Felicity Jones: Why Hollywood can wait

With ‘Like Crazy’, the British actress finally has a hit on her hands. Nicholas Barber meets a reluctant star

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The Independent Culture

If it weren’t for Jessica Chastain, Felicity Jones might well have broken the record for appearing in the greatest number of films in the shortest period of time.

In the past two years, you’ll have seen her in Chalet Girl, Albatross, Soul Boy, Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, and Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Cemetery Junction. Or rather, you probably won’t have seen her. While Jones is frequently singled out for critical praise the movies themselves have a habit of sinking without trace. But this week she’s finally chalked up a film that’s worthy of her contribution to it.

A romantic comedy-drama featuring Jones and Anton Yelchin, Like Crazy depicts the roller-coasting highs and lows of twentysomething passion with humour and tenderness, plus a cleareyed lack of sentiment. In common with her other films, she plays a character younger than herself. Jones is so petite and fresh-faced that she’s often called upon to play schoolgirls, so it’s quite a jolt to learn that in real life she’s 28, older than her friends Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley.

In conversation, though, you would not mistake her for a teenager. When I meet Jones in a Soho PR office, she’s dressed head to toe in elegant black, and talks with the poise and fluency of the seasoned professional she is.

One telling sign of her self-possession is that she was due to star alongside Julia Roberts in Mirror Mirror, a live-action Hollywood version of Snow White, but she dropped out when the filming dates clashed with Michael Grandage’s production of Schiller’s Luise Miller at the Donmar Warehouse last summer. On one level, it was an excellent decision: both Jones and the production received gushing reviews, with The Independent lauding her “pang-inducing freshness and piercing probity”. But, on anotherlevel, she must have had some misgivings about snubbing the movers and shakers of Tinseltown, mustn’t she? Apparently not.

“It was a scheduling issue, really,” she says in the tone of someone who can be in a multimillion-dollar fantasy blockbuster whenever she fancies. “I’d been thinking about the character [of Luise] for a year, since Michael and I agreed to work together on it, so it would have felt very strange not to have done it when it had been percolating for so long. I like to invest a lot in my work, and so if I started doing things just to get me to some place or other, it wouldn't be healthy."

This attitude is rare in an era of instant fame, but Jones has always had an unhurried approach to the business. She started her career on television in The Worst Witch a full 14 years ago, but bowed out after its first series because she didn't want to live away from her family in Birmingham. She then began a decade's tenure as Emma in The Archers, but chose to do an English degree at Oxford rather than head for drama school. Since then, she's performed at the Royal Court as well as the Donmar, and she starred in ITV's Northanger Abbey, but she's never been impatient to become a household name.

"When you're a young actor, there's this pressure to rush," she says. "But I hope to be doing this into my sixties and seventies, so I'd prefer to take my time. There's so much of a desire in the entertainment industry for newness, a desire to build somebody up and then treat them as old news within six months. I think you'd be naive if you didn't try to hold on to your own way of doing things."

Not that Jones wouldn't be willing to pack her bags for the right Hollywood role. "I would love to play a ..." She drifts off for a second, and laughs. "I was thinking I'd like to play a snake. But no, not a snake. I'd like to play a superhero, something very different. I think the main trap not to fall into as an actress is not to play the love interest too much. You have to make sure that there's a character there, something to get your teeth into; otherwise there's no point doing it."

All of which brings us to Like Crazy, which won her a Special Jury Prize for Best Actress at last year's Sundance festival. The film subjects a fledgling relationship to unsparing scrutiny, and yet, despite its focus, the dialogue was entirely improvised. The writer-director, Drake Doremus, wrote a 50-page summary of the story, and then left the actors to work out what to say.

Typically, it seems, Jones wasn't fazed by the challenge. "I didn't meet Drake and Anton until the first day of rehearsal, so it was quite daunting at first," she says, not sounding very daunted. "But we spent quite a lot of time organising how the characters would develop, their costume changes and their mood shifts, so once you had that in place, you could be free in the moment. I suppose it's often done in comedy, in things like Curb Your Enthusiasm, so there's no reason why you shouldn't apply the same method to drama."

As for Doremus, he'd found his secret weapon. "I'd seen a ton of actresses in Los Angeles," recalls the director, a 28-year-old Californian. "British actresses, American actresses, face-to-face auditions, read-throughs with Anton. And then I talked to Felicity on the phone, and after about 10 minutes I realised that she'd got what I was looking for. I asked her to send me a tape of two scenes, and I was praying that the tape would be great.

"She made a really bold choice. She shot the ending, which was a close-up of her face while she was showering, without any dialogue, just using her face to show what her character was feeling.

"It could have been so lame, but I couldn't take my eyes off her, and I knew then, even without meeting her or seeing her with Anton, that I had to bring them together and see if it worked. And, wow, what a chance to take."

Doremus and Jones have already shot a second film together, with Jones playing opposite Guy Pearce as "an older man and a younger woman finding love at the wrong time". Doremus conceived the role especially for her. "She's so gracious and generous and smart and thoughtful," he enthuses, "constantly asking questions and thinking about every detail. She was born to make movies with me, she really was."

If Like Crazy doesn't make her a superstar, the follow-up will. And if not, then the film after that. As Jones says, there's no rush.

'Like Crazy' is on general release