Maybe it’s how her eyes light up, all wide and innocent. Or maybe it’s the ever-so-slightly buck teeth revealed under that plump, up-turned top lip. Or, quite possibly, it’s the chirrup of a giggle that bubbles up in most of her performances. Felicity Jones has never had any problem in nailing likeable.
The British actor has charmed on screen, playing winsome ingénues (Miranda in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest; Catherine in an Andrew Davies’ telly adaptation of Northanger Abbey; Cordelia in the 2008 Brideshead Revisited) and relatable girl-next-door types (in Brit-com, Chalet Girl, 2011’s Sundance film festival favourite, Like Crazy, or low-budget British flick, SoulBoy).
The camera loves her, and so do critics – one even suggested Like Crazy, about the trials of long-distance relationships and having to choose between love and your career, didn’t really work because “any young man forced to choose between Felicity and [making] furniture would be on the first flight to Heathrow”. Audiences agree; there’s been a YouTube campaign for her to play Anastasia Steele in the movie of Fifty Shades of Grey, a role which seems an easy fit.
Except that, when you meet Jones, turns out she has zero interest in doing what’s expected of her. “I’m attracted to playing people who aren’t necessarily straightforward,” she says. “You have to be brave and not always play likeable people. It’s difficult, because there’s a demand for the hero or heroine to be very likeable.”
She’s talking about her latest role, Dolly in Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, a big-screen adaptation of Julia Strachey’s 1932 novella about an unusual upper-class wedding day. While it at first appears to be full-length Downton Abbey (Elizabeth McGovern stars, and the opening montage even includes a close-up on a servants’ bell à la Downton’s intro sequence), both Strachey’s original, and the screenplay by Mary Henely-Magill and first-time director Donald Rice, are altogether sharper, stranger things.
Jones plays the bride – in her first shot, she’s vomiting into a lavatory. Her Dolly is a rather sarcastic creature, but Jones also captures an underlying melancholy and fear; for Cheerful Weather is a very British comedy of repression, inaction, and proud stubbornness.
“I actually loved that it’s not, in a way, an obvious film – there’s something quite theatrical about it, it forces you to listen to the words,” says Jones. A fan of that period, she’s got a degree in English literature from Oxford, and wrote her dissertation on Virginia Woolf.
In person, Jones herself is quite different to many of the adorkable, cherubic young girls she’s played; for starters, she’s 29. She may not look it – “The genes!” – but she acts it. She’s self-possessed and self-contained, and speaks in smooth, measured, fully-formed sentences.
Then there was Chalet Girl… a slight rom-com, she nevertheless spent a month working in a ski chalet to prepare. “Just on a human level, I enjoy being a part of different worlds I haven’t encountered before,” she enthuses.
For the improvised Like Crazy, as well as coming up with dialogue – another challenge she unsurprisingly loved, her way with words winning her a Sundance special jury prize – Jones also chose her own costumes.
It’s a good job she’s interested in clothes; Jones has been courted by the fashion world too, modelling Dolce & Gabbana make-up and Burberry alongside Cara Delevingne and Jourdan Dunn.
Jones also had some professional angels in her career. When I ask about filming with Emma Thompson (Brideshead) and Helen Mirren (her mother, Prospera, in The Tempest): “I find it so important, having those role models, because I didn’t go to drama school, I’ve really had to learn through working. They’ve been incredibly helpful in navigating what can be a severe industry.”
Jones is one of those British actresses who seems to have been tipped for the top for about a decade now. Every interview begins with “rising star”, “the new Keira”. Not that she seems terribly keen on fame; it’s “really nice” that she can still have a private life. She knows press intrusion goes hand- in-hand with certain types of work, citing how Like Crazy co-star Jennifer Lawrence was catapulted into the public eye after she took on The Hunger Games.
Then there’s The Invisible Woman, also starring Jones as a young girl who rocks the world of an older, married man – only this time, it’s Dickens. Jones play Nelly Ternan, an 18-year-old who meets Charles Dickens when he’s 45. The film has heavyweight credentials: based on the book by eminent biographer Claire Tomalin, adapted by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady; The Hour), directed by – and starring – Ralph Fiennes as Dickens.