The girl most likely: Why 2013 belongs to Felicity Jones

Impossibly pretty, prodigiously talented… The young actress is in danger of putting her rivals out of business. Just don't expect her to play the celebrity game.

Holly Williams
Saturday 05 January 2013 01:00 GMT

Maybe it's how her eyes light up, all wide and innocent. Or maybe it's the ever-so-slightly buck teeth revealed under that plump, up-turned top lip. Or, quite possibly, it's the chirrup of a giggle that bubbles up in most of her performances. Felicity Jones has never had any problem in nailing likeable.

The British actress has charmed on screen, playing winsome ingénues (Miranda in Julie Taymor's The Tempest; Catherine in an Andrew Davies' telly adaptation of Northanger Abbey; Cordelia in the 2008 Brideshead Revisited) and relatable girl-next-door types (in Brit-com, Chalet Girl, 2011's Sundance film festival favourite, Like Crazy, or low-budget British flick, SoulBoy).

The camera loves her, and so do critics – one even suggested Like Crazy, about the trials of long-distance relationships and having to choose between love and your career, didn't really work because "any young man forced to choose between Felicity and [making] furniture would be on the first flight to Heathrow". Audiences agree; there's been a YouTube campaign for her to play Anastasia Steele in the movie of Fifty Shades of Grey, a role which seems an easy fit: the chosen actress must be totally gorgeous, and combine wide-eyed guilelessness with just a shade of feisty self-determination.

Except that, when you meet Jones, turns out she has zero interest in doing what's expected of her. "I'm attracted to playing people who aren't necessarily straightforward," she says. "You have to be brave and not always play likeable people. It's difficult, because there's a demand for the hero or heroine to be very likeable. f But there's often something more interesting to be found when they're not instantly accessible or knowable, and you force the audience to ask questions."

She's talking about her latest role, Dolly in Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, a big-screen adaptation of Julia Strachey's 1932 novella about an unusual upper-class wedding day. While it at first appears to be full-length Downton Abbey (Elizabeth McGovern stars, and the opening montage even includes a close-up on a servants' bell à la Downton's intro sequence), both Strachey's original, and the screenplay by Mary Henely-Magill and first-time director Donald Rice, are altogether sharper, stranger things.

Jones plays the bride – in her first shot, she's vomiting into a lavatory, and shortly after is seen swigging repeatedly from a bottle of rum… her Dolly is a rather louche and sarcastic creature, but Jones also captures an underlying melancholy and fear; for Cheerful Weather is a very British comedy of repression, inaction, and proud stubbornness. Dolly may be preparing to marry Owen (James Norton), but the arrival of still-keen former lover Joseph (Luke Treadaway, excellent as a tortured, brainy toff) prompts many a sun-drenched, green-gold flashback, and some serious pre-wedding wobbles. The rest of the film, with a large ensemble cast, realises Strachey's acidly-observed comic character studies in English eccentricity, with Rice conveying the mounting nerves and irritations in increasingly fractured camera work.

Not, then, quite your usual period drama. And Strachey, part of the Bloomsbury group – her novella was first published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press (now reprinted beautifully by Persephone) – was writing within a world of modernist experimentation, flickering between characters' perspectives and mining their inner lives. Not, then, quite your natural source for a movie, either?

"I actually loved that it's not, in a way, an obvious film – there's something quite theatrical about it, it forces you to listen to the words," says Jones. A fan of that period, she's got a degree in English literature from Oxford, and wrote her dissertation on Virginia Woolf. "What [Rice] manages to do, is balance the sense of interiority of each character versus the public presentation of themselves. There's an unsentimentality, and I just love that in books and in films… I really liked the complexity of Dolly."

In person, Jones herself is quite different to many of the adorkable, cherubic young girls she's played; for starters, she's 29. She may not look it – "The genes!" – but she acts it. She's self-possessed and self-contained, and speaks in smooth, measured, fully-formed sentences. Despite growing up in Birmingham – albeit in the model village Bournville and attending all-girls grammar schools – there isn't a trace of Brummie accent; her cut-glass tones suggest it wasn't much trouble finding the voice of a young lady from the 1930s.

But, it turns out, the voice was crucial. "A lot of the character came from her voice, actually," begins Jones, referring to how the book describes Dolly as murmuring, whispering. "It's quite odd actually, it's as if her whole voice has got a dampener on it."

Jones didn't go to drama school; she had Oxford. This gave her one set of critical tools, handy when doing all those Brideshead and Bloomsbury adaptations, although Jones is aware of the limitations of lit-geekery: "You find yourself analysing the script as a whole, which can be good… but at a certain point you have to stop yourself doing that because no one wants an essay of a character."

Her other tack, however, is rather more hands-on: she learnt to play the piano for forthcoming film Breathe In, to paint for David Hare's TV thriller, Page Eight, and went to Catholic mass while rehearsing Luise Miller, a stage production directed by Michael Grandage at the Donmar.

Then there was Chalet Girl… a slight rom-com, she nevertheless spent a month working in a ski chalet to prepare (Jones is no snob, either, about rolling up her sleeves to clean floors, or about the daffy movie itself; when I say Chalet Girl is a hit in my shared house – despite us all being well past the target teen demographic – she whoops with delight, saying how proud she is of it). "Just on a human level, I enjoy being a part of different worlds I haven't encountered before," she enthuses. Good job: she also learnt to snowboard, doing many of her stunts, and it was, she laughs, "the most painful month of my life. I was covered in bruises".

For the improvised Like Crazy, as well as coming up with dialogue – another challenge she unsurprisingly loved, her way with words winning her a Sundance special jury prize – Jones also chose her own costumes. When I ask about the importance of outfits, she responds with real relish, "Oh, I think it's vital. I always wear the shoes of the character a week before going on set; the idea of just putting on a new pair of shoes on the first day of filming is just horrific".

It's a good job she's interested in clothes; Jones has been courted by the fashion world too, modelling Dolce & Gabbana make-up and Burberry alongside Cara Delevingne and Jourdan Dunn. Not that she's gone too high- fashion; she's bemused when I ask what she's wearing, before revealing the black trousers are Zara, a bird-print shirt is Peter Jensen, and the jumper is from a charity shop; she "cut the arms off" herself.

Anyway, it seems she's got her mum to thank for the can-do, try-anything attitude. Her parents met at a local paper – her dad a journalist, her mum in advertising – but they divorced when she and her brother were still very young. "I grew up with my mother, so I always had a very strong female role model and that's definitely affected the way I am," she offers. "I'm very independent, creatively, always trying to push myself – and I think that comes from my mother. [She was] very supportive… saying 'You know, you should feel you can do anything'. And I think that's an extraordinary gift to be given by a parent."

She's been lucky; as well as this confidence-boosting upbringing, Jones also had some professional angels in her career. When I ask about filming with Emma Thompson (Brideshead) and Helen Mirren (her mother, Prospera, in The Tempest), those big hazel eyes grow even larger: "I find it so important, having those role models, because I didn't go to drama school, I've really had to learn through working. They've been incredibly helpful in navigating what can be a severe industry. I have such huge respect that both those women have had such longevity, and I just would hope to follow in their footsteps."

Thompson and Mirren are rather grande dames of the acting world, who've proved their staying power and adaptability. Once, there might have been a time limit hovering over the heads of cute-young-things like Jones (she started her career aged just 12 in a TV version of Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch). These women prove it needn't be so. "I do think it's shifting," Jones agrees. "We're getting such variety of stories, from something like Girls on TV, and then the idea of the 'grey pound'… [the industry's] becoming a lot more open."

Which must come as a bit of a relief. Jones is one of those British actresses who seems to have been tipped for the top for about a decade now. Every interview begins with "rising star", "the new Keira"… All of which must be rather tiresome? "Well, they say it takes 10 years to become an overnight success," she giggles, half-wry, half-nervy.

Not that she seems terribly keen on fame; it's "really nice" that she can still have a private life. She knows press intrusion goes hand- in-hand with certain types of work, citing how Like Crazy co-star Jennifer Lawrence was catapulted into the public eye after she took on The Hunger Games.

I suggest Fifty Shades of Grey would have that sort of life-changing impact. Is she tempted? But Jones doesn't play ball; all she'll say on Grey is, "like all my projects, it depends on the director and the script… It's intriguing how it's affected so many people, and it's obviously very much the zeitgeist, but it would depend on those factors". There's a distinct chill in her answer, though I'm not sure if it's because she's already bored of the question, or simply knows what internet froth can be whipped up from the most off-hand comment on this topic (the Telegraph recently reported that "she would happily consent to play Anastasia", quoting her as saying it'd be "very exciting" – a titbit that spawned fevered re-posts on gossip sites).

Understandably, Jones is keener to talk about forthcoming projects that have actually been filmed. Showing at Sundance this year is Breathe In, that piano movie – the next project of Like Crazy director Drake Doremus, co- starring Guy Pearce. "Tonally, it's a lot more serious," she says. "It's about a young woman who comes to stay with a very conventional American family and the effect she has. She's a pianist, and Guy Pearce's character is a piano teacher at the school." You can probably see where this is going…

Then there's The Invisible Woman, also starring Jones as a young girl who rocks the world of an older, married man – only this time, it's Dickens. Jones play Nelly Ternan, an 18-year-old (those genes coming in handy again) who meets Charles Dickens when he's 45. The film has heavyweight credentials: based on the book by eminent biographer Claire Tomalin, adapted by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady; The Hour), directed by – and starring – Ralph Fiennes as Dickens.

"He was an extremely famous man who became infatuated with this very intelligent woman who was obviously, in that time, quite powerless in relation to him. But what's fascinating is how she has a certain equality because of her character, her personality," says Jones. Spot the parallels (if not romantic ones) with the reality: this whip-smart young woman acting alongside the older, more famous, more powerful director Fiennes.

Jones usually holds your gaze with ease; when I ask what it was like working with Fiennes, they dart away, to the window, the floor. "Ahh… it was… fascinating. He's such a phenomenal actor and director, and he was… ve-ry, um, very focused and very precise and it was sometimes difficult" – this had become apparent, frankly – "but great in the sense that he wouldn't let me get away with cliché, or doing anything too obvious."

Role models don't have to be women: Jones insists that "I just learnt so much on that film from him". An intense shoot, even downtime was Dickens time: the pair would sit in the make-up trailer, reading his novels together, and discussing them. "When you work with a director who doesn't act, I don't think it's quite as involved," she muses.

So it didn't feel like an ego-trip for Fiennes, as both actor and director? "Absolutely not, not in any way. Every day, it was serving the story. It was about trying to portray the truth of this very complicated relationship."

There's another relationship in Jones's life, a real one, with artist Ed Fornieles – although whether it's complicated or not, I couldn't say. When Jones doesn't want to answer a question, she politely, firmly responds with the minimum of information, and that's your lot. She lives between LA and London, and yes, London feels like home. She's been there six years. Yes, east London. Yes, she still lives with her boyfriend. They've been together "for their twenties". Yes, they "inevitably" end up discussing their work.

Such briskness is, perhaps, partly the result of interviews conducted in soulless junket rooms with PRs hovering and strict timetables. But maybe it's also that this clever actress is well aware that, as with her preferred on-screen roles, there's something just that bit more interesting about people who aren't entirely knowable.

'Cheerful Weather for the Wedding' is released in cinemas on 9 January and on DVD on 14 January

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