The actress delivers an excellent turn as Charles Dickens’s mistress in The Invisible Woman. And with starring roles in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and HBO’s Girls, she’s about to blow up.
If she was more single-minded in her pursuit of stardom, Felicity Jones would be a household name by now. She’d be gracing the cover of Vanity Fair, dodging voracious paparazzi whilst on a date with a well-coiffed young stud, and appearing as eye-candy opposite a Ryan Reynolds-type in a quid pro quo studio rom-com. After all, in Like Crazy, Jones is the fetching British girl that the wide-eyed young American man falls hopelessly in love with, while none other than Jennifer Lawrence plays the discarded fling. It was her performance as Anna Gardner, an English exchange student who fills—and then breaks—the heart of a callow architect-to-be (Anton Yelchin) in the aforementioned indie that granted her “next big thing” status. She won a Special Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival for “Breakout Performance,” and the BBC called her “this year’s Carey Mulligan.”
But no. Jones eschewed the lame Hollywood offers—including the lead in Mirror Mirror, a reimagining of Snow White opposite Julia Roberts—in favor of appearing in Luise Miller, an adaptation of the Schiller play Kabale und Liebe, on London’s West End. She spent months living with a Catholic family and attending mass to prepare for the theater gig.
“I’d already been thinking about it for months and months and working on it, so it felt really natural to do the play, and that was a very instinctive decision,” says Jones. “On everything, you take it on your feelings about the script and the director. I love moving between bigger films and smaller roles, and my desire is to be constantly mixing it up, but it has to feel right.”
I meet Jones at the New York headquarters of Sirius Satellite Radio. She’s tiny—about 5’2”—but, with her pursed lips, black hair, elfin face, and delightful British accent, you can tell why she’s attracted the likes of Burberry and Dolce & Gabbana. She’s just wrapped a brief segment on the radio, and when I inform her she’ll be followed by the Norwegian musical act Ylvis (of “What Does the Fox Say?” fame), her face lights up.
“I love them!” she exclaims. “I’m going to get such kudos for saying I’ve met them.”
We were supposed to hang out in the spacious Sirius green room, but it’s still occupied by those fox-happy viral stars, so we settle in the empty corner office of Sirius’s vice president. Jones, ever the charmer, proceeds to slink behind the desk and begin fake-hammering away at the keyboard.
The actress is in town to promote her film The Invisible Woman. Directed by Ralph Fiennes from a screenplay by Abi Morgan (Shame), it tells the real-life story of Nelly Ternan (Jones), the secret—and much younger—mistress of Charles Dickens (Fiennes), who remained the celebrated author’s lover until his death. Jones was attracted to both the character, and the prospect of working with Fiennes, whom she’s long admired.
“I would like to have a career similar to his,” she says. “He moves between such different scales of production and types of work. I really admire it…I’d love to play Voldemort!”
Since the film is set in the 19th century, Jones was outfitted in a series of Victorian era gowns, replete with bodice and bustle. Her character, Nelly, has a habit of taking long, meditative walks on the beach to clear her mind, and on the first day of shooting, Jones had a bit of a slipup.
“I actually fell over trying to walk along the beach!” she says with a laugh. “The gown was so heavy, and when I was walking, the wind kept pushing me in the other direction, which resulted in me falling on my face in the sand in front of 50 members of the crew. It’s a good way to start work!”
Prior to shooting the beach-walking scenes, Jones would listen to Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” to get her in the right frame of mind. She also read plenty of Dickens. Despite reading English at Oxford—and graduating with a 2:1, mind you—Jones admits to not being the biggest fan of Dickens prior to filming, but now counts herself among his fans.
“We did a week on him at university and had to write an essay, so I just tried to find the shortest book I could—Hard Times, three hundred pages!—but after doing the film, I really started to understand how great his writing is,” she says. “I’ve always loved Great Expectations since I read it as a kid.”
Many historians, as well as Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman, have theorized that Great Expectations is Dickens’s most autobiographical novel, and the character of Estella, the conceited apple of Pip’s (Dickens’s) eye, is supposedly modeled after Nelly.
Jones’s longtime boyfriend is Ed Fornieles, a sculptor and visual artist, so I ask her why women are so drawn to the “tortured artist.”
“Doesn’t everyone like the tortured artist?” she replies. “I think guys and girls are attracted to talented people, and when you love someone, you love what they do as much as who they are. With writers, actors, and visual artists, their personalities are very much intertwined with what they produce.”
Born and raised in Birmingham, England, by a pair of journalists—her parents met while working at the Wolverhampton Express and Star—Jones has been acting since she was a child. At 11, she starred in the ITV television series The Worst Witch, about a group of witches studying at a Hogwarts-like school, and later garnered acclaim for the role of Emma Carter on the BBC Radio 4 soap opera The Archers, which she continued doing while enrolled at Oxford. After graduating in 2006, one of her first gigs was on the UK TV series Cape Wrath (Meadowlands in the U.S.), and critics eviscerated her.
“I was stupidly reading a review and the review said, ‘An excellent cast—apart from Felicity Jones, who is the weakest link’—like the game show!” she says with a chuckle. “So, I had this phrase in my mind for years: you are the weakest link. I’ve since removed it from my mind and realized that it’s not very good to read reviews, because it’s not good for your self-esteem.”
Roles in films like Brideshead Revisited, opposite Emma Thompson, and Stephen Frears’s Cheri followed, until her “breakout performance” in Like Crazy. Directed by Drake Doremus, and shot on a shoestring budget of $250,000, the film was the talk of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and took home the coveted grand jury prize. After that, Jones bided her time until the right (big) roles came along. She did a few small films, like Hysteria, about the invention of the vibrator, and Breathe In, reuniting her with Doremus.
Now, it seems, her choosiness is starting to pay off. After The Invisible Woman, she’ll star in The Amazing Spider-Man 2—rumor has it as Black Cat, a Catwoman-like friend/foe of Spidey, though she says she’s sworn to secrecy—a stint as a Brit on the upcoming season of HBO’s Girls, and as one-half of a couple, opposite Jonah Hill, who, she says, “become obsessed with a man who murdered his wife and kids, played by James Franco,” in the film True Story. She’s also currently filming a biopic of Stephen Hawking—she’ll play his wife, opposite Eddie Redmayne—called Theory of Everything, and is rumored to be appearing in Warren Beatty’s long-gestating Howard Hughes biopic, which she “hopes will happen.”
“I’ve been living in a suitcase—literally, I’m living in a suitcase!—no, I’ve been living out of a suitcase for like six months,” she says, laughing. “It’s exciting! I’m definitely eclectic, that’s for sure.”