Felicity Jones: ‘It’s not enough to see more women on camera’
‘On the Basis of Sex’ actor on #MeToo, more women on film sets and playing US supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Felicity Jones at last year’s Oscars in Hollywood, California, US. File photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Felicity Jones is a little late and hugely apologetic. Aged 35, she has hardly changed since her breakthrough role in Drake Doremus’s Sundance winner, Like Crazy. Same girlish appearance, same green eyes, and samer charming overbite. Same utterly unassuming manner.
One might easily imagine she’s here in Claridge’s hotel in London to promote something similar in scale to 2011’s Like Crazy, for which she improvised her own dialogue and did her own hair and make-up. Instead, she’s here for On the Basis of Sex, the eagerly awaited biopic based on the life and early, groundbreaking cases of US supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The celebrated judge was precisely the sort of role she had been chasing for years.
“I was already looking to develop something myself,” says Jones. “Originally, I was looking at a project that was like Working Girl. It was more like a romantic comedy, but what was appealing to me about that project was the idea of a woman going after her career. And then On the Basis of Sex came along and it was about this extraordinary woman who is constantly fighting against injustice. It’s very much about her ambition but it also has an incredible love story. It was a no-brainer.”
The screenplay for On the Basis of Sex was written by Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew, and builds toward a 1972 gender equality case argued by Ginsburg and her husband of 56 years, Marty Ginsburg, a tax lawyer and professor.
Ginsburg herself was consulted on every draft of the screenplay. The brooch Jones wears in the film is a replica of one given to Ginsburg by her mother. The associate justice also had casting approval over the film’s stars, Jones and Armie Hammer.
“The film is about her building the confidence to keep fighting,” says Jones. “She’s someone who is naturally quite reserved and shy. Her power was in being able to write these incredible arguments. A huge resource for me was listening to her archive and listening to her speaking in court. I constantly came back to that. I wanted to feel how much power and confidence she had when she was saying something she believed in.”
Ginsburg herself was an invaluable resource, says Jones, and not at all intimidating despite the relatively recent cult of celebrity surrounding her.
“I was very nervous at first,” she says. “I had already spent a couple of months researching her and preparing, so meeting her was very much about understanding who she was on a personal level. She was incredibly welcoming to us. She had seen every version of the script. And Daniel told us her notes for every draft were always very much about the law or about Marty. They were never about herself, which I think is testament to the kind of person she is.”
By now, Jones has plenty of experience in biographical drama, having previously essayed Charles Dickens’s mistress Nelly Ternan in The Invisible Woman and Margot Frank in the 2009 adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. Speaking about Jones’s Oscar-nominated turn in The Theory of Everything, an impressed Jane Hawking said: “I thought, ‘She’s stolen my personality!’, because she had my mannerisms, she had my speech patterns.”
Jones studied Beyonce in preparation for her role as Rebel Alliance fighter Jyn Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. She spent months mastering the snowboard for 2011’s Chalet Girl.
Disappearing into roles is a very Felicity Jones thing to do. Dedicated, quiet, and intensely private, she’s more than happy to talk about her likes and loves: Nicole Kidman’s recent turn in Destroyer, the 1990s Addams Family movies, Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, and anything by Sofia Coppola. Conversely, she gives helpful but diplomatic answers whenever the conversation ventures anywhere near controversy. Ask her about the treatment meted out to many of her female colleagues in the Star Wars universe – notably franchise producer Kathleen Kennedy and stars Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran – and she carefully addresses systemic issues rather than specifics.
“I would like to see change on film sets generally between the balance of men and women,” she says. “Because it’s a much better set when you have a 50/50 split of cast and crew. It’s not enough to see more women on camera. I’d like to see more women involved in technical roles, behind the camera and in lighting. There are areas that are still very male-dominated, and I look forward to the time when I look out on to the set and I see as many women as I do men. It is shifting. But it’s not there yet. We need a big push. And we need a big push to get women into technical roles in particular.
“I think that what has been so exciting about #MeToo is that it’s questioning gender inequality. I was just speaking to a woman . . . she’s a budding screenwriter, and she said it has given her so much hope that she can break into the industry, that it’s not just being dominated by men anymore. That’s fantastic.”
Jones grew up in suburban Birmingham to parents who worked for a local paper. After they divorced, Jones and her brother were raised by their mother. Aged 10, Jones auditioned for the Central Junior Television Workshop, a youth drama group. There was a family precedent. Her uncle, Michael Hadley, is an actor who has appeared in The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, A Touch of Frost, and, most recently, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
“It very much started off as a hobby,” recalls Jones. “I went to the Central Junior Television Workshop, which was an extraordinary, extraordinary drama group that brought [together] children from all over the city, from all different backgrounds and ethnicities, we all did plays together. That was run by a wonderful man called Colin Edwards, who was an absolute inspiration. He took us all very seriously at a very young age, so it was a place where I felt I could really be myself. And you need that. It’s all about having strong teachers at an early age. It’s so important to have people who empower you. And they’ve sent me off on this fantastic adventure.”
Jones read English at Oxford, having already established herself as a working child actor who played tearaway Emma Grundy in the BBC Radio 4 series The Archers and mean girl Ethel Hallow in The Worst Witch. The latter, a TV series based on Jill Murphy’s books, set the standard for Jones’s career.
“I started listening to the books on tape and reading the books, so that was a very important project for me,” she says. “Mildred Hubble was a very important role model for me and she taught me early that there are female role models there. Now they’re growing in number. But leading female roles and action heroes will still be determined by the money those films make.”
Jones later starred in Northanger Abbey and Brideshead Revisited. A career in the corset seemed certain, but she cleverly negotiated her way into a series of unpredictable roles, appearing in Shimmy Marcus’s coming-of-age drama Soulboy, Julie Taymor’s adaptation of The Tempest, and Doctor Who. She has subsequently, almost stealthily, ended up in three of Hollywood’s biggest franchises, by signing up for Rogue One, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Inferno, the most recent Dan Brown adaptation featuring Tom Hanks’s Robert Langdon.
“I’m quite careful in the work that I do,” she says. “The Oscars are fantastic that way, because they give you more opportunities to do something like Rogue One. It means that I can have a little more say in the kind of films that I get to make and the roles that I’m doing. So it’s been enormously helpful. And I’ve been able to choose quite carefully.”
Last June, she married her boyfriend of three years, director Charles Guard, at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire. Save for a few pictures that appeared in Vanity Fair, nobody but the invited guests might have known. Even post-Star Wars and Spider-Man, she says she’s able to walk down most streets without being approached.
“When I’m promoting a movie and it’s out there and I’m out there doing publicity, I get recognised a lot more,” she says. “But I still have anonymity when I need it. Thankfully.”
On the Basis of Sex opens February 22nd