Felicity Jones is riding on a crest of a wave. Oscar-nominated and cast to join the ever-expanding Star Wars universe, surely Hollywood is now calling this east Londoner?
It was four years ago when I first met Felicity Jones. In a darkened suite in the Soho Hotel, she was charmingly beautiful in the flesh – all quizzical glinting eyes and soft bee-stung lips. Coming to the end of a promotional interview for her breakthrough feature – Phil Traill’s harmless, Chalet Girl – she passionately vowed to never leave London, and no matter how successful, the pull of Hollywood would never fully tempt.
‘I just don’t think it would fit me, nor would I fit it,’ Felicity offered in those chastened round vowels. ‘No matter what happens, no matter what success, if any, I just couldn’t see myself ever moving there. I like London too much.’
An acclaimed run of Luise Miller at the Donmar later, not to mention a haunting performance as Charles Dickens’ mistress Nell Ternan in The Invisible Woman, and stunning turn as Jane Wilde Hawking in The Theory of Everything resulting in her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress this year, Felicity is an international success.
Now a household name with upcoming starring roles in the next Star Wars spin off blockbuster, Rogue One, and Dan Brown’s latest adaptation, Inferno, a move to the City of Lights would be a highly fathomable move. And, yet, the 31-year-old remains devout to her East London base. It seems fortune leaves some rather unscathed.
Meeting again to talk about her new film, True Story, an adaptation of former New York Times writer Michael Finkel’s disturbing associations with mass murderer, Christian Longo, Felicity is still forever smitten with the eastern quarter of the city.
‘There’s stuff you do there that you can’t find anywhere else,’ she coos warmly, ‘like Columbia Road Flower Market, where your senses are awash. Or walking through Exchange Square near Liverpool Street on a Sunday when it’s virtually deserted and you feel like the only person there, heading to the Barbican or people watching sitting outside a café in Broadway Market…’
Acting for nearly 20 years, the Oxford educated star cut her teeth as an adolescent in BBC’s twee The Worst Witch before more grown-up roles followed in Northanger Abbey, Brideshead Revisited and Daniel Craig starrer, Flashbacks of a Fool.
Success, however, appears to have been born from Felicity’s innate ability to embody real-life characters, both historical and contemporary, breathing life into what has come before. Like Ternan, Wilde Hawking and Jill Finkel, wife of Michael, who strives to break down the troubling dialogue between her husband and Death Row killer Longo, the actress is an iridescent presence on screen.
The process of embodiment, however, has its drawbacks. ‘When you’re playing a real person, it can be quite cathartic for them to go through the experience again and talk about it, which is always incredibly helpful for my research.
‘But it’s a daunting task,’ she admits, ‘mostly as it’s charged with this huge responsibility. You feel connected to that person in some way. You’re being allowed into their life, which is a very special thing. It stays with you, it emotionally affects you. You can’t walk away from it.’
Much like her encounters with Wilde Hawking for Theory of Everything, meeting Finkel in her research for Rupert Goold’s compelling drama left Felicity entranced by a complex character driven by her desire to shatter her husband’s connection with a mass murderer.
This culminated in a tense two-handed exchange with Longo – played with simmering menace by James Franco – while visiting him in prison, a moment which proved utterly spell-bounding for Felicity. ‘Aside from working with Rupert, Jonah [Hill] and James, it was this moment when I first read the script – and knew nothing about their story before – that made me want to do this film,’ she enthuses.
‘I just kept thinking about it before we actually did it and how black and white Jill felt about Christian, and how he is the personification of evil and she isn’t scared to tell him.’
After the intensity of shooting both Theory of Everything and True Story back to back, her latest projects should be a fantastical relief for actress. Currently stalking the street of Florence with Tom Hanks’ Robert Langdon in Dan Brown’s Inferno, she’ll then move onto Gareth Edward’s Rogue One, a surreal prospect that fills her with nostalgic glee.
‘Star Wars is incredibly exciting,’ she chuckles, ‘simply because it’s part of iconic history. I remember going to see the films with that classic intro with my cousins and brother and now it just seems so daunting, but exhilarating at the same time. And someone asked me the other day, “how does it feel to know you’ll have an action figure?” and I honestly never thought about it, but I’d say it will be pretty amazing!
‘And like that, the pure adventure of inhabiting a Dan Brown saga is nothing I’ve ever been involved with before and so refreshing as a result. The mystery built on such lavish history coupled with shooting locations like Florence and Venice… put it this way, the job is never boring.’
So life after Oscar really is never the same then, Felicity must agree? ‘It really has been quite an extraordinary year, and extraordinary time. You sometimes think, “how is this even happening to me?”’ But, for now, the bright lights of Hollywood remain in east London’s shadow.
Words: Stephen Milton
True Story is out in cinemas nationwide on 17 July