Stanley Kubrick once boasted to the writer Sara Maitland that there was no sentence in the English language he could not make into film. It became a game.
While they worked together on an early, abortive draft of his movie AI, Maitland tried to think up unfilmable sentences. The one that finally gave Kubrick pause, she recalled, was: “She perfectly repressed her anger”. He didn’t live long enough to have a go at it, as it happened, but if you had to put money on anyone pulling off such a challenge, a better bet than Kubrick would be Felicity Jones.
Over the past decade or so, Jones has emerged as an actor with an uncanny capacity for not expressing complex emotions. Or more accurately, telegraphing complex emotions roiling beneath an apparently placid surface. From her lovelorn transatlantic students in Like Crazy and Breathe In to Charles Dickens’ mistress in The Invisible Woman, she’s proved herself an expert in the very English art of just keeping a lid on it, perfectly repressing not just anger but also despair, heartbreak, jealousy, you name it. If they were planning a remake of Brief Encounter, she’d be a shoo-in for the Celia Johnson role.
“I actually love doing comedy!” she protests. In person she’s polite, cheerful and attentive – a little guarded, perhaps, but in no way repressed. “I’m obsessed with subtexts. I love that we often don’t say what we feel. That gap between the two. I like it when actors reveal a lot without having to say it.”
Even Jones has her work cut out in The Theory of Everything. She plays Jane, wife of Stephen Hawking, in a story that spans their 25 year relationship. Eddie Redmayne gives a charismatic, committed performance as Hawking, but the story is really about Jane. As Hawking’s motor neurone disease diminishes his physical abilities, and thus his expressive capacities, it’s left to Jones to register the physical and emotional strain of caring for Hawking and their three children, and watching his scientific celebrity grow at the expense of her own ambitions. Not to mention being obliged to explain the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and gravitational theory to dinner guests on Hawking’s behalf, using peas and potatoes.
“Eddie and I were completely reliant on each other, as Jane and Stephen became one person in many ways,” she says. “Jane becomes Stephen’s body and voice, which comes with all sorts of complications and frustrations on both sides. So it was always about us working off each other. There had to be this feeling of complete synchronicity.”
Even when the Hawkings’ marriage becomes a menage à trois, Jones valiantly maintains that veneer of British middle-class academic respectability, to the extent that one of the most moving lines in the film is when she says, “Did you get everything in the car?” When tears do come, they’re all the more powerful for Jones’s efforts to keep them back.
“There is an appearance of Englishness and properness but actually underneath that, there’s a Bohemianism to them,” Jones says of the Hawkings. “This three-way relationship that’s such a part of the film is testament to that. They found a way of helping their relationship survive. There’s this rock ’n roll ideology that they have. I had such affection for that in them.”
Complicating her role further was the fact that the real-life Hawkings were very much involved in The Theory of Everything. Jones held off meeting Jane until just before shooting, basing most of her research on books and video clips. “I went to her house for a cup of tea, and I remember feeling quite disingenuous talking to her but then observing everything else that was going on: how she picked up her teacup, how she ate her biscuit.” But the family were “very, very open”, Jones says. Jane showed her slides of the couple in their 20s. Their youngest son Tim told her how he used to program swear words into his father’s voice machine and ride on the side of his motorised wheelchair. When Jane visited the set in Cambridge (where the Hawkings met as students), she would restyle Redmayne’s hair, saying “it wasn’t like that”.
Jones didn’t meet Stephen Hawking until they shot the fireworks scene at the university ball, where he and Jane first kissed. “I have this amazing vision of him arriving exactly on time,” she says. “Just as the first set of fireworks went off, Stephen appeared from the opposite side of the college in this sort of amazing light display, with four nurses alongside him.” He asked Jones for a kiss. She could hardly refuse. “Well, he’s a rock star,” she laughs. “He has this charisma that seeps out of him. When you first meet him you’re really nervous and speaking too much and making a fool of yourself, and he’s got an incredibly dry sense of humour and doesn’t suffer fools. But he’s everything you’d expect.”
Jones read A Brief History of Time but she is no scientist, she admits. The peas-and-potatoes scene was hard enough. “That scene,” she groans. “I cannot tell you how many times I rehearsed that in my flat before getting to the set. Hours and hours.” Director James Marsh, Redmayne and her all studied arts subjects at university. “We would be there trying to work out black holes and we’d get so far. They weren’t the most successful conversations.”
The preponderance of posh, well-educated actors in current British cinema has not gone unnoticed. Redmayne went to Eton, as did Tom Hiddleston, Dominic West and Damian Lewis, while Redmayne’s current rival, Benedict Cumberbatch went to Harrow. Jones could easily be bracketed among them. She studied English at Oxford, her accent is crisp RP with barely a dropped consonant, and she’s a consistently classy dresser. She models for Burberry and Dolce & Gabbana. This morning, with a day’s press photography ahead of her, she looks like she’s just come from a cocktail party.
In fact, Jones is state-school educated and grew up with her single mother, in Birmingham. Her parents don’t have strong Brummie accents, she explains, “but it does come out when I’m a bit drunk.” Her uncle was an actor and her mother regularly took her to the theatre and concerts. She joined a drama after-school club at the Custard Factory when she was 11, which put her into auditions for television and radio. One of her first breaks came when she was 15, via that most middle-class of institutions, The Archers. Jones played the character of Emma Grundy on the radio soap for 10 years. “I’d be at Oxford finishing an essay late at night, then be on the 6am train to Birmingham the next morning to go and record it.” She still catches up when she can, she says. “My mum is a huge fan so whenever I go home it’s always playing in the kitchen. I know I’m home when I hear that theme music.”
She’s not at home all that often these days, though. Converts have been predicting Jones’s success, or bemoaning its delayed arrival, for years, but the critical praise for The Theory of Everything (like Redmayne, she has a Golden Globe nomination) could well cement her reputation. To get the part for Like Crazy, she sent director Drake Doremus an audition tape of herself acting out a scene in the shower (just her head was in the shot); now she doesn’t have to work quite so hard.
But success is also drawing her closer to “celebrity” status, and you get the sense she doesn’t really like it. Last year, for example, there was an online fan campaign to get her cast as the lead in the 50 Shades Of Grey movie. She turned the part down. The day before we speak, there are photos of her on gossip websites doing nothing more than arriving at an airport. After her break-up with her long-term partner, artist Ed Fornieles, earlier this year, Fornieles exhibited a family portrait depicting himself and Jones with three imaginary children they will never have. She might be keeping a lid on it on screen, but real life is getting more complicated.
“Well … you know,” she sighs. “I feel it is part of being in a film people like and respond to, so when it’s related to the film, then I don’t mind that at all. I want people to go and see the film and that is an inevitable side of the job I do.”
And when it’s not related to the film? “Well I appreciate my privacy, obviously. That’s the balance to try and attain. At the moment I’m very lucky. When people come up, they’re always very respectful and kind. But thanks for asking. I’ll let you know when I’m being mobbed outside hotels like the Beatles.”
• The Theory of Everything is released in the UK on 2 January
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