In the new period piece drama “The Invisible Woman,” Felicity Jones plays a familiar role — the mistress — but with a most unusual and high-profile twist: her Nelly Ternan, now a happily married mother and school teacher, is still haunted by memories of her affair with noted British author Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes, also directing). Recently, for ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to sit down in roundtable interviews with the film’s stars at the Los Angeles press day, to discuss their characters and the film. The conversation with Jones is excerpted below:
Question: What struck you most about the character of Nelly?
Felicity Jones: I like Nelly’s quiet inner strength. I thought there was something about her predicament that I found interesting — that she didn’t want to be a floozy mistress, a bit on the side, that she had more self-respect than that. It was about trying to show this conflict in this woman truthfully, between her own identity, but also being in love with someone who I think made very high demands from her.
Question: Is the experience of being “the other woman” pretty universal in your opinion, as far as the pain that comes with that?
FJ: Yeah, I think personally it’s not good for anyone — I don’t think infidelity leads to happiness. It’s painful for the person being cheated on, but also for the person who’s cheating. I think it’s an experience that comes out of pain and results in pain.
Question: There’s a fantastic scene where Nelly meets another woman who’s been forced into a similar situation, as a mistress, and she quite lashes out at her.
FJ: I think Nelly actually has something very conservative about her, and she’s very judgmental of (this other character’s) situation, and can see that’s about to happen to herself. So she judges it even more harshly [because] it’s what she fears becoming. But I think it shows how at those times people were trying to push these very severe social conventions, and I do sort of appreciate Nelly’s view that it would be woman who would suffer mostly from that — who would be ostracized. The rigid societal conventions meant that it was difficult to live outside of them.
Question: The scene with Joanna Scanlan (who portrays Darwin’s wife, Catherine), in which she is required to (face her husband’s mistress) is one that I think leaves a lot of viewers aghast, yet it’s rooted in fact. Ralph talked some about Dickens turning aggrievement into attack… but why do you think Dickens (forced his wife to come face-to-face with Nelly)?
FJ: I think that when Dickens met Nelly it unleashed this sort of carnal, anarchic, cruel energy within him, and literally after she met him he changed his whole life — he separated from Catherine, he stopped all the children from seeing her and went on this bitter rampage. It was almost like he wanted to start his life again. I think it was almost like Dickens felt he had missed out on his childhood. He worked from a very young age, and meeting someone like Nelly who was 18, who was much younger, it was almost like he got to reclaim that youth. So he wants to raze everything that’s come before, because that means that he’s actually lived and had a life. I think it’s a sign of weakness.
Question: What about the physicality of the role — what did you do to create that?
FJ: So much of Nelly’s physicality comes from I think the fact that she’s so contained, and such a careful woman. I think there’s something quite animal-like about her — she’s slightly on guard all the time, and watching to see if there’s any attack about to happen. But it was also just using the costume — the corset was so heavy, the actual physical weight of it is so difficult, even walking. I can’t believe these women who (wore those all the time). And so it was using that to sort of understand her character. And a corset actually gives you a barrier between you and the world, a separation, which I thought was interesting.
Question: Was there one scene was that particularly difficult to get through, or required a bit more work than others?
FJ: It’s interesting how you come to do a scene and you’ll try it one way and it just doesn’t work at all. The one scene that we worked on a lot was the scene in the graveyard where Nelly confesses the relationship she once had. It was fascinating how Ralph and I used to rehearse that all the time — we would do it on the way to set, and in the make-up trailer, over and over again. It was amazing how much rehearsal helped with the performance — it was almost a theatrical approach to filmmaking. It was lucky that Ralph is someone who understands both film and theater and we were able to understand that scene so well before we took it to the set.
Question: Nelly is an actress, but she’s told that she’s quite bad at — was that hard, to get into that mindset, of playing a less gifted actor?
FJ: Yeah, I think she just hated acting, really. (laughs) I think she thought, like, “Oh really, I have to go on stage tonight.” The Ternans were all actresses, and I think they just thought that it was an amazing way to earn a bit of money, and that it gave them a bit of freedom they wouldn’t otherwise have had, but I don’t think it was something that was a passion of hers. So (in the movie) it was more about just showing that she was uncomfortable on stage rather than being particularly bad.
Question: Dickens’ obsession with Nelly took over his life, but how did Nelly change being exposed to that sort of attention, in your opinion?
FJ: I think there was a profound and deep connection between them, and I think it was in their differences chiefly. I think Dickens was an extrovert and Nelly an introvert, and I think that Nelly saw beyond the fame and adulation and she actually loved Dickens essentially for who he was. So I think he felt like she was someone he could be himself with.
Question: Is there an artist you connect to the way Nelly connects to Dickens?
FJ: Uhh, Lena Dunham. (laughs) I cry at the end of every episode of “Girls.” I’m just so overwhelmed by the truthfulness with which she conveys human nature. And that’s what’s amazing about the show — the first (season) is about the girls and then the second (season) is about the boys as well. There’s something so human about it. I did a role earlier this year (2013) in one of the (forthcoming season’s) episodes, so I got to meet my idol.
Question: Do you do any improvisation in this movie, or did you mostly stick to the script?
FJ: I’ve done quite a lot of improv work before, and I wanted to do this film because it felt like a different technique. We were very true to the lines, and there was something quite formal and almost theatrical about it. And so it was a different type of performance which was less driven by improv. You always want moments of freshness and newness, but there was less so than I’ve done before.
Question: When did you first decide to become an actress?
FJ: I think I actually did a production of “Under Milkwood,” this Welsh play, with my drama group (at school), and I always remember taking everything far too seriously, and that it wasn’t just a hobby but something I wanted to keep on doing. I feel like with acting it’s not like you make a choice — it’s kind of in you and you have to do it or you wouldn’t be able to survive.
Question: Were you a fan of Dickens growing up?
FJ: I studied English literature at university, but for some reason we only spent one week on Dickens, so I remember just trying to find the shortest book that I could find. (laughs) I was like, “‘Hard Times,’ really great — it’s short, that’ll do it.” I was into Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and I think we all thought that Dickens wasn’t that cool. (laughs) But since doing the film I’ve really learned to appreciate him, he’s phenomenal. “Great Expectations” would be one of my favorites.
Question: Had you ever worked with a director who was also starring in the movie before?
FJ: No, I hadn’t done that before, and it actually makes it much more collaborative. So I really enjoyed it — being involved in watching rushes and playback. Ralph was very open to my input, I think knowing that he couldn’t always be there 100 percent, that he had dual aims with directing and acting.
Question: What do you have coming up next?
FJ: I have three films coming out in 2014 — “Spider-Man 2,” and “True Story,” a film with Jonah Hill and James Franco, and then Eddie Redmayne and I just made a film called “The Theory of Everything,” which is based on Jane Hawing, who was married to Stephen Hawking — it’s based on her book about their relationship.
Question: I saw the documentary “Hawking” recently, which shows a fascinating personal side of Hawking many people do not know about… it’s humanizing, but it really shows his foibles.
FJ: That’s what the film will be about — they were both incredible, strong, willful individuals and I feel like that Stephen Hawking himself would say that he wouldn’t have survived without the influence of Jane Hawking, and they were an incredible team together. It’s an extraordinary story because she was incredibly religious and he was an atheist, so you have this conflict both on a domestic level between a couple in a difficult situation but also this bigger conflict of science versus religion, so it’s a really fascinating project.
Written by: Brent Simon