Mrs. Bates and Miss Bates, mother and daughter in the film, are played by real-life mother and daughter Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson (who are also real-life mother and sister to Academy-Award-winning actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson). Thompson revealed that it was a coincidence that she and her mother were cast alongside each other, as the casting director had their names on separate lists.
Emma and Mr. Knightley's dance is called "Mr. Beveridge's Maggot" (to the tune of the same name). (A "maggot" is "a whimsical fancy.") This same tune and dance were previously used in Pride and Prejudice (1995) for Elizabeth Bennet's dance with Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield Ball.
Ewan McGregor later regretted appearing in the film, saying "My decision-making was wrong. It's the only time I've done that. And I learnt from it, you know. So I'm glad of that - because it was early on and I learnt my lesson. It's a good film, but I'm just... not very good in it. I'm not helped because I'm also wearing the world's worst wig. It's quite a laugh, checking that wig out."
Toni Collette had to gain weight to portray "the Rubenesque Harriet" and she explained "I think it's important for people to look real in films. There's a tendency to go Barbie doll and I don't agree with that at all."
While she recovered from wisdom-tooth surgery, Gwyneth Paltrow had a month to herself do her own research for the part of Emma Woodhouse. She also studied horsemanship, dancing, singing, archery and the "highly stylized" manners and dialect during a three-week rehearsal period.
Douglas McGrath "fell in love" with the novel while he was an undergraduate at Princeton University. He believed the book would make a great film, but it was not until a decade later that he was given a chance to work on the idea.
Of his decision to bring Gwyneth Paltrow in for the lead, Douglas McGrath revealed "The thing that actually sold me on her playing a young English girl was that she did a perfect Texas accent. I know that wouldn't recommend her to most people. I grew up in Texas, and I have never heard an actor or actress not from Texas sound remotely like a real Texan. I knew she had theater training, so she could carry herself. We had many actresses, big and small, who wanted to play this part. The minute she started the read-through, the very first line, I thought, 'Everything is going to be fine; she's going to be brilliant.'" Following the read through, Harvey Weinstein decided to give the film the green-light. However, he wanted Paltrow to appear in The Pallbearer (1996) first, before going ahead and allowing the film to be made.
Alan Cumming wrote on his official website that the friendship that developed between himself and Douglas McGrath was one of the most memorable things about his time working on the film. He went on to state that the worst thing about the shoot was his hair, which had been lightened and curled for the character.
Emma's wedding dress was made from silk crepe and embroidered with a small sprig pattern, while the sleeves and the train were made from embroidered net. Of the dress, Myers stated "The inspiration for Emma's wedding dress began with a small amount of exquisite vintage lace that became the overlay. I wanted a look that would work not only for the period but also one that would compliment Gwyneth Paltrow's youth, swan neck, and incredible beauty. I was also hoping to evoke happiness and the English countryside; the sun did shine on the day we shot the scene!"
Ruth Myers revealed that she did not want the costumes to have a "heavy English look" and instead she wanted "to get the freedom of bodies that you see in all the drawings, the form of the body underneath, the swell of the breasts." Myers told Barbara De Witt from the Los Angeles Daily News that using pastel-coloured clothing to get the watercolour effect was one of her major challenges during the production. The designer was later criticised for being inaccurate, but she stated that she did not want the costumes to look old or sepia.
Jeremy Northam revealed that when he first tried to read Emma, he did not get very far and was not a fan. When he read the script for the film, he was initially considered for another role, but he wanted to play George Knightley. He stated "When I met the director, we got on very well and we talked about everything except the film. At the end of it, he said he thought Knightley was the part for me, so I didn't have to bring up the issue at all." Northam added that Knightley's faith in Emma becoming a better person was one of the reasons he loved the character.
Douglas McGrath had initially wanted to write a modern version of the novel, set on the Upper East Side of New York City. Harvey Weinstein, liked the idea of a contemporary take on the novel. McGrath was unaware that Clueless (1995) was already in production, until plans for Emma were well underway.
Ruth Myers wanted to mirror the lightness of the script within the costumes and give "a spark of colour and life" to the early 19th century setting. During her research, Myers noted a similarity between the fashions after the Napoleonic Wars and the 1920s, saying that they had "the same sort of flapperish quality". The designer explained "The moment I set to research it, more and more it kept striking me what the similarities were between the two periods. It was a period of freedom of costume for women, and it was a period of constant diversions for the upper classes-picnics, dinners, balls, dances. What I wanted to do was make it look like the watercolours of the period, which are very bright and very clear, with very specific colours."
The red and white muslin gown worn by a wedding guest is the same costume worn by Catherine Walker (Eleanor Tilney) to greet Catherine and Henry when they return from Woodston in Northanger Abbey (2007).
The gold overdress Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Elton) wears at the Box Hill picnic is the same costume worn by a guest at the London party where Lord Byron meets Annabella Milbanke in Byron (2003), and by one of the dancers leaving the theatre while Amy waits for Fanny in Little Dorrit (2008).
The blue striped dress with long sleeves Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma Woodhouse) wears at Hartfield is the same gown worn by a guest at the Towers in the opening scene of Wives and Daughters (1999), and by Mali Harries (Ann Rood) for her wedding in Byron (2003). The same costume is also worn by one of the maids at Chawton Cottage in Miss Austen Regrets (2008), and by Laura Pyper (Jane Fairfax) while reading a letter in Emma (2009).