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Interview: Felicity Jones talks Charles Dickens, Ralph Fiennes and painful corsets for ‘The Invisible Woman’

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Felicity Jones got her big break in Like Crazy, the winner of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize. Ever since then the 30-year-old actress’ career has been on an upward trajectory with upcoming roles in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and an untitled Warren Beatty project for 2015. Daily Actor had the opportunity to participate in a roundtable discussion about her role as Nelly in The Invisible Woman directed by Ralph Fiennes. The film, already open in limited release, opens nationwide on Jan. 10.

Did you know anything about Charles Dickens’ life before you got involved in this project?

Felicity Jones: In England he’s so ubiquitous that you feel like you know him. But I… obviously I knew his work, I knew his books, but I didn’t know about his private life. I didn’t know that he’d had an affair with Nelly. I knew that there was some sort of gossip about him having a close sister-in-law, but that was kind of the extent of it. So coming to the film I was… I was new to him and his background.

So what is the most interesting aspect of Nelly that you were able to tap into? Because you bring this great internal rage to her.

Felicity Jones: That’s good. I feel like she did, she was quite angry.

What was it you found in this story and the book if you went back to the source material?

Felicity Jones: It was… I think for Nelly there was a real conflict in her. I don’t think she wanted to be a kind of floozy mistress. That was so antithetical to her identity. But at the same time she fell in love with someone who had a very particular way of living and so it was this battle between her love for him and wanting to be with him but, at the same time, trying to attain her own dignity and identity. And I felt like my job was trying to portray that conflict truthfully.

Having Ralph give you the direction, what’s he like as a director?

Felicity Jones: He’s very honest, so he would come up and say, “That was awful. Do it again, but better.” So he was very focused on the performances, as you can imagine, being an actor. He had a very strong idea about being totally true to the period, which I thought was really fascinating about his direction. Often when people make period films they’ll try and make them more appealing to a contemporary audience by maybe being a little more lenient with the truth. Whereas Ralph was very particular about us retaining this truth of the sort of the bonnets and the austerity of the period. And I really actually respect that in him and can see… I love the integrity of the film because of that.

So now how did that integrity feel when you were wearing all of these layers and layers of clothes every day?

Felicity Jones: Yes, actually, I was like, “Thanks, dude. This corset is really comfortable.” It was… well, it’s fascinating because I feel like these women, they not only didn’t have the vote but they also had to wear incredibly uncomfortable clothes that were kind of a battle in itself just walking. So trying to do anything else must’ve been incredibly difficult. But it was… I think it all helped play Nelly, you know, appreciating the truth of what she actually wore. He is, you know, you don’t just wear… you wear literally period undergarments, the whole lot. And they would wear a cage and then three very heavy petticoats, which I managed to fall over in as I was walking on the beach and it was absorbing water my first day in front of a crew of 50 people. I just went headfirst into the sand. Oh, gosh, this is a good start.

You’re no stranger to period pieces, but this is as far back as you’ve gone in period. I mean, you did play Margo Frank and you were in Brideshead Revisited. Both have very distinct looks. Is there something special about this era that is tangible that you can latch on to that appeals to you?

Felicity Jones: I actually do… I love the aesthetic. I love the… I do love [the] way women presented themselves at that time. It was very… it was very fashionable to have a very severe sort of center parting and I felt there was actually… and even the bonnet becomes sort of a frame around the face. I felt there was actually a strength to it rather than it being inhibiting in any way. And I… but it’s interesting, I don’t think English people, they seem obsessed with telling stories from the past. I don’t know why. I don’t know quite why that is. Maybe that’s when England thought it was great, when it had the empire and now it’s not the same.

You spoke about the through line, the emotional through line you had with the character. But when you were doing your research, what was the most surprising thing that you learned about Nelly?

Felicity Jones: The most surprising… well, actually, just even her… what I loved about her was her seriousness in a way and her… that she wasn’t this sort of giggly sycophantic girl. I mean, she loved and appreciated his work and his writing, but there was an absolute sort of authority in her, a natural authority, and that’s… I so hope that comes across and that’s what I wanted to bring out of her.

Could you talk about Nelly?

Felicity Jones: Well, interestingly, she pretended to be a lot younger than she actually was. So when she met George, she was in her late 30s and was pretending to be 23 and this was a way of almost reliving her life, really. She didn’t want anyone… she didn’t tell her husband or her kids about her relationship with Dickens. It was very much kept a secret from her own family. And so it was almost like she started her life again by pretending to be 23 and I sort of… that’s why I’m quite fascinated with her. You know, she was… she was a real survivor. She did what it took to survive in difficult circumstances.

And she pulled off the age differential without Botox.

Felicity Jones: Yeah, exactly. Just the acting. Pure belief. I… I try and just believe… I feel like as an actor if you believe that you’re playing 18 then it’ll naturally… a different way of being will come out of you. And then obviously playing her older, she’s much closer to my own age so I can be more… bring out more of myself, I guess. But it was much more fun being older than younger, that’s one thing I realized. It was like so much pressure being sort of this young female and there’s a strange sort of interesting confidence that comes as an older woman.

How do you think the relationship would be now? After Nelly ends up being with Mr. Collins?

Felicity Jones: Well, I think she’d have to be a bit kinder to him probably. Yeah. I mean, I just think there’s something really conservative in Nelly and she’s very judgmental and I was keen to bring that out. She’s not of a straightforward be kind person, she’s a human being with edges and she immediately judges someone and then obviously has to slightly eat her own words when she’s in the same position.

Do you think she knew at that moment what was gonna happen to her?

Felicity Jones: I think she can feel it, which is why she’s so vehement about that. Yeah, I think she can feel that she’s gonna be in a similar position but she’s trying to fight it because it’s not what she wants to be. She… I feel like so strongly if she could’ve lived now she would’ve been a writer in her own, you know, and done her own thing and she’s so constricted and constrained by the time that she’s in.

In this film you play the other woman and in Breathe In you’re also the mistress, the other woman. Is it challenging for you to play these types of roles back to back?

Felicity Jones: I do feel like I’ve played a lot of serious roles recently, so I’m looking forward to something a little lighter. It’s… because it is, you can’t help, I don’t know, do you take… I find I take on that character as I’m playing them and it’s… you feel a sort of great… I feel such a responsibility with those stories to portray the feelings accurately and I care about them. But I don’t know, I try to take each project as it comes to you rather than in any way trying to contrive it and if I like the director and I think there’s something interesting and the role has something that I can get my teeth into then I’m going to. I want to do it.

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The very key to this film is the building of the chemistry between you and Ralph and the development of the relationship between Nelly and Charles. We only have one seduction scene in here, but it’s so powerful. Everything leading up to it, it’s like quicksilver. It’s lightning in a bottle. And the chemistry between the two of you is so hot at moments, it’s like it just leaps off the screen. How did you go about developing the pacing and the tone and the emotion to carry that and build to that one culminating scene?

Felicity Jones: I think you try and play each scene before that with truth and honesty and also we didn’t want it to be sort of like cheap in any way, their interaction with each other. We felt like it was… they were very careful about their connection to each other. And I feel like Nelly is in some ways, there’s something quite puritan about her because she’s having these sexual feelings for this older man but has no one to talk to about it, there’s no sort of… she doesn’t live in a world where that can be discussed with friends or family, and there’s a sort of guilt with it. So it was about charting that process towards Dickens. So it’s just a… I think it’s just a gradual… it’s very important that it’s gradual and that the audience is on both their sides as it’s happening and doesn’t judge them for it.

Can you talk about working with Kristen Scott Thomas as your mom?

Felicity Jones: Oh, she’s tremendous. I mean, it was so surreal. When I was in the read through I was sitting between Ralph and Kristen. It was like being in The English Patient. I just… I love that film so much, I think they’re both so great in it. And I actually have kept watching Kristen Scott Thomas as I was growing up and she’s a real idol. I think she always… she does such a great, doesn’t she? Always such cool films and interesting work and challenges herself. So, yeah, it was really, really amazing to work with her.

Were you starstruck when you when you met Ralph Finnes and Kristen Scott Thomas?

Felicity Jones: Well, with Ralph I was slightly intimidated because I thought he was going to be a bit like Voldemort. There is a moment when you’re like, “Oh my God, is that Voldemort?” But then Ralph is actually very sweet, kind, lovely person and nothing like Voldemort at all, so… he’s more like Ron Weasley. More like Ron Weasley.

If you do a bad take you’ll be turned into a frog.

Felicity Jones: Yeah, exactly. There’s always that fear.

There’s a scene where Nelly overhears her mom saying that her mom feels she’s not a talented actress. Was it difficult to do the stage scenes where you’re supposed to be not good?

Felicity Jones: Well, yeah. I mean, we talked, Ralph and I talked about this at length actually. Because we thought we don’t want her to be just a hammy actress and I don’t think that was the case. I feel like she just wasn’t comfortable being on stage. I think she hated acting. I think it just didn’t come naturally to her. Rather than her being sort of over the top, it’s more that it wasn’t… it didn’t feel natural to her to be on stage. And so that was more my approach than trying to make her really bad in any sort of broad brushstroke way.

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