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It is a truth universally acknowledged… that Jane Austen’s novels will never stop being reimagined, readapted, or reworked. But among the countless parodies, books, and films that are based on Pride and Prejudice, only “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” managed to make it a web-based, immersive experience. The web series, a modern adaptation co-created by Bernie Su and Hank Green, premiered in 2012 and ended this year after 100 episodes, finishing off a stellar 2013 by winning a Creative Arts Emmy.
At the center of the series were the three — not five, as in the original — Bennet sisters: Jane, Lizzie, and Lydia. Played by Laura Spencer, Ashley Clements, and Mary Kate Wiles, respectively, the trio carried the series from the main “vlog” hosted by Lizzie, to spinoffs by Wiles’ Lydia Bennet, as well as a main “Pemberley Digital” channel, which now hosts “Emma Approved,” the series based off of — you guessed it! — Emma.
The three actresses talked to EW about filming their favorite videos, their final days on set, and what it was like realizing just how many viewers they reached.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you have any expectations on how the Internet would receive the videos?
ASHLEY CLEMENTS (LIZZIE BENNET): I had no expectations of numbers of views, but I really hadn’t done a lot on the Internet, and I certainly didn’t have a following myself. Our first day we got maybe a few thousand views, and I was floored by that. I was like, “Oh my god! How’s there so many people?!” And then those numbers just kept growing and now the channel has over 40 million views, and those aren’t numbers I could have conceived of. I was such an innocent going into the whole thing.
MARY KATE WILES (LYDIA BENNET): I think we were all a little scared. First of all, we didn’t expect so many people to watch it right away, and I think that when the first episode [below] came out and kind of blew up, we were all kind of like, “Oh shoot, oh people are watching, oh God, we can’t do this!” It took a while.
Looking back, what’s your takeaway on playing these classic literary characters?
AC: I was always just very proud to be playing a character who we weren’t afraid to have make mistakes. Something that I luckily didn’t think about too much before I started but then I got asked about a few months in was, “What’s it like to be portraying one of the most iconic and beloved literary characters?” I was like, “I didn’t think about that!” [Laughs] I very much think that our Lizzie is based in Jane Austen and not limited by who Jane Austen wrote but very much inspired by that.
MKW: There’s three sisters instead of five, so there’s, like, Lizzie and Jane, and then Lydia’s kind of like the one that doesn’t quite fit, so that automatically gives her a different motivation than Lydia in the book has… I never expected that [the partying and sex tape scandal with Wickham] was the story that I was gonna tell as Lydia Bennet, you know what I mean? I never went into that thinking, “Wow, this is something that I’m going to truly end up pouring my heart and soul into.” It was something that kind of grew as time went on, because when it started, I was kind of like, “Alright, I’m just playing Lydia Bennet on this little web series. I’m gonna be the crazy one.” But then people really started to latch onto Lydia, and I truly started to realize how important of a character she was, and how interesting of a character she was… I’m so glad that we got to explore that.
LAURA SPENCER (JANE BENNET): They really made Jane into this very career-driven character, not to say that the classic Jane wasn’t a strong character in and of herself, but I mean, the fans appreciated how the creators modernized a lot of the parts of the story to make it less about just finding a man being an important thing and more about for everyone’s sake, more about finding themselves along the way and what they wanted in their lives.
What was it like filming the videos that have become fan favorites?
AC: That scene [in Episode 59, when Darcy first appears, above] is the most rehearsed scene of any scene in the entire series. We knew we had to get that one really really right. It was rewritten a lot, Daniel [Vincent Gordh, who played Darcy] came in and auditioned for that four times, and we had been doing versions of that scene for literally months before we actually filmed it.
MKW: I love [Episode 72, “Party Time”] because I think Briana Cuoco, who plays Mary Bennet, is so flipping hilarious in that episode. It was kind of fun to like actually not just hear Lydia but feel Lydia in her natural habitat [laughs]. The joke is that Lydia is clearly talking to people, but you can’t hear the people that she’s talking to [laughs], so it’s like, there’s nobody actually at the party and she’s just delusional, like yelling at nobody! But that was fun.
LS: I think that Episode 48, “Snickerdoodles,” was such a crucial moment for my character… I wasn’t sure how they were going to do this moment in the series, when Bing leaves unexpectedly. That was just also a really fun challenge, because we would shoot eight episodes in a day back then, so I had all this other material too, and was working on another show at the time.
Tell me about Lizzie and Lydia’s dynamic, specifically with Episode 87 (above), when they had to talk about their feelings after their falling out.
AC: That was so meaningful to Mary Kate and I. Mary Kate and I became very close and still are during the course of the series, and by that point, not only were we really close, but we had become so attached and connected to our characters. Rachel Kiley wrote that episode, and I told her, “I can’t say there words without crying, because of my history with the character, because of my relationship with Mary Kate.” It was a very moving and cathartic experience for both Mary Kate and I and as much as everyone loves Lizzie and Darcy, that episode to this day is still the one that I hear from fans the most.
MKW: I think that episode is so important, and when I first read it, I was just so overwhelmed by the magnitude of it. It really spoke to me in the way that I had experienced my first heartbreak, and it was just a very real, very similar reaction to what Lydia had… I knew that I really needed to give it my all and really needed to do it right, because that was just so important. The way that Lydia kind of blames herself and takes it all on herself is a thing that I think is so common for girls to do.
What was your last day of filming like?
AC: [Episode 100, below] was not the last episode that we shot because we shot a lot of things out of order, but it was Mary Kate’s last episode, and she and I had a very good cry, and I cried a little bit with her, but I had to keep it together because I had another half day to go. The last episode that we shot was 99, and then I burst into tears and I got to have my really big cry.
MKW: It was difficult, and I wasn’t able to figure out how I felt, because I knew the episodes were still gonna come out… In my last episode, I finished my bit, and Bernie said, “That’s a wrap,” and I kind of just sat there with Ashley and I just cried, and we just kind of held each other for a second. It’s just not all the time as an actor that you get to experience something like that, that means so much to you, that means so much to so many people, and it’s so easy to get frustrated or wish that I was like further along in my career or on TV or whatever, but when it comes down to it, I would not trade that experience with anything. It was just wonderful, so wonderful.
LS: The scene [in Episode 92, “Goodbye Jane”] was fairly long, and it’s pretty much one take because the idea is that the camera has been left on. From an acting perspective, that was really exciting because I come from a theater background… It was like my own personal little farewell to the show, which was interesting because I had been there from the get go, and I had this isolated exit where I had time to say goodbye to the fans once it aired.
Who was your favorite character to play in costume theater?
AC: Mama Bennet. I called her Mama Bennet when I did it. I also very much enjoyed Catherine de Bourgh but I didn’t get to do that one very much.
MKW: I’m going to have to go with Bing Lee. Yeah, I think that’s the one — it was the first one, and I was just kind of like, “This is weird, I don’t even know how I’m doing this.” But people thought it was hilarious. My thought was always just like, “Okay, how does Lydia view boys, or how does Lydia view Lizzie, how is she going to play the part?” It was just so fun to put that spin on it.
LS: When [Daniel Vincent Gordh] came on screen, I was dying because I’m like, “Here was an actor who clearly did his research on the impressions and made it a real person.” I was glad that Daniel did that character in the way he did because it only made my impressions better. Honestly, I just did the lowest register of voice I possibly could, because I spoke in such a higher register as Jane than my normal voice, so I just brought it down as low as I could. I don’t even know if I was conscious at the time of how contrasting that was and how naturally comedic that then made it.
When did you first realize how large the fan base had become? Was it at VidCon?
AC: [VidCon] was a really staggering experience. It’s one thing to see numbers on a computer screen and another to go to a place and have all these people recognize you and be screaming at you. We were put in a pretty small room for our panel, I think it sat 300, and I started getting all these tweets saying it was full… It turns out that they filled a half hour before our panel started and turned a few hundred people away, so they added at the last minute a signing that we weren’t scheduled to do. Honestly, I was very much in shock about the whole thing. I was just like walking along, past the line of people with the other girls and one of them turns and goes, “This is for us,” and my face was just like “Whaaaaa? Huh?” and I stopped being able to walk. I’m just looking back at the line, like “Oh my God, I don’t know what’s happening right now.” And then they took us backstage, and I’m just making myself sound like somebody who just bursts into tears all the time, but I just burst into tears, like, “This is amazing, what is happening, I don’t know how to process all of these feelings!” I honestly still feel this way.
MKW: We ended up signing autographs in the lobby for an hour. People just kept lining up and we were just walking around. We were like, “Oh, this is a little crazy, like, wow, all these people know who we are and really care about us,” and it’s unbelievable. You know, the show’s been over since March, and I feel very lucky to have a group of people who care about me, who care about the work that I do, and I don’t know that that’s something that everybody gets in this field of work, and I’m truly thankful for that.
LS: Yeah, I think we all agreed on VidCon. We knew that people were watching the show — you can see the amount of views that there are per episode — but it’s a totally different thing to meet fans of the show face to face. None of us thought that anyone would know who we were at the time. The closest thing I can relate it to is like after a play in school, my friends and family would be backstage excited after the show [laughs], and all these people who I had never met in my life [at VidCon] had that same love and energy, so I don’t think any of us will forget that moment.
And lastly, did you regularly check what fans were saying on the Internet?
AC: It became a regular part of my life. Sitting in front of my laptop and seeing a response to it was something that I love doing, and not because people were saying, “Oh, you’re so great,” I mean, there was that, and that was lovely [laughs] but they were so fully invested in these characters and their story, and I was so invested in these characters and their story, so in a way, I got to kind of enjoy it with them.
MKW: The day that I knew the sex tape was going to drop, I was sitting there that day and I was just, like, shaking in front of my computer, because I just knew that everybody was about to go crazy over this thing that I don’t think anyone was expecting. I mean, it wasn’t real but it felt real, you know? That’s what was unbelievable about doing that series was truly, every time, it felt honest, it felt real. I would be in bed watching George tweet Lydia, just feeling that sense of excitement. That’s just so bizarre how the lines were blurred, the acting and the reality of it, because it was so alive in the tweets and the media and the fans themselves.
LS: I definitely read every tweet that was sent to me, because that is a special effort that someone has decided to take to tell you that they enjoy your work. And there’s no point in me being on Twitter if I’m not going to take the time to read those things. It was really neat throughout the entire experience of the show… It was kind of a scary world to jump in to, but the fans were so loving and so excited about the series that it was a nice thing throughout. It was a year of people sending you love letters, essentially [laughs] just saying praises of everybody on the show, and it was just really really neat to have that rapport along the way. The fans were the ones who shared with their friends who shared with their friends, and we have them to thank for the success of the show.
Revisit the entire series on Lizzie’s channel here.