Felicity Jones loves playing powerful women who have made a big impact. She talks about her roller-coaster life, being a ‘constant news-checker’, and the fun of winding up her co-stars
‘There’s such chaos in the world’: Felicity Jones wears shirt dress by Fendi. Photograph: Gustavo Papaleo/The Observer
The actor Felicity Jones, judged by dreary national statistics, is neither tall nor short: she’s a bang-on average 5ft 3in. Measured by the slightly looser gauge in her imagination, though, Jones is a colossus, a towering church-and-steeple of a human being. She’s got a basketballer’s reach and a bodyguard’s doorway-filling bulk. Even in flat-soled shoes, this 36-year-old can go around plucking stranded cats out of trees. “Without a doubt,” she says, “I’ve always felt bigger and taller than I am.”
In the past few years especially, the actor has made good use of this inside-outside differential. Whether it was playing the pioneering American judge, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in 2018’s On the Basis of Sex, or earning an Oscar nomination as Jane Hawking, Stephen’s formidable first wife, in 2015’s The Theory of Everything, Jones has had an instinctive sense for the pathos and humour in characters whose physical slightness tends to trick others into overlooking them. In a Star Wars movie, 2016’s Rogue One, she played a watchful and almost childlike guerrilla who ultimately tough-nutted past dozens of baddies to bring down an army. In her coming movie, The Aeronauts, she plays a 19th-century balloonist – a figure of fun to the scientists and flight enthusiasts of Victorian London, until she has to rescue one of them from death at 37,000ft.
Jones meets me for lunch in a pub in north London. She is early, and pumped for some roast chicken. When our meals arrive she sets about eating and talking at an equally brisk clip. Although this can lead to accidents (she points out a stain on her sweatshirt), Jones is a cool bean and has that performer’s knack, just about inexplicable to me, of chatting away fluently even after forking in a mouthful of drumstick meat.
She’s interesting and eloquent about her job, stiffer when it comes to talking about herself and her personal life. First we talk about the wider world, which seems, most weeks, to be falling to pieces. “There was that old-fashioned idea, years and years ago,” she says, “of a movie star who was this godlike being who never deigned to talk about anything mortal. But that’s long gone.” All for the better, she thinks. “I’m a constant news-checker. You can’t not be, now. There’s such chaos in the world. It seems to be our duty to be informed, to be abreast of things. Particularly in my work, now, I’m not shy of things that have a strong ideology, that are political.”
Her Ginsburg biopic had an obvious liberal bent. The politics are more subtle in the new film The Aeronauts, directed by Tom Harper, written by Jack Thorne and co-starring Eddie Redmayne. He plays James Glaisher, one of the world’s first meteorologists, a Victorian scientist who hoped to better understand our weather and our climate. In his studies of the upper atmosphere, he took the first steps towards understanding what damage we were doing up there, even then. A timely story to tell, Jones suggests.
I ask her what she makes of the current political situation. “Uh. I’m pretty disappointed, to be honest. It’s been sort of devastating, the last few years. It’s a tragedy.” She recalls the time she spent in the company of Justice Ginsburg, becoming close to the 86-year-old while preparing to portray the older woman on screen. “That was life-changing for me,” she says. “Spending time with her. Getting to know her well. She has such integrity. And, particularly now, when we look around at public figures, when their integrity seems to have been left very, very far behind, and it seems as if everyone is acting out of this horrific personal interest…” She widens her arms, a gesture of vague despair that I take to mean: oh, for one or two more Ginsburgs.
I’m an instinctively open person. I’m used to being quite expressive
On the Basis of Sex, which partly focused on the relationship between Ginsburg and her husband Marty, played by Armie Hammer, got a lukewarm reception when it came out last year. Jones remembers the months spent promoting the movie around America, not always to the most receptive of audiences. “I felt there was an ingrained sexism, at certain points, in response to the film. Even now it’s hard to put out a film like that into the world, about female triumph, female success.”
She remembers the amazed reaction people had to Marty especially, who took on a secondary role in the marriage, better to support Ruth’s ambitions. Up to that point, in a varied screen career, Jones had played opposite monsters, witches, a long-dead Peter Cushing who was digitally revived by animators for her Star Wars film, superheroes and aliens. But it was Marty Ginsburg who audiences refused to believe in.
“I was asked: ‘Who is this man? Could he possibly exist? Is he a fantasy?’ I don’t know. Maybe change happens slowly. But it’s hard at times not to get disheartened.”
Jones was born in a suburb of Birmingham, to parents who met while working on a local newspaper. They separated when she was young, and Jones has since said that the example of living with a working single mother helped instil in her a definite work ethic. Jones joined a drama group at 10 and got her first paid gig at 13, in an adventure movie, The Treasure Seekers, alongside a young Keira Knightley. They filmed during the school holidays. “I remember liking how we were taken seriously, despite being young.” At 15, she joined the cast of The Archers (playing Emma Carter in the radio soap until she was in her mid-20s) and put in the work while in secondary school as a magic-endowed school bully, Ethel, in a BBC adaptation of the Worst Witch books.
Over lunch we talk about some of the complications associated with kids who take on adult jobs. Growing up too quickly. Missing out on parts of childhood. Jones cuts in on my examples. “You’re asking, did I have the Judy Garland experience? On the uppers and downers?”
Sure, I say. How Judy were you?
“I was quite low on the Judy scale. Partly because my parents were strong about having an education, and keeping school going alongside acting. And partly because it felt like a hobby then. It was fun. It wasn’t Judy. It wasn’t a grind.”
Jones went to Oxford and studied English. Her freshers’ week was unluckily timed. She had just done an ad for zit medication, which was nationally broadcast. “I was one of two girls in a bedroom, talking about a guy named Rob. We bounced around, fell back on the bed, dreamed about this guy named Rob. And then we used some face wipes.” As an undergrad she appeared in some earnest, bad student plays and, after graduating, moved to the southeast to set about auditioning for real.
“I look back on that time fondly. But I remember it being hectic. Chaotic. Everything up in the air. You got sent reams and reams of scenes to learn, for auditions that were always in Soho, and which you would never get. I remember always bumping into the same actors who were going through the system.” She reels off the names: Carey Mulligan, Andrea Riseborough, Eddie Redmayne, Andrew Garfield, Tom Hardy… “We’d see each other constantly.”
One by one, like fireworks, these other careers began to spark and take off. “We were all going for it. So you were disappointed if you didn’t get something, when someone else did. It was funny. People would have these moments and suddenly go stratospheric. I guess I started to realise that everyone has their own unique selling points.”
When I ask Jones what her own unique selling point is, she raises an eyebrow, ironic. Isn’t it obvious? “My height. My huge stature!” She apes the voice of an imaginary casting director: “She took our breath away, that tall one. We’ve got to get that tall girl back.”
That gang of Soho auditionees, with careers that one by one took off – was there rivalry between them? Is there still? Jones tilts her head. “We’re all still friends. I’m always interested in what choices they make. ‘Ooh. That is interesting. They’re doing a play now are they?’ It’s healthy competition. And it’s nice to feel hungry.”
In the late 2000s Jones was in a bunch of TV shows: Austen adaptation, David Morrissey drama, Doctor Who cameo. She appeared in two Michael Grandage plays in the West End, and Julie Taymor cast her as Miranda in a Helen Mirren-led film of The Tempest. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant made her a co-lead in their curious, whimsical romcom from 2010, Cemetery Junction. The film that eventually cut through was an American indie, Like Crazy, a Sundance darling directed by Drake Doremus that came out in 2011. Jones played a British exchange student who fell in love with a Californian, played by Anton Yelchin.
Years later, Jones’s co-star Yelchin was killed in a car accident outside his home, at 27. When I ask about him, Jones loses her fluency. “I mean, it takes time, to get to a point… to find some hope in some of this stuff. I think all decisions in life become more meaningful through grief. You think: ‘How lucky I am.’ Because it’s… Because we’re all just here in the balance.” She’s seems a little teary-eyed. Maybe I’m imagining it. In any case we leave the subject there.
There is a certain line in Jones’s head, the stuff in life that’s up for discussion, and the stuff that’s not. She will squirm as this line is approached. She’ll prod at her food. Talking about intimacies with a voice recorder running is, plainly, agony to her. “I think it’s a bumpy ride, isn’t it? I’m an instinctively open person. I’m used to being quite expressive. But I think, ultimately, you’re just trying to think about people in your life who haven’t chosen the public eye.”
You develop a sense of detachment in order not to get too neurotic
Jones recently got married to her boyfriend, the British director Charles Guard. After the wedding, pictures of the ceremony were harvested from her guests’ social media accounts and published in a few tabloids. “To an extent you develop a level of detachment from yourself,” Jones says. “Seeing images of yourself all the time, you have to, in order not to get too neurotic. But I think in terms of family and friends and partners, you need to protect them.”
One friendship she is eager to discuss is that with Redmayne. The pair were cast in The Theory of Everything in the summer of 2013. During the shoot the following autumn, Jones remembers, they developed an interesting method of motivating each other. When it was one of their turns for a close-up, the other would linger off-camera, hurling abuse. “I would stand there, or he would, shouting horrific things, ‘You’re hopeless, you’re never going to work again,’ anything to get a response. Shooting gets monotonous. You do scenes over and over and over again. To try for something a little… spicier, it helps if someone is pushing you, provoking you.” Jones says the pair repeated the same trick when they reteamed for The Aeronauts. Every day she and Redmayne would set out to ruin the other one’s day, “to get a fantastic close-up.”
When The Theory of Everything came out, both Jones and Redmayne were nominated for the big-deal best-acting awards – Oscars, Globes, Baftas, all of which Redmayne won. Jones missed out, beaten in every case by Julianne Moore for Still Alice. She remembers it, now, as a blurry, happy period of brilliant good luck. “Which at the time I totally took for granted. I thought it would happen in every film. ‘See you on the next red carpet!’ It’s only afterwards you see how special it was. How unique, for a film to hit the zeitgeist.”
I ask Jones, what does an experience like that do to the ego? “The ego… swells. It can feel as if this film is the most important thing of the moment, and you lose a bit of perspective.” They’d been pushing and pushing to get to Oscar night on 22 February, she recalls, and on 23 February, Jones says, only exaggerating slightly, everybody moved on. “The whole thing ends. It feels like you start again. But that’s the job. It’s a carnival, it’s a travelling show. The tent comes down. There’s the constant excitement and adrenaline and next minute no one cares. You can see why actors in the past have had such horrific lives. Drugs. You have to have some stability that’s already there in you. You have to be able to ground yourself – come home. Take time to let your ego un-swell.”
A few years have passed since then. Jones went on to helm the billion-dollar-grossing Star Wars film, Rogue One. She married. She played Justice Ginsburg. Recently she signed on to make a George Clooney-directed space movie, out next year. Right now she’s back on the promotional circuit with Redmayne for The Aeronauts. A winter release date, for a film like this, would tend to suggest there are studio hopes for the big awards. Who knows? Jones says: “You start to realise you have peaks and troughs. It’s an undulating experience.” She’s inclined to go by the theory: “Have a care for what you put out in the world, and then let the world do what it will.”
We’ve finished our lunch and reflexively we do that ugly, uncomfortable thing in times of Big News – we check our phones for updates. Jones says she’s been thinking about Stephen Hawking a lot, in these times of political upheaval, all the disagreements and double-talk. Jones befriended the physicist during the course of making The Theory of Everything and when Hawking died last year, she attended the funeral. She has found herself wondering what he would make of it all. “He was such an important voice,” she says, standing up. “I miss it. I don’t mean his voice-voice. His voice went, of course, he had a mechanical voice. I mean, I miss his articulacy.”
His reason, I suggest.
“Yeah. I miss his truthfulness.”
She shrugs. Gathers her stuff. The world carries on doing what it will.
The Aeronauts is in cinemas nationwide
Stylist by Hope Lawrie; makeup by Mary Greenwell; hair by Leigh Keates at Premier Hair and Makeup