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Friday 20 October 2017

Felicity the fearless

From extreme sports to standing up to notorious perfectionist Warren Beatty, nothing will stop actress Felicity Jones, finds out James Mottram

Felicity Jones
Felicity Jones

James Mottram

Felicity Jones likes older men. It sounds like a provocative statement to make about the 29-year-old British actress – and star of Like Crazy and Cemetery Junction – but she's currently allying herself, on screen at least, with some of the film world's most respected elder statesmen.

Men like Warren Beatty and Ralph Fiennes no less, who have both taken Jones under their respective wings over the past 18 months.

It's the sort of attention that would overawe most – but Jones has been born without the fear gene, it seems.

"I'm not intimidated," she claims, when we meet at Edinburgh's Caledonian Hotel in a suite overlooking the city's historic castle.

"I remember my mother once saying to me, if you feel something very strongly and passionately, no matter what the consequences, always express it. And I have lived by that.

"It can be frightening, but you have to be brave and realise 'I'll still be OK if I don't have any of this.' And I found with both those individuals, they're completely receptive to that."

While Fiennes has recently cast her in his upcoming directorial project The Invisible Woman – playing Nelly Ternan, secret lover to the Victorian literary giant Charles Dickens – Beatty has recruited her for his long-gestating project about the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. It took her six months of auditions and meetings to get the role, though it feels like a project destined for heartbreak for Jones.

Beatty hasn't acted since 2001's disaster Town & Country, hasn't directed since 1998's Bulworth and is notoriously fastidious.

Will it ever happen?

"Yeah, well, it's a very pertinent issue," she sighs. "We're still hoping to make the film. Warren is an auteur in the strictest sense, and he is someone who makes films very, very carefully." She calls Beatty "an amazing mentor" and refuses to read the unflattering Peter Biskind biography of him (which would tell her just how controlling he can be). "I think you have to be careful sometimes when you're working with people not to read too much about them. Probably when I'm an old lady [I'll read it]."

You can certainly see the appeal of Jones to men like Beatty and Fiennes: intelligent, sharp-witted, and with a CV laced with integrity, she's also possesses an elegant-yet-understated beauty. The camera seems to love her – not least in the work of Drake Doremus, the director who gave Jones a Sundance award-winning role in transatlantic love story Like Crazy.

In their new collaboration, Breathe In, he lets his lens linger over her pale skin and pronounced lips with all the sensitivity of someone caressing his lover.

Curiously, like her Dickens movie with Ralph Fiennes, Breathe In deals with the notion of an affair between a younger woman and an older man. The story sees her character, a British exchange student named Sophie, come to live with an American family – only to become embroiled in a fling with Guy Pearce's patriarch, Keith, right under the nose of his wife (played by Amy Ryan). "I think she's very damaged," says Jones of her character. "She subconsciously is bringing about a level of damage to other people because she's hurt."

When the film opened this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival, it split people – perhaps because it swaps Like Crazy's aching romance for a more hysterical fatal attraction.

So is this part of her fascination with older men? Did she mean to do two films that deal with the subject?

"Not intentionally!" she giggles, suddenly blushing close to the shade of her maroon sweater. "It's interesting what projects come through and what you respond to."

Partly, Jones' relationship with older actors seems to stem from how impressed she's been by their careers. "You realise how much fortitude these people have to survive that many years in this world and not go insane!"

She says she'd "absolutely" love to emulate her co-star Guy Pearce. "He's still very much an actor, as opposed to a star, and he's lived by that," she says. "That's what I really admire – he has very much defined his own way through the film and acting world."

So when I put it to Jones that this means we're unlikely to see her in a double-paged spread in OK! magazine – "reclining in my boudoir" as she interjects – she then bursts out laughing.

More under-the-radar than some of her British peers, such as Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley, she's able to live a fairly down-to-earth existence in London, where she shares a flat with sculptor boyfriend Ed Fornieles, a former graduate of the Royal College of Art.

Yet amid all of this, Jones can feel the pull of Hollywood. She's just completed her first studio project, blockbuster sequel The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

"So much of my career has been in independent film, it was just to try something different. I'm so used to being four people in a room in Stoke-on-Trent! And absolutely nothing wrong with that. I think you do amazing work in those very intimate situations, but it was about trying to test myself in a different way."

Sworn to secrecy on her character, she will say she has most of her scenes with Dane DeHaan, who plays Harry Osborn, the former friend to Spider-Man alter-ego Peter Parker, who turns on him. The exacting nature of the work was a shock to her system. "You'll be doing a scene at 3am and feeling slightly insane! It's long, long, long hours."

Still, was she advised this would be a good career step? "I think it can be so dangerous to have that idea of a career – for that reason that you never know how something is going to turn out."

If anything, taking on Spider-Man is part of her ongoing curiosity. The daughter of a journalist, who is now in business consultancy, Jones briefly considered reporting as a career – but only because she wanted to try everything. Born and raised in Birmingham, it was her uncle, actor Michael Hadley, who stimulated her interest in acting, and it chimed better with her personality. "Because I wanted to do so many things, acting was the right thing, because I got to try to do lots of things."

She started acting when she was 11, partly through an after-school club called the Central Junior Television Workshop. It led to auditions, then roles – notably in radio soap The Archers, in which she played Emma Carter. This lasted right up into her time at university, when she used to travel between Oxford, where she was reading English, and Birmingham, where she recorded the show.

Despite a delicate demeanour, there's a determination to Jones that hints at just why she's been able to go toe-to-toe with Beatty et al.

Rom-com Chalet Girl may not have been her finest hour, for example, but it gave her courage in unexpected ways, as she learned to snowboard. "I became quite an adrenaline junkie after doing Chalet Girl. I was going up in helicopters, I was going off piste – every day there was some kind of fear to overcome."

Now her fears are more of the cerebral kind – and not just because she turns 30 this October. Having recently completed True Story, a real-life tale of a couple's relationship with a murderer, Jones has just signed on for Theory of Everything, a biopic of scientist Stephen Hawking, in which she will play his wife, Jane.

"I just find I like to challenge myself and try new things," she says. "I like to try and live as many lives in one life because life's not long enough."

Breathe In opens today, see review page 22

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