Felicity's shower moment
From The Archers via Brideshead Revisited to acclaim at Sundance, Felicity Jones is a fast-rising star. Yet, as Carole Cadwalladr discovers, the youthful-looking 27-year-old who grew up in a single-parent family and started acting at 11 displays no airs and graces
When I arrive at the Soho hotel to interview Felicity Jones, there are two paps, Ian and Perry, lurking outside the entrance. They're after Ed Westwick, Jones's co-star in the new British romcom Chalet Girl, who is best known for his role in Gossip Girl, and there's also the prospect of a few leftover celebs from the film's premiere the night before -- Bill Nighy, who plays the father, and Brooke Shields, the mother. And what about Felicity Jones?
"Oh, she's such a pretty little thing," says Ian. "Tiny. Gorgeous."
"What's the name of that actress in Breakfast at Tiffany's?" asks Perry.
"Exactly, she's got a real Audrey Hepburn look about her."
She has. Even in the baggy snowboarding outfits she wore in Chalet Girl, she has the kind of face that lights up a camera at 100 paces. What's more, you might not know her now, but she's on the cusp of being a major star. Although you probably won't see Ian and Perry's photos of her any time soon.
"The thing is that she's not quite experienced enough to know how to pose," says Ian.
But then, that's probably the most appealing thing about Jones. She's as yet unspoilt by fame, still a tiny bit stiff-limbed and self-conscious and, even though she's 27, it's no accident that in both of her most recent films, Chalet Girl and The Tempest, she plays characters who are at least a decade younger than herself. She genuinely does still have the slightly gauche charm of a much younger girl. It's a funny, slightly dated, in all probability quite a sexist word, and I'm not entirely sure I understand it, but I think she may be what is known as an ingenue.
She is now one of the hottest young actresses on the planet. Like Crazy, a tiny, no-budget film she made last summer, was the stand-out hit of last month's Sundance Film Festival. Audiences wept, critics raved, Paramount snapped up the distribution rights and it ended up winning not only the Grand Jury prize, but Jones took the Special Jury prize.
"It was extraordinary," she says. "I didn't know how to take it really. It was just so surreal." It's been reported that Jason Reitman, the director of Up in the Air, and producer Harvey Weinstein have been courting her for their next films, and it must be one of the sweetest moments of any actor's career: to be lauded and praised but to be, for the moment, just below the public's radar. The paps will take her photo, but they're not chasing her down the street.
You suspect it won't be long, though. The camera loves Jones and she loves it right back. She's worked solidly since she was 15, when she was cast as Emma Grundy in The Archers, a role she continued to play even while studying English at Oxford, and she has landed parts in everything from the children's series The Worst Witch to Polly Stenham's Royal Court hit play, That Face. After a run of costume roles, though -- Cordelia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited and Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey -- playing Kim in Chalet Girl, an ordinary girl from an ordinary background, was "something of a relief". She was also keen to take on a comic role.
"I just wanted to try something different out. I'd done a little comedy in Cemetery Junction and got a taste for it. The producer of Chalet Girl had seen That Face at the Royal Court and my part in that was quite sardonic. I think they thought they wanted something similar from Kim. There's something very witty about her, and quite fresh, although I realised watching it last night that it's really contemporary Jane Austen. It's a young girl from a poor family who falls in love with a young man and, through love, is removed from her original circumstances. Which is exactly what happens to Austen's heroine."
This also sums up quite neatly what's wrong with the film -- that it's underpinned by the deep-rooted social conservatism of romantic comedy conventions: that posh people fancy only posh people, and that the apotheosis of a woman's dreams is to marry a rich man. In fairness, Jones's portrayal of Kim does give the film a little bit of edge. It's mostly a good-humoured, not-too-saccharine-although-still-quite-saccharine British romcom, with Jones playing the wrong-side-of-the-tracks underdog. "I can do posh," she says at the start of the film when trying to land the job, although she says she's unsure herself if she's posh or not.
She grew up in Bournville, the model village south of Birmingham. Her parents met while working on the Wolverhampton Express & Star. "My mother worked in advertising and my father was a journalist. But they split up when I was three and I grew up in a single-parent family. My mum brought my brother and I up."
It still seems to have been one of the most significant influences on her life. Her mother never remarried and, she says, "as I get older, I realise how difficult it must have been in a way you don't understand when you're younger. I think that my brother and I have both inherited some of her perseverance". She says her childhood was happy, but not growing up in a nuclear family made her, she believes, less secure.
"I think that when something happens when you're growing up, like a death or divorce, it does open the world slightly because things aren't as straightforward. So that process which everyone goes through where you realise things aren't as comfortable and safe as they seem, I think that happens at an earlier point."
As a child, she'd always be out in the garden with her friends, inventing things and dressing up.
"But I wasn't the kind of person who pushed myself forward. I'm still not the most confident person in that way."
For her, acting seems to be less about attention-seeking and more about losing herself in other people's characters. Some actors, I say, are just natural extroverts. "But I think there's also a shyness sometimes," she says. "And there's a sensation you get when you're performing of release from a self-consciousness that you might have in everyday life."
She started acting at 11 at an after-school workshop funded by Central Television. Her mother was always passionate about film and theatre. "I remember she used to drive us to the cinema in Solihull and my favourite part was in the car on the way home where we'd deconstruct the film." It's something of a family trade. Her uncle is an actor, her grandmother, she says, would have liked to have been one and her brother is a film editor.
Her father left journalism to go into TV and is now a business consultant, but she says she feels she's inherited some of his "journalistic detachment".
What was his advice to you? "Never trust journalists."
Hmm. That's a little bit unfair, I say. "I think it can be difficult for actors, because obviously you're the thing. You put yourselves in your work. So there's going to be a degree of attention on you, but you have to keep something for yourself, because your work is where you offer up yourself. You do tend to find yourself being more closed personally, because you give so much in your work. I have to have something that's private."
Privately, Felicity Jones hangs around with an arty crowd. Her boyfriend, Ed Fornieles, is an artist who set up the Wallis Gallery after leaving the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford, where they met. Her friends, she says, all have their own creative projects.
There's no doubt that she does bring an intelligence to her acting, as proved by Like Crazy. The film was improvised. "Every word of dialogue I wrote myself and I absolutely loved that." It was directed by Drake Doremus, who was responsible for last year's indie feature, Douchebag, and Jones was determined to get the part of the British girl who falls in love with an American student but whose relationship is thwarted by red tape.
"I was sent the outline, in a huge pile of other scripts. I started reading it and I knew instantly. I just thought, 'I have to do this, this has to be my part.' Every moment was exactly right -- of what it's like to be in a long-distance relationship."
Is it something you've experienced? "Well, being an actor, you go away a lot, so it obviously has an effect upon your relationships. Then I spoke to Drake and I said, 'Is there anything I can do? I really like the tone of it.' It was much more Lars Von Trier-esque than anything I'd come across for ages."
Von Trier, the Danish pioneer of the Dogme movement of radical film-making, sets out to test his audience, she says, to push things to their limits, and it's what she wants as an actress to do. To convince Doremus to give her the part she actually shot three improvised scenes for him, one of which was of her in the shower.
"I set up the tripod and got in. It's a scene towards the end of the film. It's a close-up and a certain look she has. I sent it to him and he said, 'I really need to meet someone before I cast them.' But he took a chance which is why I think the whole thing worked, because he just went with his instinct."
Working with a tiny crew, wearing her own clothes, improvising as they went along, was, she says, her most satisfying working experience so far. "It's how I want to work. I've always tried to achieve that in my own way, but to have that kind of support from a director was exceptional." That was even before she knew it would go on to be a festival hit.
But then, as careers go, Felicity Jones's is about as charmed as they come. She's skipped entirely the struggling actor phase and when I try to ask her about that, she doesn't even seem to understand the question. But she might have been like that anyway: it's not just that she looks so young, but there's also that slightly unworldly air that hangs around her. An air of the ingenue. Whatever that might be.
'The Tempest' is released on March 8, and 'Chalet Girl' on March 16. Felicity Jones will star in Luise Miller, at the Donmar Warehouse, June 8 to July 30
Sunday Indo Living