on? And did these new sides of him excite your approach to the role?
Yes. He’s a more layered Darcy now. You get everything from Pride & Prejudice plus these other elements. To me, it’s a far more interesting part. I always saw Darcy as someone incredibly insecure and sensitive. Everyone says he’s this insensitive brute, I see the opposite. With those people, it usually belies something far deeper and more affecting of them—and that’s what makes him interesting.
Darcy has been a bit of a sex symbol in previous adaptations. Will we see that side of him in Pemberley?
I became aware of what myself and Matthew Goode, who plays Wickham [call] White Shirt Syndrome: [that] billowing white shirt… the lake [made famous by Colin Firth in the 1995 miniseries]. From the very first meeting with the producers, one of the first things they said was, “We just want to make sure you know there’ll be no white-shirt-in-pond scene,” which is great because you should never try to replicate something like that because you’ll just fail. It’s like Stonehenge now: Colin Firth coming out of the lake is a national treasure—you’re best not to touch it. [And] if you try and start playing sexy, I think you’re in a lot of trouble. You just come across as creepy.
P.D. James added elements of the supernatural and of course injected the excitement of the mystery/thriller genres—what do you think those add to Austen’s story?
P.D. James is a very shrewd woman in the fact that she fused two of Britain’s greatest loves: Austen and crime drama. A number of people [have] attempted sequels to Pride & Prejudice, and every time everyone goes, “You should never touch it as a sequel.” In doing what she did, giving it a crime thriller background, she took [any opportunity for opposition] away. She wasn’t trying to write a sequel to Pride & Prejudice. She made it its own unique entity.
They spend much of the novel apart. How does that affect Darcy and Elizabeth’s chemistry? Do you think that will fans will be looking for more connection between them?
That’s what P.D. James did incredibly well. In the initial set-up, you see them very happy, very much in love. And then, because they both go off in different tangents with the series of events, what it does is bring you back beautifully to that conflict that absolutely made the novel. She spun a very fabulous web in that she kind of ticks every box people will want to see with Pride & Prejudice while keeping it something very different and very much her own.
I would imagine Death Comes to Pemberley had a bit less physicality than you’re used to on a typical day at your other job on FX’s The Americans.
You say that, [but] we had horses, I had a bit of a tussle with Matthew Goode, and the dancing I found equally as difficult as any martial arts sequence I’ve had to do on The Americans.
And I assume there will be less wigs than in The Americans?
There are a fair amount of wigs in Death Comes to Pemberley, granted they’re all slightly larger and bouffanted. [It’s] a very different type of wig. There are less bubble perms going on.