Jessica Biel: 'I fight against prejudice every day'

Jessica Biel has two men in her life at the moment – Justin Timberlake and Noël Coward. But as James Mottram discovers, she only wants to talk about one of them

Jessica Biel's handler drops the bombshell when we're in the lift. "No questions about Justin Timberlake." The actress has been unofficially dating the "Cry Me a River" singer for the past year or so, but it's strictly off-limits. I'm here to speak to her about Easy Virtue, a film adaptation of a Noël Coward play in which she stars, but this is hardly an encouraging start. In our appointed hotel suite, a woman in a blue-and-white striped jumper sits in the doorway, presumably ready to eject me if the word "Justin" so much as leaves my lips. Meanwhile, two PRs wait in an adjoining room, one assumes, to listen to the conversation. I wouldn't be surprised if someone's hiding under the bed either.

When Biel eventually arrives – 25 minutes late and not a hint of an apology – she sits opposite me on a vast sofa, crossing one leg over another. Dressed in boots and a navy pinafore dress, with her blond hair scraped back, she means business. On the wall above her is a Perspex box full of butterflies, pinned for display. While it strikes me this is an appropriate symbol for Biel's situation, I wonder how she handles intrusive questions about her love life. "It just becomes awkward, as I have to say, 'I prefer to talk about the film because that's why I'm here.' You don't want to make anybody uncomfortable but at the same time you want to protect your life. Personal life and work life is completely different."

Coughing slightly, she stares right at me with her green eyes, and the conversation momentarily breaks down, both of us conscious of this elephant in the room that is her boyfriend. Changing tack, I ask how she copes with celebrity? "That is the most difficult aspect. It's weird, to be honest," she sighs. "People follow you all day long, taking photos of you walking out of offices and coffee shops. It feels strange and invasive. It's just a job and it's an amazing job, and has incredible perks... In my opinion, I just have a really great job and that's what it is for me."

You can't blame Biel for feeling this self-protective. At 26, her career is at what you might call a delicate stage. After getting her breakthrough in a series of genre movies – action (Stealth), vampire (Blade: Trinity), horror (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) – she wants to be taken seriously. Being Timberlake's partner is hardly likely to help, but she maintains she's not one to frequent the Hollywood party scene. "Occasionally I do but rarely am I out and about at the cool place to be. I'm not nearly cool enough." Her life is "way more boring than you might perceive it to be", she says. "I'm working all the time and when I'm not working, I'm hanging out with my dog. Literally."

At least Biel is making headway in her ambition to move away from genre movies. The Illusionist, the 2006 period magic yarn in which she co-starred with Edward Norton, gave her some kudos. Enough to convince Stephan Elliott, the director of Easy Virtue, to cast her as Larita, a feisty American divorcée who remarries into a family of British aristocrats and proceeds to antagonise them. "It was exactly what I was looking for, something I could throw myself into where everyone is expecting me to fail," says Biel. "Internally, I knew I can do it. That's the joy of this business. Shaking it up. Surprising myself. Surprising everybody else. Otherwise people just put you in a box."

A scene from 'Easy Virtue'

Pitting her against such British period stalwarts as Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas (who play her in-laws), Biel gives a very good account of herself. Going toe-to-toe with Thomas, she trades Coward's quips and barbs with all the precision of a fencing master. "She's very different from me," she says of her character. "A really fantastic wit." So you're not witty? "I am, but not like her. I have comebacks but they're always an hour too late." Being a stand-up comic is not on the agenda then? "Never. That's like my nightmare." What about public speaking? "I'm not a big fan of that either."

With Biel contributing a version of "Mad About the Boy" to Easy Virtue's soundtrack, one of the film's biggest surprises is that the actress can sing. Despite beginning acting with amateur productions of Annie and The Sound of Music, until now she'd never sung professionally. "I can be decent at karaoke but I can also be quite rubbish at it," she laughs. Not least because she always chooses Queen's rather difficult "Bohemian Rhapsody" to sing. "I love the song so much, and I love the interlude where you head-bang by yourself in front of the microphone."

Claiming she has no interest in becoming a pop star, neither is she "fashion savvy", despite her swish D&G coat. "It's taken a long time for me to start to understand, start to even care, about what I'm wearing to go out in the morning," she says. "Now I do – because I have to, because you will be crushed by the press if you wear some crappy T-shirt and bad sneakers. I have changed a lot and now I think about it a lot more."

As clichéd as it makes her sounds, Biel is a small-town girl at heart. Raised in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, in Boulder, Colorado, the daughter of an entrepreneur father and stay-at-home mother, she's a self-confessed theatre and soccer geek. Being a star was never on her agenda. But her striking looks – courtesy of her Choctaw American Indian heritage – meant she was always destined for more. After learning her craft in commercials, she received an offer to play preacher's daughter Mary Camden in family saga 7th Heaven, which became one of the highest-rated US series of the time.

From 'Easy Virtue'

By the time she was 17, she'd grown out of the role and was keen to leave, despite having a further two years to run on her contract. After posing semi-nude for Gear magazine in 2000, swearing like a trouper in the interview and proclaiming she wanted out of the show, she got her wish. She later admitted regretting the shoot, but nevertheless flirted briefly with a bad-girl image by turning up in the 2002 adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis's The Rules of Attraction. Not that this helped her career. "For a long time, I wasn't thought of as anyone with credibility in the film world," she says.

Not any more, though. She recently produced a 30-minute short, Hole in the Paper Sky, for her company Iron Ocean Films and hopes to go into production on a feature-length movie next February. She also is involved in Nailed, the new film from David O Russell. Biel plays a waitress who becomes unhinged after she gets a nail lodged in her head. The shoot was suspended just three days away from completion when financing fell through. The movie is still incomplete, and it's left Biel in limbo. "I will stop my schedule to finish it, no matter what I'm doing," she says, "But it's been a really bizarre experience."

Still, her recent roles have convinced her she's on the right path. "It's hard to find roles like Easy Virtue or Nailed," she says. "Complicated, interesting stories and interesting women... the bar has been set so high, I feel spoilt. It's the best thing that's ever happened to me but also the worst. Now I don't want to do just anything." Biel has a master plan: to diversify as much as possible so she can go back and make genre movies without becoming trapped again in that box. "Like Angelina Jolie – she can do anything she wants. She can do Wanted and she can do [Clint Eastwood's forthcoming film] The Changeling. She can do anything and nobody even bats an eyelash."

Now she's more selective and the days of her doing films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are over. "If I had that opportunity now I probably wouldn't do it. But that was a perfect moment in my life and career, where I needed to take on something that would jump-start me." Does she still fight prejudice? She nods her head. "Yeah. I'm still fighting against it. Fighting every day." It's why she says the idea of marriage and children are too far-off to think about. "I'm career-driven right now," she says. "And I'm a little afraid of the idea of kids at the moment, even though I'm sure at some point I'll have them." Whether it will be with Timberlake is another matter.

'Easy Virtue' opens tomorrow. The soundtrack is out on Universal

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game