This year, Felicity Jones stars in two films: A Monster Calls, the story of a young boy whose mother has terminal cancer, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the most recent chapter in the film franchise. Here, the British actress talks about her early acting jobs, what it's like to die on screen and more.
Lynn Hirschberg: What was the first job you auditioned for?
Felicity Jones: My very first professional job was a one-off television film in England, and it was for something called The Treasure Seekers. It was about a family with a single parent father, who was a very poor inventor, and his children were taking it upon themselves to make money for the family. So they would come up with all these different schemes and start digging in the garden to find treasure, to restore their family's fortunes. I was about 12 years old.
Had you wanted to act?
It was definitely something I had an intensity about it. My uncle was a theatre actor, and back before there were even mobile phones, he would go off to the phone box and he would be speaking to his agent and finding out about scripts and plays. And I think being around them, we used to go on holiday with them, I absorbed some of that through osmosis. We used to all put on plays together and write plays and then bore our parents with them for many years. I think it was deep down something I wanted to do.
Did you have a break after The Treasure Sea?
No, I went to university when I was 18, and I studied English literature and language, so I had a little bit of a break in that period.
You didn't act in university?
I tried to actually, and I kept auditioning for things, and then I wouldn't get the part. So I sort of gave up a little bit and just went to the pub and had a good time instead.
What was the first part after university?
Another television film for ITV, which is a television channel in England, and it was an adaptation of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.
I feel like all the English actresses go through a corset period where they are just immediately forced to wear a corset in every single film. Americans aren't good at corsets.
I know, it's not the right of passage here in the same way that it is in England. As soon as you step into the professional acting world as a woman, you're immediately laced into a corset. But I think there's just such fondness for those novels. Jane Austen is obviously just timeless brilliant stories and we keep wanting to tell them.
Was there a moment that you started doing movies outside of England, or TV things outside of England?
Yes, I'd actually just done a very broad snowboarding comedy in Austria [in 2011]. It's called Chalet Girl, and I was the chalet girl, the hopeless chalet girl who's a skateboarder originally, and then she gets a job – similar to the Treasure Seekers, the first thing I did – she got a job to support her father. So there's obviously a running theme here. But then she goes to work in a ski chalet, but it's not the kind of thing she's used to and there's lots of sort of hoity-toity people around her, and it's about her becoming this wonderful snowboarder and falling in love at the same time.
Somehow I can't see you as a snowboarder. That shows me you have great range.
Yeah, and many bruises to show for it as well. But I think after that I was desperate to do something that was almost the opposite, very naturalistic and very detailed and when I read the the outline for Like Crazy, it just chimed with exactly what I wanted to do at that point. It was my kind of first foray into coming to America and learning about American screen acting and storytelling. So it was a pretty special time.
Did you end up staying here or did you go right back to England?
I've always been a bit of gypsy, actually, and like the film, I definitely feel a sort of kinship with both being in Britain and being in the U.S.
Except you're better about your visa.
Yeah, exactly. A little bit more organized than they were. Although for months afterwards I would be so paranoid coming into the States, because I thought for some reason I would be waiting in line and then I'd get it into my head that they weren't going to let me in, and I sort of had these flashbacks from making the film. Finally now it's kind of subsided a little bit and I don't worry quite so much.
What's the best place you've made a movie?
It would be for Rogue One, on the first day of the shoot we were in Wadi Rum in Jordan. That was pretty special. And then we went to the Maldives and spent a week there. And, yeah, I think those were probably two of the most sort of exotic locations that I've ever filmed in.
What's your favorite of your skills that you acquired when playing a character?
Skateboarding would be one of them, because I grew up never skateboarding, so getting to do that and go and hang out in Notting Hill in the skate park and day by day learning how to do that was pretty cool.
Can you do a flip and stuff like that?No, I can sort of, you know, push myself along. I can sort of do a little jump. But I love learning things that are physical. So learning fight sequences for Rogue One. Feeling like you could defend yourself physically in a situation, that's pretty cool.
How did you get the part in Rogue One? I feel like the whole thing is so secretive. How did they approach you for the role? Did they come to you through weird channels? Or, do you have to go to locked rooms to be told that they're interested in you for the part? The whole thing is so shrouded.
It makes it so exciting, especially when you get a paper script in a file with a zip and a lock and a key, that is just the best way to receive a script. And then told not to give that key to any other living human being. But it's delight, because it's important to keep a sense of wonder and anticipation. Especially we know everything about everything. I think ultimately audiences really appreciate there being a little bit of suspense about the film they're going to see.
Were you a Star Wars fan as a tiny tot?
I've quite a large extended family and we're all very close to each other, so actually, my brother and I, we didn't have a VHS player. My family were quite sort of old-fashioned in the sense that we were always sort of having to read and do things like that. Which, obviously, in the long term you really appreciate. But when you're six or seven, it's a little bit frustrating. So then we were going to my cousin's house and we'd sit and watch all these delightful VHS's and be watching things like Tremors and catching up on everything we'd missed out on. And Star Wars was very much part of our education. I remember just distinctly sitting really – I don't know why I was sitting so close to the television, and then cross-legged, and then looking up as the wonderful opening crawl was sliding up the screen and being really quite moved and entertained by it.
And did you do your hair in buns on the side of your head? Did you have a Princess Leia hair moment?
I didn't. I was a real tomboy. I always had very short hair in a very sort of like short little fringe, and I was always running around and getting really muddy and playing outside.
So you were Luke.
So for this year you've been incredibly busy. You're in Rogue One, and also in A Monster Calls. How did that come about?
I read the script and then quickly I went to read the book, and in the book there were these amazing sketches of the monster. And I loved the way that it was going to tell a very emotional story rooted in character but through fantasy, and I thought that was a great way to deal with some pretty hefty issues, but do it in this kind of magic realism way.
Lizzie, my character in A Monster Calls, has cancer, and I became obsessed with the way someone’s voice changes as their body deteriorates, and how they change the way they hold their body. Cancer patients would tell me things like, ‘You become obsessed with painting your nails, because your body is out of control.’ It became harder and harder to play Lizzie.
I mean this in the best possible way, you looked terrible.
Good, that's what I set out to achieve.
Usually people in movies when they're dying, they look gorgeous. And the truth is, even if you have a bad flu, you don't look gorgeous, leave alone dying of cancer.
Absolutely. That's always, as an actor, the most important thing that you find.. If you're supposed to have just been running and then the next scene your hair should be kind of all over the place and your makeup should be running a little bit. That's what I love about people like Meryl Streep that are true to that in their performances, that you take on the physicality of the person. And I hate it when you watch films and then suddenly every scene, particularly the women, usually they're just perfect – perfectly groomed in makeup and hair and nothing moves and it all makes it all a bit boring.
Have you died in other movies?
I seem to be doing a lot of dying recently. I don't know what that says. I'm not going to die any more. That's the last one. That's the last one.
Watch Felicity Jones, Hailee Steinfeld, and Dakota Fanning audition for a role in Jerry Maguire: