With the many Pride and Prejudice adaptations have come many variations on Mr. Collins, the laughable cousin of Mr. Bennet and clergyman who sports an obnoxious attitude and a marital eye toward the Bennet sisters. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — a variation of Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) and Mr. Darcy’s (Sam Riley) love story set amongst the undead — features yet another Mr. Collins, this time played by Doctor Who alum Matt Smith.
“I don’t think anyone’s seen a Collins like this before,” writer-director Burr Steers tells EW of Smith. “He was really brilliant and funny in the part.” Smith delivers quippy one-liners and a fierce enthusiasm for dance, as well as a new spin on his character’s motivations: Mr. Collins is in love with Mr. Darcy, Smith reveals. Here, Smith expands on the film’s comedic moments and how he breathed new life into a tried-and-true character. He also addresses his role as the pioneering artist Robert Mapplethorpe in an upcoming biopic.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What drew you to this project, especially after your fairly recent turn as the title character on Doctor Who?
MATT SMITH: There’s been a few others in the interim, which were sort of different, like Patrick Bateman [in a London stage production of American Psycho] and stuff like that. I think with this it was pretty simple. There was a great cast attached. I thought I could do something with the part and give it a new spin and a slightly new angle. I tend not to overthink things. I just go “Oh yeah, I’ll do that one,” and here we are.
You definitely bring something new to this role, as Mr. Collins is very funny. What inspired you to make the character more comedic?
It wasn’t ever about making him comedic. I just thought, if you’re going to reimagine something like this, then you’ve got to give it a slightly new spin. I thought it might be interesting if he were secretly in love with Mr. Darcy. This man is on a quest to constantly get married, [but he’s] actually in love with a man. Still, he’s asking women to marry him all the time and gets rejected.
How did that idea inform your performance?
It informs the performance in the way that it makes him who you see on the screen, [that] he’s carrying around this secret. These things aren’t over thought. You have an idea and you run with it.
In that case, was the comedy organic for you?
Yeah, I did a lot of improvising, which was fun. I went back to the book as a source material and, for instance, in the original novel there’s a whole section about him liking muffins. So one day I started talking about muffins, and then there was a bit of a scene about muffins. Little details from the book that you can pepper into the film became very useful.
What other details did you pull from Jane Austen’s original novel or Seth Grahame-Smith’s undead take on it?
More character stuff. I like that he was quite greedy, really into dancing and practiced really hard at that, and this weird sycophantic relationship to Lena Heady’s character, Lady Catherine. I think what you really get from the book is that he is a man who is bound by his manners. There’s a lot of comedy in that, because you can play against the manners and the thing that he’s trying to constantly be or aspire to be, which is very well mannered, very proper, very good, and actually he’s none of those things.
Did your fellow actors improvise on set too, or what was the dynamic there?
Not really, but Lily did with me in the proposal scene. She was really cool [and] sort of flipped it up and mixed it about. I thought it would be fun if he kept getting on his knees, so he’s about to propose and then no actually, and then he’s about to propose and no actually. That was quite a fun gag to play.
Do you have a favorite scene or moment or line of your character?
I quite like the proposal scene. I like the line “Gallantry isn’t dead” because my dad says it a lot, and that’s why it’s in there, and I added the line “You sir, are very charming, and I am susceptible to flattery.” Just added lines, I thought they were quite fun.
Are there other things that you inserted into the film, or anything else about your approach to Mr. Collins that you want to touch on?
I listened to a guitar song called “Mafuá” by Yamandu Costa every morning and pretty much every day at work. If you listen to it you’ll sort of get a sense of where my head was at for Parson Collins. It’s plucky and happy.
You have some exciting projects coming up, including the starring role in a biopic about Robert Mapplethorpe. Why did you want to play this avant-garde photographer?
He’s a fascinating man and his art and his photographs and his lifestyle, I think the time and the culture that he lived in were a very interesting period. I’m interested in that, and I’m interested in his psychology. I thought it would be a challenge, and I love New York. This is a story that’s really based and set in New York, so it felt like an interesting project to try and take on.