“I like things to have a bit of a punk spirit to them,” says Felicity Jones, taking a sip of scalding hot camomile tea. It’s a rain-soaked afternoon and we’re in a north-London photo studio discussing Jones’s punkish taste in female roles, scripts and – as it happens – footwear. She gives an ankle twirl to better show off the biker boots with velvet laces that she’s just changed into. “My friend calls these my Victorian-punk ice-skating boots!” she laughs.
Jones brings a healthy dose of rebelliousness to her latest role in The Aeronauts, the Victorian ballooning drama, which sees her reunited with her great friend and The Theory of Everything co-star Eddie Redmayne. She plays Amelia Wren, a role based on the flamboyant life of French aeronaut Sophie Blanchard: “an obsessive air-balloon pilot and total wildcat. She used to fly at night, she would set off fireworks from her balloon, an absolute daredevil.”
“Eddie and me were HOLDING hands and hoping for the BEST as we hit the ground at an INCREDIBLE velocity”
I’m impressed to discover that Jones did the majority of the vertiginous stunts you see in the movie herself. Before shooting began, she wore a wire and trained for months “with an aerialist, an acrobat – all very Cirque du Soleil… I loved the freedom of it. I loved as much as possible being able to be up in the air”. Her derring-do is even more remarkable, when you hear how she and Redmayne endured a near-fatal balloon crash on the first day of filming. “Eddie and me were holding hands and hoping for the best as we hit the ground at an incredible velocity,” she recalls, wincing. “My eye missed the metal corner of this wooden chest, by about five centimeters. I was wearing a corset as well, to add insult to injury, and at that moment I thought I might actually have broken my back, as I couldn’t move.”
A child actor from the age of 11 (she was nicknamed “tiny warrior” by her agent’s wife), there’s a red thread of courage and fortitude in the roles that have characterized Jones’s career; never more so than in recent years – from Jyn in Star Wars’ Rogue One to Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On The Basis Of Sex. “I definitely seem to be taking parts where I’m fighting against the odds. It’s getting to be a pattern.”
Born 36 years ago in Birmingham, England, to a journalist father and a mother who worked in advertising, Jones’s parents split when she was just three. “I’m very close to both of them. I think you have a very grown-up relationship with your parents when they’re not together. You get to know them as much as friends as parents.” If her early professional ascent was precocious, her upbringing sounds like it was very much earthed in normalcy (chilly English camping holidays, climbing trees). What was her toughest challenge in high school? “I’d always get really bad spots on my forehead so my solution was to wear a woolly hat, all the time. And I remember my parents being like, ‘Are you sure you want to wear that today, because it’s really hot’. I guess I thought it was slightly ’90s and Kurt Cobain, but I don’t think it was at all.” Looking at her clear-as-skimmed-milk complexion today, I tell her that her admission will be a beacon of hope for acne-tormented teens the world over.
“There was a lot of SOCIALIZING… We’d get on a bus to LONDON and dance the NIGHT away at drum-and-bass raves”
She was 15 when she was cast as Emma Grundy in the long-running British radio drama The Archers, a role she played for 10 years, including throughout her time at Oxford University. When I ask if she was the queen bee of the drama scene at Oxford, she looks slightly appalled. “I always wanted a bit of balance when I went to university. I guess I felt like I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t totally defined by acting, that I wanted to explore other things… and also, I didn’t get many main parts!” she laughs wryly. “And then there was a lot of socializing, which was surprisingly time-consuming when you’re a student. We’d get on bus from Oxford to London and dance the night away at drum-and-bass raves. That really dates me! But drum-and-bass was massive!”
It was in the whirl of post-university London parties and auditions that she first met Redmayne (the pair famously agree to disagree on the precise occasion). They were both friends of the zeitgeist-defining playwright Polly Stenham, in whose harrowingly brilliant debut, That Face, Jones starred in 2008. “It felt like new territory. Working with new writing that’s not bogged down by years and years of theater history,” she enthuses. “There was a freshness to it, an adventurousness to it… a truthfulness and honesty about being in that situation around a dysfunctional family. It was very raw and unfiltered and very accurate to a certain social milieu.” Would she want to work with Stenham again? “Definitely, definitely. Without a doubt. It’s always just about the galaxies and the forces coming together at the right time.”
“There’s a BATTLE between the inner punk and the inner good-girl. And the GOOD girl has got to be squashed on a DAILY basis”
Certainly, the forces and the galaxies have positioned Jones in a very particular spot in the celebrity panoply since That Face, with movies such as The Theory of Everything and On The Basis of Sex taking on a momentum of their own as cultural and historical touchpoints. How has she found the responsibility of portraying real women – Jane Hawking and Ruth Bader Ginsburg – whose lives and reputations are still unfolding? “Well, particularly with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has changed the course of history in gender politics, I was definitely intimidated meeting her and playing her… You just have to build trust and, in those few meetings you have, somehow get their permission. It’s sort of an invisible thing, just that feeling that they know they are in safe hands and that they’re not going to be exploited in some way.” She takes a contemplative sip of tea. “But in some ways, you don’t want to think about responsibilities too much as an actress. When you are approaching a role I think you’ve got to bring a bit of anarchy to it.” Ah, her inner punk, again? “I do feel like there’s just a battle between the inner punk and the inner good-girl. And the good girl has got to be squashed on a daily basis. She has to be defied,” she agrees. “Sometimes, as a woman, there’s a lot of attention paid to caring too much. Actually, you are your most interesting when you are most free.”
Despite her formidable career to date, her relationship with the inconstant mirrorball of fame remains ambivalent. “I was just laughing with Mary Greenwell, the makeup artist, because we’ve been working together for years, about how I used to do the red carpet and look like a petrified chicken. It’s literally taken myself years to give myself permission to enjoy it.” She credits her squad – including Greenwell, stylist Nicky Yates and personal trainer Louisa Drake – for giving her confidence to strut her stuff in that particular arena. “I know it sounds a bit American, but it takes a village!”
The super-amplified scrutiny of the red-carpet appearances aside, she’s a genuine fashion connoisseur – enthusing about the silver-sequinned Valentino floor-sweeper she wore recently to a The Aeronauts premiere (“a bit ’70s disco”). She’s a fan of Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior (“ a woman who marches to her own drum”). And, she chose her good friend Erdem to design her wedding dress, a faintly Edwardian lilac, long-sleeved, high-necked number. “We share a love of a pie-crust collar. And there’s always something about Erdem’s designs that is a just a little bit mischievous.”
“It’s WONDERFUL to have such STABILITY in a very CHANGEABLE profession”
It’s been two years since Jones married the British director and producer Charles Guard – whom she met, very romantically, in a Hollywood elevator (“where we realized that we’d probably been at many parties together over the years”). How is married life? “It’s a joy. It’s wonderful to have such stability in a very changeable profession.” She adores nest-making. “I love looking through interior magazines. I am definitely a hoarder. I love cushions and pictures and the house is full of books and nick-nacks. I can’t help myself. In my idealized version of life, I’m very clinical and minimalist, of course. But the reality is that I love trinkets.”
What is her and Guard’s favorite way to waste a day? “Oh, we were just saying this morning, if we didn’t have anything to do today – a long walk across Hampstead Heath… a proper walk, in wellington boots… a pub lunch and a movie. I so want to see Ad Astra!” And if her beloved was to appear at the doors of the photo studios to whisk her away for a romantic date à deux in London, would she choose cocktails in a luxurious setting like Claridge’s or an ordinary pub in Kentish Town? “A pub in Kentish Town,” she replies, laughing. “Every time.”
So, what next for this singular, trinket-loving, secret renegade? Does she have a yen to direct? “Well, I think directing is a very particular craft, but I would like to develop my own projects. I studied English, so I am very interested in telling stories.” Bringing one of her punk heroines to screen perhaps? “I was just reading an article in a magazine about Debbie Harry. I don’t think there’s been a film about her,” she grins. “And I have thought it would be interesting to play Hamlet, but as a young woman. I think that would be quite interesting.” Very interesting indeed.
The Aeronauts is out on December 20 (US) and out now in the UK
Felicity Jones is put on the spot with PORTER’s naughty-but-nice Etiquette Challenge. So how does she cope when she has to watch her own steamy scenes – with her parents? And what’s her secret when it comes to surviving a red-carpet face-plant or dealing with a malodorous co-star? It’s time to find out…
Felicity Jones is not associated with NET-A-PORTER and does not endorse it or the products shown.