She was the voice of Archers’ favourite Emma Grundy, but Felicity Jones is about to gain a whole new audience
In these days of recession and uncertain unemployment, even IT girl actresses like Felicity Jones have to keep their options open. “Let’s see, I can snowboard thanks to Chalet Girl,” she offers. “And clean your house.”
Most actors make a point of becoming acquainted with the skillsets of their characters; famously Daniel Day Lewis can chuck knives with aplomb and Rachel Weisz once boasted to me of being able to plough a furrow after playing a land girl.
However it’s a measure of the diversity of Jones’s career to date that she knows her way around a bumpy head thanks to a study of phrenology for Hysteria, has worked as an intern for a magazine called Flaunt for Like Crazy (“where they seemed obsessed with working out who was the coolest person on the planet”) and now, presumably plays the piano at concert pianist level thanks to her preparations for her new film Breathe In, in which she plays a gifted young musician.
“I look like a great pianist thanks to an amazing teacher who is an actual concert pianist,” clarifies Jones. “I played the flute rather badly from the age of 12, but this was the first time I’d touched piano keys, and a lot of it was trying to understand the posture. I could do some of the simple pieces but the much harder ones were down to her.”
With a little more practice, could her next stage appearance be Carnegie Hall instead of the West End? “My stubby little fingers would have to grow an inch for a start. And even more basically I find it hard to divide my brain and have my hands play two different rhythms; I’m no loss to the music world,” she chuckles, as she curls into her seat overlooking Edinburgh’s Princes Street.
Jones is in the capital for the film festival premiere of Breathe In. Since it’s unfashionably early in the morning for both of us, she takes delicate sips from her latte as she warms up. She is so tiny, that the longest thing about her seems to be her straight brown hair, but make no mistake, Felicity Jones is about to be a very big deal.
Like Crazy, her last film with director Drake Doremus, was a low-budget production, semi-improvised by the cast, about an intense attraction between a British student (Jones) and an American university undergraduate (Anton Yelchin) where maintaining their long distance relationship means it goes on far longer than it should.
A week after it screened in Sundance, Jones’s agent woke up her client with the news that Sundance had given her their acting award. “I didn’t even know they gave awards to actors,” she admits. “But it was a lovely moment, once I realised I wasn’t still asleep.”
Since then, a lot more people have woken up to Jones, who has been popping up in most of the British films made over the last few years. As well as the teen-friendly Chalet Girl, she was the dream woman of the 1970s in Ricky Gervais’s and Stephen Merchant’s Cemetery Junction, and a would-be writer stuck in the seaside doldrums in Albatross. Like Crazy has pushed her further up the ladder. She’s a villain in the next Spider-Man, the star of Ralph Fiennes’s Dickens biopic The Invisible Woman, and pregnant in a romcom co-starring Jonah Hill. She also met with Woody Allen, “for seven minutes. I was so nervous beforehand that I had to walk around the block several times, but he was very polite and warm and we had a nice chat and that was it, I was back on the street before I knew it because he knows what he wants from an actor so he almost only has to look at you to know if you are right for the part.”
Auditions and movie meetings are not part of her comfort zone. “It’s like going for job interviews every other month. I still find it horrific but I’ve had to toughen up and be more philosophical that if I don’t get the part, it’s not the end of the world. I used to think every time I finished a job, ‘that’s it, I’m never going to work again.’ Now you just trust you’ll find something else.”
She must find it reassuring that she could have steady employment with Dormeus, who wanders through our informal interview zone throwing wisecracks at her as he passes.
The lead in Breathe In was created for her, and while the potential romance between Jones and Guy Pearce as a teacher she crushes on is terrific, it’s the chemistry with Dormeus that has longterm possibilities. “I definitely want to work with Drake again; he brings out the best in me. Films can come down to finding a director who brings out the best in you – Leonardo DiCaprio works with the same directors again and again. When you find that spark, you stick with it.”
It may be more difficult for Dormeus to fit Jones into his film schedule after the next Spider-Man, where she plays a villain rumoured to be the Black Cat, but is bound by an intimidating contract not to give much away. “It’s literally the biggest thing I’ve worked on – it takes 20 minutes to walk from one end of the set to the other,” she says.
Jones’s network of close friends are not in the acting business. Can she tell them about things like Spider-Man? “It’s a good test. How much do you trust them to keep a secret? I do love it when I tell them what I’ve been up to and they say ‘ooh that sounds interesting’. On the other hand, I’ll mention someone and they go ‘oh who’s he?’ It’s a good reminder that in the outside world, we’re not that important.”
Jones’s parents are not acting folk either, although her uncle is the actor Michael Hadley. Her father was a journalist for the Wolverhampton Express and Star, her mother worked in the advertising department, and the marriage split up when their daughter was three. Jones and her brother were raised in Bournville near Birmingham by her mother, and aged 11 joined a drama club.
She was 12 when she got her first job in a TV film, Treasure Seekers, which also starred a young Keira Knightley. Jones says that even then, everyone thought Knightley had star power. But it was Jones who became a UK favourite first, when she joined The Archers as Emma Grundy, a character who stayed with her from school through to studying for an English literature degree at Oxford. “I’d write essays till late at night, then get up early to go to Birmingham to record a sheep birth,” she laughs.
Like playing a Bond girl, or doing a sitcom, The Archers can be hard to shake off. “It’s fame of a kind,” she agrees. “But it’s great because you are heard in kitchens all over Britain, yet you are still anonymous.” Jones can be good, giggly fun once she hits her stride, dissolving into laughter when I carelessly ask her about being directed by Ranulph Fiennes. “He told me to stop complaining and get on with it unless I had frostbite,” she teases. Ralph Fiennes played her father in Cemetery Junction, but sounds a bit more like a demanding tutor when directing her as Charles Dickens’s mistress Nelly Ternan in The Invisible Woman.
“He’s got such a precise eye for fakeness,” she mockingly complains. “He knows when you are just phoning it in. Everything he does is so believable but it’s always within the head of a character. He’d tell me, ‘no, you have to go deeper, I want something really felt and meant.’ I couldn’t get away with being lazy because he’d push and push.”
Having journeyed from Ambridge to Hollywood in a few short years, it’s hard to believe that Jones needs anyone to push her towards success.
Breathe In (15) is on general release from this weekend.