As Felicity Jones headlines the Donmar’s latest production, Matthew Amer talks to the emerging actress about pressure, competition and inspirational co-stars.
When your first two professional stage outings win a gaggle of awards between them, as is the case with Felicity Jones who previously appeared in That Face and The Chalk Garden, production number three has an expectation sitting on its shoulders that is more weighty than a queue of Pavarotti lookalikes.
When you are the actress around whom this third production was constructed, the central performer announced months prior to the rest of the cast, the name on which the show has been sold, that pressure must be lung-crushing in its intensity.
“It is quite frightening,” the 27-year-old actress admits quite matter-of-factly with a little laugh. “I try not to think about that side of things too much.”
Jones, who announced her talent to the world playing Catherine Morland in the 2007 Andrew Davies adaptation of Jane Austen’s faux-Gothic classic Northanger Abbey, is a deceptive individual. To look at the slight, fresh-faced, unassuming actress who wears a simple grey sweater like a nervous schoolgirl, you could be forgiven for thinking that such pressure would squash her into a beautiful nothingness. But to hear the Oxford graduate speak is to realise the strength and intelligence behind the soft features.
“I think there’s something about this play that will totally draw people in,” she says as we sit sipping bottles of water in the Lyric Hammersmith’s circle foyer, gazing out at the sun-drenched balcony below. “It’s about feeling and aggression and emotion. I think, especially at the moment, people will be drawn to come to the theatre for those sorts of sensations. I think people want to be opened up in that manner, and this play will do that.”
The play in question is the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Schiller’s Luise Miller, the tale of a love affair thwarted by politics, power and corruption in which Jones takes the title role of the musician’s daughter who falls for the son of the most powerful statesman in the land.
Jones’s participation in the production was announced nearly nine months ago, when the opening shows of Donmar Warehouse Artistic Director Michael Grandage’s final season at the head of the powerhouse producing venue were revealed. Jones, of course, knew even earlier than that and has, she says, “lived with [Miller] for a good year or so now”.
"I think there’s something about this play that will totally draw people in"
If you are a little concerned that this sounds as though Jones prepares for roles by moving an imaginary character into her home, fear not. “You just start to notice things that might be useful for the character,” she explains. “You start to think ‘I wonder how they would respond to this situation?’ You start to bring them into your life in some way.”
“Sometimes I really don’t like her,” she says of Schiller’s heroine. “I feel that’s good in a way, because I know I’m finding something that’s different from myself. Especially with her, there’s something deeply conservative about her and that’s something I don’t really like. But when I feel that, it’s quite exciting, because you feel that something else is happening. You’re finding a person separate from yourself.”
Jones is just one of a host of talented young British actresses currently making a name for themselves both on stage and screen. Performers such as Ruth Wilson, Hayley Atwell, Andrea Riseborough and Gemma Arterton are part of the group making waves in acting circles and proving that the future of theatre is in safe hands.
But Jones didn’t train as an actress. She has worked professionally since she was a teenager, playing the bullying Ethel Hallow in TV series The Worst Witch and Emma Carter in The Archers, but chose not to go to drama school, instead studying English at Oxford. By then, she already had an agent, so needn’t have attended university at all. She could have ploughed headlong into the world of a working actress. But Jones wanted to experience a bit of life, make friends away from the industry and be a student for a little longer.
“I wasn’t ready to be a professional actor,” she tells me. “ I think it is quite a frightening profession in the sense that it takes a lot of you. You can’t just do any of it half-heartedly. Before I went to university, I felt there were other things I wanted to explore, but after finishing university I realised it was exactly what I wanted to do and that I could make it happen.”
That time, when she was fresh out of university and trying to reignite a career that had been put on the backburner for the duration of her course, saw her in direct competition with some of those other talented actresses.
“It was quite strange. You’re all going up for the same parts and you’re auditioning against each other and it is naturally competitive as a profession, but what I’ve found recently is that we’ve all found our own way and we’ve managed not to be so competitive with each other. As we get more confident in our own talents, we don’t feel the other person is a threat. That’s really exciting, when we can actually help each other and talk about it and share this bizarre world that we’re living in.”
If we’re lucky, this crop of British actresses will live up to their undoubted potential and in 40 years time a young performer, learning the ropes, will talk about them in the same way that Jones talks about her co-stars Lindsay Duncan (That Face), Margaret Tyzack and Penelope Wilton (The Chalk Garden) and Helen Mirren (The Tempest on film). They are, according to Jones, “Goliaths of acting” and have proved to be her own dream drama school. It has helped her also that the “theatrical genius of our generation,” as she refers to Grandage – though there are few that would disagree – has taken such an interest in her development.
"It is quite a frightening profession in the sense that it takes a lot of you. You can’t just do any of it half-heartedly"
Yet, you can have all the opportunities in the world given to you on a plate and not have the gumption to take them and make the most of them; Jones has grabbed them and held them in a vice-like grip.
Away from the stage, the past two years have seen her star in chirpy rom-com Chalet Girl, Ricky Gervais-penned comedy Cemetery Junction and the cinematic version of The Tempest. Hysteria, a comedy about the invention of the vibrator in which she plays Maggie Gyllenhaal’s younger sister – “It was a very enriching experience” – and a David Hare spy drama are to follow.
The highlight, however, has been romantic drama Like Crazy, written and directed by 28-year-old Californian Drake Doremus. So keen was Jones to win the part of British college student Anna, who falls for an American counterpart before being separated from him when her visa runs out, that she filmed herself improvising key scenes and sent the video to the writer/director. Her persistence proved to be worthwhile, as she won first the part and then the Special Jury Prize at the influential Sundance Film Festival.
“You make these things quite privately, in a very quiet way,” Jones says. “To see it put out into the world and for people to actually like something you’ve put a lot of your heart into is quite a special experience. At every point it was made with as much integrity as we could bring to it. I think with cinema that’s not always the case.”
In addition to winning the actress one of film’s most coveted prizes, Like Crazy also gave her the opportunity to act alongside Alex Kingston, who originally inspired a 12-year-old Jones to act when she saw the former-ER star in a production of The Lady From The Sea.
Kingston – now better known as Doctor Who’s enigmatic sometime companion River Song – and Jones are working together once more in Luise Miller. With performers including Ben Daniels, David Dawson, John Light and Finty Williams also in the cast, Jones stresses that the drama “is very much an ensemble play. Everyone shares the load, so I’m not taking everything on my own.”
Maybe not, but the fact that the production was launched with only her name attached shows precisely how much the actress’s reputation has grown in a couple of years and in what esteem she is currently held. The feeling of being the leading name is one to which she should become accustomed.