Social media? ‘Too destructive.’ Motherhood? ‘I didn’t have a clue.’ Fame? ‘A rollercoaster.’ The sharp-shooting Felicity Jones tells Francesca Babb why she’s determined to keep it real… on screen and off
Felicity Jones is hungover, bleary-eyed and in a stranger’s bed. Her mascara is smeared over her face, and she can’t remember the name of the man lying next to her. It is the opening scene of her latest film, The Last Letter From Your Lover, an adaptation of the bestselling novel by Jojo Moyes – and that first full frame of her character Ellie Haworth, recently single and barely holding things together, is far more Bridget Jones than Brigitte Bardot. Fully flawed in a world where modified perfection glares at us from every screen, this representation of imperfection is very much how Felicity sees herself.
‘I’ve always loved Bridget Jones’s Diary, it made me feel so much better about getting things so hopelessly wrong,’ laughs the actress, 37, talking over Zoom from her monochrome minimalist London home ‒ all white walls and a black lamp coordinating perfectly with her chunky oatmeal sweater.
To Felicity, playing a complex woman is far more interesting than presenting a polished Hollywood version. ‘Many of my cousins are boys and I grew up running around outside,’ she explains of her attitude to grooming. ‘There was no emphasis on make-up, or hair, or looking a certain way. I always had this really short bowl cut and vanity was never the focus, which gives you a great start in life.’
Felicity was born in Bournville, near Birmingham. Her mother and father – who worked in advertising and journalism respectively – split up when she was three. ‘So many actors have divorced parents,’ she says. ‘It definitely gives you a sense of drive and determination. Families are families and have their ups and downs, but I was fortunate that I felt like I could do anything and that was supported and encouraged.’
Felicity’s own family expanded by one last year when she and her husband, film director Charles Guard, had their first child – a son ‒ in April 2020, right in the eye of the storm of the first lockdown.
‘It was a full-on thing to be going through during a pandemic,’ she admits of those first few months of motherhood. ‘We didn’t have a clue what was going on, so it was a scary time to be having a baby. Only going out once a day and feeling like your life is threatened ‒ it was a very heightened experience. It’s so much easier now you can do things ‒ “Oh, this is what it’s supposed to be like!” Once you’ve gone through that, you feel as though you can go through anything.’
When I ask her if she was able to relax at all during the pandemic, she laughs incredulously, possibly because the notion of a newborn in lockdown is the absolute antithesis of restful scenes, but also because any time she wasn’t flat-out with childcare was spent earnestly sourcing material for her new production company. Her son will, undoubtedly, spend many of his formative years on set, given both parents’ professions. Would she be upset if he followed them into film? ‘I’m hoping he’ll go into the sciences,’ she laughs.
Felicity’s first big break came aged 13 in The Treasure Seekers, a made-for-TV movie adaptation of the E Nesbit novel, alongside Keira Knightley. She then temporarily relocated to London to film ITV’s children’s series The Worst Witch, staying in Richmond under the watchful eye of a chaperone. While that level of freedom at such a young age may have been terrifying for some – the start of a loss of innocence, perhaps – for Felicity it was exhilarating and made her certain that acting was where her future lay.
‘I just loved the independence,’ she says. ‘To be away from home at that age was so exciting. It gave me a sense of, ‘‘I like having this autonomy.”’ Next came a starring role on the British institution The Archers, where she played Emma Grundy for almost a decade, before leaving in 2009. ‘I just read in the paper that crack cocaine has been introduced to Ambridge,’ she says, with mock horror. ‘It wasn’t like that in my day! The Archers was a brilliant starting ground. It’s such a lovely thing in this country that you can move between radio, theatre and film, and I think that’s why Britain makes such good actors.’
Felicity was certainly part of a generation of extraordinary talent. As well as Keira Knightley her contemporaries included Andrew Garfield and her regular co-star Eddie Redmayne, all of whom remain friends. ‘I think there was probably a bit of healthy competition, but it was such an amazing period of talent.’
She has worked pretty consistently ever since those early days of child stardom – apart from a brief interlude to study English at Oxford University – and has starred in films alongside Hollywood heavyweights such as Tom Hanks, Sigourney Weaver, Anthony Hopkins and George Clooney.
‘I’ve done it from such a young age so it feels normal for me to always be working,’ she says, ‘That said, you don’t want to be doing it in extremis so you’re run ragged.’
Balance, she knows, is important for both her own state of mind and for keeping a level of normality in her life. Wild swimming and early morning runs are her present go-to methods of switching off.
‘It’s hard, though. It’s quite an extreme industry at the best of times and when something is happening, it is all-encompassing, and it takes over. You go through periods where you are away working and you realise that you’re missing important moments in people’s lives.’
Felicity also maintains her mental balance by avoiding social media. She isn’t on Instagram or Twitter, which, in an age when film studios will look at an actor’s social stats before their body of work, feels all kinds of defiant – a character trait that’s important to Felicity and one we’ll return to. ‘It’s just not something that I want to do. I know friends who wake up in the middle of the night and start reading messages and I think that is quite destructive. Also, I love it when I don’t know everything about an actor, and there’s a little bit of mystery to them.’
Felicity’s insistence on maintaining that distance is reminiscent of the movie stars of yesteryear. It’s an apt comparison as you could easily imagine a Deborah Kerr or Audrey Hepburn playing Felicity’s role in her new film. The storyline flits between the modern day ‒ where her character, a journalist, discovers a stash of old love letters ‒ and the 1960s, where Shailene Woodley’s character, Jennifer Stirling, is the recipient, embroiled in a doomed yet beautiful love affair. It is gorgeously told and lavishly shot, partly on the French Riviera. In a summer largely devoid of foreign travel, it provides some much-needed escapism.
‘I think we’re all ready for a bit of light relief,’ Felicity agrees. ‘We’ve been through the mill. It’s going to be a very gradual, probably painful, process for us all to get back to normality so watching something escapist and romantic will transport us away from the humdrum day-to-day stuff we’ve all been bogged down with.’
As well as playing the film’s lead, she also took on the role of executive producer, which involved making decisions on script and casting choices, among other things. ‘The history of cinema has been dominated by the male perspective,’ she says. ‘To start seeing a balance emerge is really exciting. It’s vital that [representation] is changing, but there is still further to go, particularly behind the camera.’
Felicity used lockdown to officially start Piecrust Productions with her brother Alex. They’ve begun to option books and develop scripts and, despite the increased responsibility and weight on her shoulders, she’s thrilled about the opportunities her new role will bring.
‘The company is named after a style of collar worn by Elizabeth I,’ she explains, of the same ruffle that edged the Erdem dress she wore at her 2018 wedding to Charles. ‘One of the themes of projects that we’re looking at is “defiance”, and Elizabeth I felt like a good reference as one of the original defiant women. Starting this company is what Alex and I have always wanted to do. I aim to go into every aspect of filmmaking.’
Defiance is a good interpretation of Felicity’s approach to the parts she plays too. She’s played pioneering US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2018’s On The Basis of Sex (‘meeting her intensified my feeling of doing things that matter’), rebel warrior Jyn Erso in Star Wars spin-off Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (‘a female lead who is really good at fighting? Sign me up!’) and Stephen Hawking’s redoutable wife Jane in The Theory of Everything, for which she received an Oscar nomination.
‘Now that I look back, I think that was quite cool,’ she says of the accolade. ‘But you can’t get too caught up in the hype. It’s so funny when you see it happening, when someone’s in that moment, in that storm, and you think “where’s my friend gone?”. Acting is a rollercoaster; you’re up and then you’re down, you’re in and you’re out. So if you attach too much value to something like that, you would go crazy.’
The characters she is drawn to differ wildly from each other, but they do share a common ground of intelligence and inner strength. If you’re looking for someone to play the quiet little woman in the corner, you probably don’t want to offer the part to Felicity. ‘There’s always something about the characters I play where they’re quite extreme,’ she agrees. ‘I like something that is a little bit heightened, obsessive; there’s got to be a slight madness, something extra. I think I probably have something of that.’
Up next, as both an actress and a producer, is Borderland, a thriller in which she will star alongside John Boyega and Jodie Turner-Smith, and which will be directed by her husband and his brother Thomas, a duo who go by the moniker The Guard Brothers. ‘We’re pretty chilled about working together,’ she says of the venture with her husband. ‘We’ve both been doing this job for donkey’s years, so it feels quite natural.’
With no importance placed upon her image, nor her social media status, Felicity is free to concentrate on the things that really matter to her. Family, and her son, of course, but also nurturing her fledgling production company and making the most fulfilling work of her life.
‘An actress’s career used to end at 40, but the changes that have happened over the past few years mean it’s a really energising, exciting time. I just want to keep making interesting things.’ When you’re Felicity Jones, that, surely, is a given.
The Last Letter From Your Lover will be in cinemas from 6 August