Directed by Ralph Fiennes and written by Abi Morgan (Shame), The Invisible Woman tells the story of Ellen “Nelly” Ternan (Felicity Jones), a happily married mother and schoolteacher with a secret past. Haunted by remorse and guilt, Nelly was a young actress who caught the eye of Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes), becoming both his muse and secret lover.
At the film’s press day, actress Felicity Jones spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about what made you want to play Nelly, her audition process for the role, working with Ralph Fiennes as an actor and as a director, how the two of them were on the same wavelength during the shoot, how extensively she did research into the real woman, and her incredible wardrobe. She also talked about being a part of such a huge production as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, how the secrecy about the project was inferred, so as to protect the story they’re telling, and how she got a say in the costumes she wears in the film, as well as what the experience was like working with Jonah Hill and James Franco on True Story. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
FELICITY JONES: Well, I always hope for roles that have some depth and that I can get my teeth into and that will challenge me, in some way. It felt like, with this, that was very much the case. It was definitely all-consuming, that’s for sure. And especially playing a real person, I felt such responsibility to do her story justice.
When you read this script, what was it about Nelly that stood out for you?
JONES: I was fascinated by her, and I felt like she was someone that had incredible inner strength and was a real survivor. Even after Dickens had died, she remarried and pretended to be a lot younger than she was. There was something about her that, no matter what the circumstances were, I felt like Nelly would survive. I think it was difficult for her because she was in love with Dickens, but at the same time, she didn’t want to be some floozy mistress. She wanted to be respected, and that was very important to her. That conflict, I found quite intriguing.
Why do you think Charles Dickens was so drawn to Nelly?
JONES: They were both total opposites. He was an extrovert, and very gregarious. Nelly was much more introverted and quiet. There was a real attraction of opposites.
What was your audition process like for this?
JONES: I’d met Ralph on a few occasions, before I was cast. I was in a play in London that he came to see, called Luise Miller. After the show, the actors would all go out to a bar to commiserate and celebrate. The fact that he came to the bar afterwards, I thought, “It can’t have gone that badly.” Ralph spent a lot of time making sure that I was the right person for the part. He’s someone who’s very careful about his choices. I felt, instinctively, that I wanted to do it and that I should do it. I just had to wait for him to see it, as well.
What was it like to find out that he would not only be your director, but also your co-star?
JONES: I always thought he’d play Dickens. I just could feel it, when I first met him. I thought, “It’s gonna take him a bit of time, but he’s going to play Dickens.”
You had worked with him, as an actor, on Cemetery Junction, but what was this experience like? Did it feel different to work with him, in this capacity?
JONES: Yeah, it felt totally different. With this film, we spent such long hours shooting. We were in rehearsal for a good month. It was a fully immersive experience. We were constantly talking about the characters and collaborating. It felt very, very different.
How was the experience of working with him, acting together while he was also the director?
JONES: Ralph is actually very collaborative. When he was acting in scenes, I would go and watch them on playback. He was very open to me being a part of the process. I’d watch scenes after we’d finish shooting. I actually love that way of working. It was very collaborative. And a lot of it was trust. I felt like Ralph really was very honest with me. He said, “I will be directing and acting, and it means we’re all gonna have to pull together.” It felt like a team effort.
When he called you on your performance and said you needed to be more truthful, did you know, instinctually, that you weren’t being truthful enough, or did you get frustrated because you thought you were really owning the moment?
JONES: No, I think we both were on a similar wavelength, in that sense. When a relationship with a director is really working, you have the same idea at the same time. You go, “Look, this isn’t working,” and they’ll go, “I know it’s not working. What are we gonna do?” And you go and try something else. So, it felt like we were on the same wavelength.
How extensively did you research Ellen Ternan and this time period? Are you someone who typically likes to do a lot of research?
JONES: Yeah, I’m a real geek, in that way. I love spending time researching a character and reading about them. I went to visit the house where Nelly, her sisters and their mother grew up, just to get the atmosphere and how she was living. It’s in London, in Islington. In many ways, it is like being a detective. It’s piecing together all these clues to create a character. So, I like to feel as prepared as possible, before I go onto set.
Did you read or re-read any of Charles Dickens’ work?
JONES: Yes. I hadn’t read a lot of Dickens before I started the film. I’d studied English literature at university, but I was also far more enamored with Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce. That was my passion. It was only doing the film that I rediscovered Dickens. Great Expectations has become one of my favorite books. I really appreciated his honesty and truthfulness about human nature. It’s great when you make a film, and you discover something new.
What did you think of your incredible wardrobe?
JONES: It was absolutely exquisite. Michael O’Connor is brilliant. He’s just so great. Actually, I think all of my shoes and dresses were handmade to fit. And all the petticoats were completely true to what they would have worn, at the time. It was a really phenomenal team.
Nelly is a very complex character, with moments of intense emotion, and then moments where she’s so stoic. As an actor, do you prefer to be more outward with the emotion, or do you like those moments where you have to keep everything in?
JONES: With her, I felt like she does contain a lot of emotion. She’s not someone who easily expresses herself. It’s not that she doesn’t have those emotions, she’s just quite guarded. So, when she is expressing herself, it’s very much because she has to. That’s what’s important. I hate it when you watch performances and the person is just crying all the time. It’s choosing those moments carefully.
Were you intimidated, at all, with this film having so many extreme close-ups, or are you not self-conscious about the camera?
JONES: When you’re in the head of the character, you feel less self-conscious. If I was just being me, I would feel so exposed and be like, “Why is there a huge camera in my face?” But, when you’re believing in the person that you’re playing, you feel protected. It’s about being true to that person you’re playing.
You’ve done a number of films that are small character pieces. What’s it like to then go do something the size of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, where things don’t get much bigger?
JONES: It’s a completely different experience. That’s why I wanted to do something like that. I’ve done a lot of very low-budget indie films, so it was just really exciting and fun to be doing a film where there’s a lot more time and these huge, vast sets. I was like a kid in a playground. It was amazing!
That must be the definition of Hollywood movie magic.
JONES: Absolutely, yes! That’s so true! Yeah, definitely! It’s quite overwhelming.
When you work on something like that for a big studio, is there a moment where they pull you aside and say, “Don’t tell anyone about the story,” or is that just inferred?
JONES: I think that that’s inferred, mostly. You want to protect the story that you’re telling, and I guess that’s the reason.
Did you have a say in your costumes for that?
JONES: Oh, yeah, totally! Absolutely! It’s a medium that’s very collaborative. Actors and directors work on things together. That’s how I like to work, anyway. I don’t want to be told what to do. I want to share it with someone and work it out together. You know that person better than anyone. That’s my job.
What was it like to work with Marc Webb, who comes from an indie background, on a film like that?
You also did True Story with Jonah Hill and James Franco, which is being listed as a drama, even though that seems unusual with those two together. What was that experience like?
JONES: It was great! They’re both phenomenal actors. They’re phenomenal comedic actors and serious actors. True Story is more serious, in its tone, but I think they’re both great in it.
What was it that drew you to that?
JONES: I was intrigued by the story. I felt like I could get my teeth into the character. I thought she was interesting. There’s a great scene, at the end of the film, that I really enjoyed playing, but I won’t tell you what it was. It’s just a feeling. You just have a gut feeling about something and you think, “I could do something with this. This is going to be an interesting way of spending the next few months.”
At this point in your career, what do you look for in a project? Is it about the story and character, or is it about who you’ll be working with?
JONES: It’s everything. I actually think it’s so much about the character and the director, really. Am I going to be able to do something with this role? Can I get on with the person that’s going to direct it? Both of those things are probably equally as important. I like to keep pushing myself and trying things out. I get easily bored, so I need a challenge.
Is there a type of role you’d love to do, if given the opportunity?
JONES: I’d love to do something physical, or where I’m doing something I’ve never done before, like more dance-based, or something. I don’t know exactly, but I’d love to do something where I’m not crying and that’s not so serious. I want to keep mixing it up, really.
The Invisible Woman opens in theaters on December 25th.