Great Expectations

Published December 16, 2013

ABOVE: FELICITY JONES AS NELLY IN THE INVISIBLE WOMAN.

Felicity Jones breaks into a brief rendition of “Ra, Ra, Rasputin.” The British actress is waiting for the elevator at The Crosby Hotel to do press for her latest film, The Invisible Woman. Directed by Ralph Fiennes and based on Claire Tomalin’s book, the film tells the story of Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, Charles Dickens’ long-time and long-forgotten mistress. Jones stars as Nelly, with Fiennes doing double duty as Dickens, and Kristin Scott Thomas as Nelly’s mother.

An aspiring actress from a theatrical family, Ternan was 27 years Dickens’ junior. The author was quick to quell any rumors of Ternan’s existence over their 13-year relationship—a blot on his public image as a morally upstanding family man. After the Dickens’ death, Ternan reinvented herself, married, and worked as a schoolmistress. She was not publicly acknowledged until the 1930s.

The Invisible Woman is not Jones’ first film with Ralph Fiennes; in 2011, both actors appeared in Page Eight, the first film in David Hare’s three-part Anglo-American political thriller. This seems to be a trend with the 30-year-old: if you work with Felicity Jones, chances are it will be more than once. Next year, Jones will reunite with writer-director Drake Doremus’ in Breathe In, and Fiennes, Bill Nighy, and Hare in Turks & Caicos and Salting the Battlefield.

EMMA BROWN: What was the first Charles Dickens novel that you read and was it for school?

FELICITY JONES: [laughs] You know those characters who really get inside you? One of my most vivid images was of Miss Havisham waiting as the jilted wife with the cobwebs. I remember asking my mum, “Why is she so sad?” And she said, “Well, she was in love.” At the time, I didn’t understand what that meant, but I’ve always had such a strong attachment to that scene and that character. When I played Nelly, I realized how much of her and Dickens was in Great Expectations. It really feels like Dickens is exploring the relationships—between him and Nelly’s mother as well. I think there’s much of Estella in Nelly.

BROWN: Did you reread Great Expectations after the film?

JONES: I did. He’s so ubiquitous when you’re growing up that I’ve really appreciated coming back to him much later. I feel I know Dickens so much better after doing the film, and it does mean that you have a different sort of relationship to his writing. Obviously, I’m looking more for clues about him—to try and understand him. Lots of people completely hate the idea that there’s so much biographical details in [a writer’s] work, so it’s only my supposition. I think he magnifies the characters he meets but I think there’s always a nugget of truth and that’s why he’s a great writer. He takes some very truthful aspects of a character and then amplifies it and I feel like there’s a lot of who he was in that book particularly.

BROWN: Do you think that things would have gone differently if Ellen and Dickens were together now?

JONES: Absolutely. We live in a time where it’s more surprising if people are actually together than if they’re having affairs. The film is so much about this tension between how people view you in society versus your natural instincts and desires. Now we live in a time where the public and the private are completely fused and there isn’t such a great distinction. In The Invisible Woman, it’s very much about Dickens wanting to maintain a public life and a private life that were completely different—he was more like a statesman or a politician.

BROWN: Some people still try to keep secret mistresses today.

JONES: It’s just so hard now; it’s almost impossible. We know our private lives are constantly made public. With Facebook and Twitter there isn’t such a desire, it feels, to keep things private.

BROWN: Can a relationship with such an age difference ever be on equal footing?

JONES: I think they were intellectually on an equal footing and spiritually there was a real truth between them—they really got each other. The film is in part about Nelly becoming her own person and a lot of that process happens after he dies. He was such an incredible force in her life, but after he died she went travelling and it felt like she had this period of reflection and trying to understand what that relationship had meant to her. This tension between being with someone, being in love with them but wanting to be your own person as well.

BROWN: What was your first table read like?

JONES: Well, I was sitting between Ralph and Kristin Scott Thomas, so that was pretty intimidating but exciting at the same time because I love The English Patient. I used to watch it with my grandma, actually. She loved it as well. It was one of those moments where you pinch yourself but they’re both so brilliant, I just listened and enjoyed.

BROWN: You were cast before Ralph decided to play Dickens himself. Did you think he might choose to play the role?

JONES: I always had that sense that Ralph should play Dickens and that he was really right for the role. He gave me so much as a director—he really gives you time and it was completely performance driven. It was a real collaboration. We discussed at length both Nelly and Dickens. I felt like we were both discovering it together. We have a similar way of acting, a similar approach—we both like to prepare and then try as be as sort of in the moment as possible on the day.

BROWN: What do you mean by prepare?

JONES: Having time to think and use your instinct to try and learn as much about the character before you go onto set.

BROWN: Did you have to audition?

JONES: I did, yes. I auditioned and I did scenes from both young Nelly and older Nelly. Going to auditions is always so nerve-wracking. I don’t think they ever get any easier. I was so incredibly nervous, but Ralph being an actor, he makes you feel totally comfortable and just wants you to do the best you can.

BROWN: Do you remember your first audition?

JONES: I played a treasure seeker in a TV film called The Treasure Seekers (1996), but I can’t even remember what I had to do for the audition. I think I had to pretend to be digging treasure with my brothers and sisters. That was when I was about 10. It was more like play, really. It’s not like now [when] you put so much importance on things—back then I didn’t mind whether I got it or not. I was just a 10-year-old, so it was only ever going to be a bonus to do something like that.

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN COMES OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE ON WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 25.