'Since doing this film, I've lost any bravery I had'
If you don't have a fear of heights, The Aeronauts might just give you one. A handsome and invigorating adventure film set in 1820s England, it's partly based on true stories and stars Eddie Redmayne as James Glaisher, a pioneering meteorologist whose desire to ascend heavenwards is driven by a wish to better understand and predict the weather.
To get up there he'll need the help of an expert balloonist and when he first meets Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones), he's not impressed. For she's a show-woman who cartwheels into the arena on the morning of their flight and does tricks for the audience, knowing well that even science depends on sponsorship. But she has her secret sorrows, and this mismatched pair will grow closer during a record-breaking but reckless and dangerous flight.
Felicity Jones is wonderful in the film, and nods modestly as I tell her so when we meet. Petite, neat and sporting a boho-ish red dress, she explains what attracted her to the project in the first place.
"I loved the combination of it being a period drama but not feeling like a period drama at all. It had this immense modernity to it and, by the end of the film, you don't know where they are or when they were, and you don't really care - it becomes a story about survival."
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In the British press, which ought to have better things to worry about, there's been much grumbling about the fact that, while Eddie Redmayne's character is based on a real man, Amelia's is a construct; some of the heroic exploits she undertakes in the film were performed on a flight with the real James Glaisher by a man.
This, however, is a film, not a History Channel documentary, and there were plenty of female aeronauts who achieved similar feats.
"The biggest inspiration for my character, Amelia, is this woman called Sophie Blanchard, who was this quite extraordinary 18th-century aeronaut. A lot of Blanchard's story is Amelia's story, and she used to love flying solo. She used to fly at night and set fireworks off and all that sort of stuff - she was a bit of a wild cat."
But aeronauting was a risky business: the real Blanchard died when her balloon crashed during an exhibition in Paris. "Our film is kind of a top hits of ballooning history," Jones explains, "so it's all the best bits, and there was a flight where an aeronaut called Henry Coxon climbed to the top of the balloon to ensure that they could land safely. All of the things you see really happened at one point or another."
The film's flight scenes are stunningly realistic, and there's a reason for that. "We actually shot for real some of the time: on the first day we did a proper flight, which was pretty disastrous, and we ended up having a horrific crash landing where Eddie and I were holding hands thinking that we were going to die.
"That was the first day of shooting, and I have to say the shoot continued in a similar vein! It really was tough at times, because you have wires coming out of you which give you a certain amount of support, but if you have too much support, it just looks really fake. So constantly we'd go, 'Let me do it for real and we'll see what happens.'
"So it was a combination of real footage from an actual flight and then we had a crane, which put the balloon up about 2,000 feet, and then all the stuff at the beginning of the film where I'm swinging off ropes; that's about 2,000 feet above the ground."
How is she with heights, I wonder? "I was fine going into it, but since doing this film I've completely lost any bravery I once had, because I've realised what can happen. Once you've gone through it you think, why would I willingly do this again?"
Jones has a knack for playing brave women who suppress their deeper feelings, and Amelia is no exception. "That's what I love about her," she explains. "At the beginning she's externalising everything, and she's got it all sussed and nothing's going to touch her, and then by the end, you see someone much more vulnerable who's able to let someone else in. In the film, her emotional pain is expressed physically, and that climb up the balloon becomes her dealing with her grief."
This is not the first time Jones and Redmayne have graced the screen together: she played Jane Hawking to his Stephen in the 2014 Oscar-winning film The Theory of Everything. "We knew this was going to be a tough shoot, and that the dynamic between us had to be right for the film to work, so knowing that we'd built up the trust before from Theory of Everything just made it so much easier. We both have very similar ways of working and I think...well, Eddie definitely pushes me, and we're quite healthily competitive with each other, so we don't stop until we get something that feels really real."
Their acting styles, she says, "became really method on this film. I don't know if we set out to do it that way but by the end... I mean, it's all so physical, we were supposed to be up really high and freezing, and there's only so much you can do with sort of shivering acting. There was this frozen effect that Tom [Harper, the director] wanted to achieve, so they shot in a corner of the set where they'd made it -1°C I think, so you'd get that really cold look, and then it did end up being kind of a method experience where you were actually cold! But I find with action and stunts, you kind of have to put yourself through it a little bit or it doesn't quite work.
"I feel like this was the most physical film you could possibly make without killing yourself, and then, weirdly, The Theory of Everything was an emotional marathon. I think Eddie and I have this attraction to extremes!"
Over the last few years, Jones has emerged as one of the most versatile and convincing actors of her generation, moving easily between starring roles in big-budget blockbusters like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to heavyweight dramas like The Theory of Everything and last year's Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, RBG. Born in Birmingham in 1983, she took to acting early, and never looked back.
"I joined this youth drama group when I was young - I was only 11, I think - and we'd put on plays and there'd be auditions for film and television. This group was free; it was completely open to all backgrounds, and in Birmingham at that time there was a huge amount of television being made, between Central Television and the BBC and Pebble Mill, and that's when I started auditioning. I loved the idea that I could make some pocket money and have a little bit of independence at 12, 13 years old. I loved being treated like a grown-up, and having that respect."
While she was studying English at Oxford, she made ends meet by working on the much loved and long-running but not especially cool BBC Radio 4 rural drama The Archers. Did she keep quiet about that with her college friends?
"Yes! You'd occasionally get outed, and someone would say, 'My mum loves listening to The Archers, and I know it's you!' But it was actually really good training because I did it over and over again for about 10 years, and so much of acting is about voice. But there was a lot of multitasking involved in trying to do a degree and getting a train back and forth from Birmingham to record."
I imagine it's a bit of a leap from The Archers to Star Wars.
"It feels a bit like a religion, Star Wars: it has its own rules, its own language. It was wonderful to be a part of. The scale of it, it's like nothing else; it's like Roman times or something... the huge sets, it's really majestic." Jones was terrific in Rogue One, which was one of the best Star Wars films of them all, but sadly her character, Jyn, was bumped off at the end. "I know! I was gutted. Bring her back, that's what I say!"