“It feels very apocalyptic at the moment, doesn’t it?” says Felicity Jones. “It feels like things are out of our control.” We’re sitting, somewhat awkwardly, in the bedroom of the downtown New York City loft where Jones’ Bustle photo shoot just took place, a space that is a study in a kind of throwback, eclectic bohemia. There is a furniture store display room’s worth of shabby chic couches strewn with colorful, threadbare cushions, a zebra skin rug, a record player (playing the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack), and enough plants to fill a small greenhouse. Outside, something between slush and snow is falling from the sky in diagonal streaks.
Jones wasn’t describing the weather as apocalyptic, though, but the global mood, in terms of politics and, more specifically, climate change — both the issue and the denial of it. “I think when people have business interests and they make a lot of money from damaging the environment, whether it's directly or indirectly, they’re not going to accept it,” she says. “But we do have to make massive changes, don’t we? To the way that we live.”
These are the types of ideas that lurk beneath the surface of her latest film, The Aeronauts, a drama about an 1862 gas-balloon flight in which a scientist, James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) and a pilot (Jones) rise to about 7 miles above the earth, higher than any human had previously traveled, collecting data that helps establish the foundations of meteorology. “It’s a celebration of our planet, and how beautiful it can be if we don’t mess it up,” Jones says. It’s also, “kind of like the top 10 hits of aeronautics” in that it combines events from various historical flights — a violent storm, a swarm of yellow butterflies — along with some that never happened at all. It culminates, for example, with, a stomach-churning (fictional) sequence in which Jones climbs to the top of the balloon and tries to kick open a valve that has frozen shut.
Though Jones’ character, Amelia Wren, was inspired by the real-life aeronaut Sophie Blanchard, Glaisher’s pilot was actually a man. “I don’t think the world suffers from having fewer white male stories,” Jones says, explaining the change. “I think we’ve got a lot of those.”
Blanchard was one of the first women to fly a balloon solo, a fearless daredevil who loved to set off fireworks from the basket (this ultimately led to her death at age 41) and was beloved by Napoleon, who at one point hoped to invade England by balloon with her leading the charge. “She was such a wild cat,” says Jones. She was also a consummate performer. In the first scene of The Aeronauts, Jones wears clownish rouge and a dress festooned with feathers and sequins as she rides — standing atop a carriage, streamer waving behind her — into the amphitheater where a crowd awaits her and Glaisher’s liftoff. She swings from the carriage to the balloon on a rope and does two cartwheels and a back handspring. A moment later they’re airborne. “I’m giving the people their money’s worth,” Jones’ Wren explains to the disapproving Glaisher before throwing her dog, Posey, out of the basket, a parachute unfurling from its back. “It’s what they call entertainment.”
This, by the way, is exactly not what Jones is like. “It’s so fun to watch her play a character that’s so bold and brash and cocky,” says Drake Doremus, who directed Jones in the indie hit Like Crazy. “It’s so not her.” Like Wren, though, Jones does understand that the occasional dog and pony show is part of her job. In 2016, for example, while promoting her Star Wars spin-off Rogue One on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, she gamely slipped off her stilettos to battle Fallon with a light saber.
“She will promote her movies in a fantastic way,” says Aeronauts director Tom Harper. “But I don’t know how much she likes doing that.”
In that downtown loft, Jones, sitting across from me in the gray light, takes a bite from the food she's brought to snack on, then apologizes. In person, she displays the same complex but unshowy intelligence her characters always transmit on screen, and an old-fashioned type of integrity. It is not surprising to learn that in 2011, she turned down the role of Snow White in the Hollywood blockbuster Mirror, Mirror, opposite Julia Roberts, because she had previously committed to a West End play. Or that she refused to sign on to Inferno, the 2016 Dan Brown thriller in which she co-starred with Tom Hanks, until she knew she could have time off when her brother’s baby was born.
“I don’t think the world suffers from having fewer white male stories. I think we’ve got a lot of those.”
But while Jones describes herself as both an overthinker and a bit of a punk — “diligent on the outside, rock 'n' roll on the inside,” as she once put it — I don’t get a glimpse of the latter. She is infallibly polite but uncompromisingly private. It makes for a conversation that’s a bit like trying to scoop water with a sieve, though she’s sympathetic for the position this puts me in. “I interview people often for roles,” she says at one point. “It’s quite hard to get people off certain stories that they’ve told over and over again. So I empathize.”
Besides, the old stories of Jones’ career no longer, in her telling, represent anything essential about her 36-year-old self. On the set of one of her first films, Brideshead Revisited, the sound guy had to move her mike from her chest because her heart was beating so loudly it was interfering with her voice. But she no longer experiences such serious anxiety about work. “You [come to] trust yourself more,” she says. “I don’t know if perfectionism is that interesting anyway.” Likewise, Jones has overcome the intense self-consciousness she felt when she was younger. “You realize there’s a lot of acceptance, isn’t there?” she says. “You let go.”
Still, there’s something paradoxical about her blend of self-assurance and secrecy. If she’s not worried about what people think, what’s all the circumspection for? Later, though, I find myself wondering not why Jones shares so minimally but why others share so freely. That little is known about Jones beyond her work is “her secret weapon,” a Deadline piece declared in 2016. “She can play [whatever role] and it never feels inauthentic.” It also enables Jones, one of the rare people who seems to mean it when she says she never wanted to be famous, to have a true private life, even in the same years that she became the model for a Star Wars action figure.
That said, Jones is hardly anonymous. When she arrived in New York in late November, gossip websites promptly posted shots of her and her husband, director Charles Guard, walking through the airport. But on the afternoon we meet, she doesn’t want to talk about Guard, who she met in an elevator at the Sunset Tower Hotel in Los Angeles and wed at a British castle in 2018. When I ask how she usually passes a non-working day in London, where they live, she says she spends most of her time reading scripts. In regards to what she was like as a kid, she deflects again: “God, it’s so hard to look back on yourself, isn’t it?”
“If you’re the center of attention all the time, how are you looking at how other people behave?”
Maybe Jones has sensed that what we’re willing to accept of actors is shifting. A few weeks later, when Adam Driver walks out of an NPR interview, many come to his defense, some arguing that actors must be allowed their eccentricities, particularly in the service of their craft. Privacy, an ever-rarer resource for most of us, seems to have become a luxury we’re increasingly willing to grant the actually famous. Or maybe Jones is simply exhausted. Despite wearing an outfit that seems designed to obscure the lines of her body — a black blouse, a black wrap skirt and black lace-up shoes a friend calls her “Victorian ice-skating boots” — she appears to be more than a few months pregnant.
Jones has said that having children prompted women she knows to "get stronger and more decisive... they don’t waste their time doing things they don’t want to do.” A few days after we meet, Jones confirms to People magazine that she’s expecting, without making a comment. She declines to answer any of my follow-up questions. The message relayed is clear: She has already said everything she wants to say.
Jones was warned not to trust journalists by her father, a reporter. He met Jones’ mother working at a regional UK newspaper, where she was in advertising. They divorced when Jones was 3, and from then on Jones and her younger brother lived with her mom in a Birmingham suburb. As a kid, Jones was physically bold — when swimming, she’d climb to the highest point and throw herself off — but also shy. Her parents encouraged her to act in the hope that it would help her be less so. “People have this idea that acting is about being massively extroverted,” she says. “But a lot of actors I meet don’t, weirdly, want to be noticed.” What she does want, as an actor, is the freedom to observe people — their mannerisms, their motivations. “If you’re the center of attention all the time, how are you looking at how other people behave?” she asks.
As a pre-teen, Jones was accepted into a free local acting workshop, and through that, began auditioning. Her first role came a year later in the TV film The Treasure Seekers (alongside Keira Knightley) and by 15, she had landed a regular part on BBC’s radio soap opera The Archers. A few years later, she begged her parents to let her audition for the film Tristan & Isolde, but filming would have interfered with college, and they refused.
“In retrospect it was a good decision,” she says. “Because you know what? The movies, they come and they go.”
Jones studied English at Oxford University, where she continued her role on The Archers, sometimes staying up until 1 a.m. to finish a paper, and then waking up a few hours later to get to the BBC studio. Other nights, she’d take the train into London to go to the massive drum-and-bass nightclub Fabric, getting home at 5 a.m. She tried out for plays on campus but didn’t land many main roles. The only professional job that got her noticed by her peers was a commercial for face wipes. After graduating, she moved to London and spent a few years auditioning while regularly running into actors like Carey Mulligan, Tom Hardy, and Andrew Garfield. All of their careers took off before hers, but when I ask Jones if this was difficult, she responds that what she was most interested in at the time was figuring out what made their breakout films resonate. “What are the stories that make people care?” she says.
Jones broke through herself with the 2011 film Like Crazy. She landed the role after sending Doremus a video of herself performing two scenes; he hired her without ever having met her in person. In the movie, which portrays the straight-to-the-veins intensity of first love and its bittersweet aftermath, she is achingly lovely as a British exchange student who falls in love with an American (Anton Yeltsin). Jones later told Doremus she didn’t remember doing any of what appeared onscreen, almost all of which was improvised. “She was so present that she wasn’t aware of herself,” Doremus says. At Sundance, where Like Crazy won the Grand Jury Prize and Jones won a Special Jury Prize, Harvey Weinstein showed up to a dinner for the movie just to meet her. (“I didn’t suffer anything personally,” she says, in regards to him. “But he was always around.”) The feeling, Doremus says, was that “the word was out. She was right on the cusp of popping.”
Over the next few years, Jones appeared in a series of big budget films, from The Invisible Woman (directed by Ralph Fiennes) to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But she was perennially listed as a rising talent, as opposed to simply a star, until 2014, when she appeared in The Theory of Everything as Stephen Hawking’s first wife, Jane, a woman of steely determination who supported her disabled but brilliant husband even as they grew apart. (The real Jane’s response to watching the film: “How can I be on screen and in a cinema seat at the same time?”) It went on to receive five Oscar nominations, including one for Jones, for Best Actress.
Jones has described herself looking like a “petrified chicken” in early red carpet appearances, and she found the attention she experienced after Like Crazy difficult. “The irony [is] that you go into acting in order to maybe escape aspects of yourself and then suddenly you’re having to be this personality,” she told the Telegraph in 2013. But the lead-up to the 2015 Oscars was something else entirely. Jones has estimated that she wore about 150 dresses; the Alexander McQueen gown she wore to the ceremony (to which she brought her parents) weighed so much that Redmayne had to help hoist her out of her seat. The show itself was so long that audience members shared snacks they’d brought with them. “Someone brought those red—what are those sweet things?” she says, ever-British. (She means Twizzlers.) Afterward, she’s said, she had to take time to let her “ego un-swell.” But whatever the challenges of the publicity marathon, the film had deeply impacted audiences and, as Jones once told Deadline, “It’s really bloody important to feel moved. I think that’s how we become better people.”
Harper says that Jones is unusual in that she takes her work seriously but herself not so much. To play Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the biopic On the Basis of Sex, she organized every picture of the Supreme Court justice that she could find chronologically. (“I was obsessed with her, as you have to be,” she says.) To play Wren, she learned to fly gas air balloons, underwent three months of physical training, and worked with an acrobat. Jones ended up doing almost all her own stunts, including one that involved leaning almost her entire body out of the basket at two hundred feet in the air. This, despite the fact that on their first day, she and Redmayne, after filming in an airborne balloon, ended up crashing into the ground at such a high velocity Jones thought, for a moment, that she’d broken her back. Even the filming that took place in a studio with a blue screen was challenging. Redmayne and Jones were blasted with freezing air, and Harper had them dip their hands in frigid water between takes. “She was so stoic,” he says. “Almost too stoic.” At one point, her makeup designer pulled him aside to let him know Jones’ arms were black with bruises. (Jones got married during a break between rehearsals and filming, and part of the reason the Erdem dress she wore had long sleeves was to cover up her black-and-blue arms.)
Jones is known for being picky about her roles. “I’ve certainly spoken with producers who’ve offered her what they thought were great roles that she’s chosen not to take for her own reasons,” says Harper. “Initially, you’re just happy to get paid to do something you love. But increasingly what you think about is which stories will add to the conversation in a meaningful way.”
The roles she’s tended to take, especially over the last few years, are women whose agency is unquestioned but who have to fight against the odds. They push out beyond what audiences might otherwise believe is possible. “What was so important to me was to play a female genius,” she said to Vanity Fair about playing Ginsburg. She was drawn to the role of Jyn Erso in Rogue One partly because it offered the rare opportunity to play a woman completely unconcerned with romance, the undisputed action hero of the film, and the same is true of Wren in The Aeronauts. After Glaisher passes out from altitude sickness, it is Wren who ascends the balloon’s ropes, her hair caked with frost, her hands so frozen she can’t move her fingers, and it was this sequence that convinced Jones she wanted to do the film. (How much harder might it be, by the way, for Jones to convince audiences in the veracity of such characters if she also had to help them get past their perceptions of Felicity Jones, the celebrity?)
Jones chalks up Wren’s astonishing, against-the-odds feat to “that Free Solo mentality.” She’s referring to the documentary about Alex Honnold, a climber who ascended a 2,000-foot, sheer rock face without ropes. “There’s [this impulse] certain people have to discover something above all else,” she says. Does she have that? I ask. “I definitely like to push it,” she says. “When you believe in a story, then you’ve got to fight for it.” In our conversation, we’d been toggling back and forth between The Aeronauts and the film’s nuanced take on climate change, and what she said next pertained to global warming, though it could just have easily been about Jones, too, her career, fame and privacy. “It feels like we have to put some boundaries around these things,” she says. “Certain endeavors come at a price, don’t they?”
Top image credit: Greta Constantine top, skirt; Anita Ko earrings; Pamela Love ring; Yun Yun Sun ring.
Photographer: Matthew Priestley
Stylist: Sarah Slutsky at The Wall Group
Hair: Christian Wood at The Wall Group
Makeup: Nina Park for Clé de Peau Beauté at Forward Artists
Manicure: Deborah Lippmann at SWA Agency