The Oxford-educated star of 'Star Wars' spinoff 'Rogue One' and 'A Monster Calls' opens up about her initial hesitation over joining Ron Howard's 'Angels & Demons' sequel and reveals that she knows 'Like Crazy' co-star Yelchin's family: "He was just like no one else. He really was a unique soul."
Felicity Jones is no art critic, but she knows what she likes when she sees it. During a stroll through the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto on a September afternoon, she pauses for a moment, hand on hip, to admire a modernist painting by Canadian artist Claude Tousignant called Violence lucide. "There's something very clear and honest about it," she says. "I like how unfussy it is. I am drawn to its simplicity."
It's simple, all right — a big black dot inside an empty white square — but then it's easy to imagine why Jones would be drawn to unfussy these days. Her life is about to get a lot more complicated, but in a good way, the way that only happens to a lucky few. For starters, the 32-year-old British actress soon will be starring opposite Tom Hanks in Ron Howard's Inferno, opening Oct. 28, the latest from the blockbuster Da Vinci Code franchise ($1.2 billion worldwide). She'll follow that up over the next two months with two more highly-anticipated roles: playing a single mom with cancer in A Monster Calls, a turn that already is generating Oscar buzz for a second nomination (she got her first in 2014 for playing Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything), and a scrappy Rebel Alliance fighter named Jyn Erso at the center of the Star Wars spinoff Rogue One, a part that overnight will make her an internationally recognizable face (even if it did require reshoots — more about that later).
All of which places Jones at a difficult — if enviable — crossroads: She must decide what sort of actress she intends to be. Door No. 1 is a career as a serious, respected thespian — think Rooney Mara, Michelle Williams or Carey Mulligan — working mainly in the type of prestige pictures that are great for decorating fireplace mantels, only occasionally dabbling in commercial films (like Amy Adams in Man of Steel). Door No. 2: Follow Julia Roberts' and Sigourney Weaver's footsteps from a generation (or two) ago and become an actress starring mostly in big-budget studio movies.
Spending an afternoon with Jones in Toronto, where earlier in the day she attended the world premiere of J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls at the Toronto Film Festival, there is evidence she is leaning toward No. 1. "I always think Michelle Williams is excellent in her work," she says when asked with whom she most wants to work. "And I do love Sofia Coppola. She always creates something so atmospheric. I love Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Andrea Arnold." On the other hand, this is a woman who has been in back-to-back-to-back productions for the past 15 months, six of them doing body rolls and brandishing a blaster pistol as she took on the lead role in the biggest franchise of them all. (The last Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, grossed $2.07 billion worldwide.) Not since Weaver bitch-slapped an extraterrestrial in the old Alien movies has one actress carried such a huge sci-fi movie on her shoulders.
"It was nonstop," she says of the past year, gazing at Tousignant's oddly soothing dot painting. "But I always think when things are going well, you've got to roll with it and take those opportunities. Because you never quite know where the next one is going to take you."
Jones landed her first big role at age 12, starring in the British family film The Treasure Seekers. But growing up in Bournville, Birmingham, England, she saw acting as more of a hobby than a career plan, something she squeezed into holidays and summer vacations. She took it seriously — after school, she attended the Central Junior Television Workshop, performing in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, among many other plays — but wasn't dreaming of movie stardom. "I don't think my parents would have let me go straight into acting full time when I was 12," she says of her father, a former investigative journalist, and mother, who worked in advertising. "I do like to have balance, naturally, as an individual."
Her home life was well-mannered but distinctly bohemian. Her parents divorced when she was 3, but she remained close to both. On Sundays, her dad would gather her and her younger brother (who now works as a documentary editor) and two half siblings around a table to read all of the U.K. newspapers, covering the entire political spectrum, from The Sun to The Telegraph. Her mom would show them foreign movies. "She was obsessed with French and Swedish cinema," Jones recalls. "I also remember our mother showing us Gone With the Wind very early on. She absolutely loved Vivien Leigh, so it must have been a formative experience for me, thinking, 'Oh, maybe one day I'll be like Vivien Leigh.' "
That day still was a little further down the line. Jones took time off from acting to study English literature at Oxford, writing her thesis on Virginia Woolf. "I liked that she gets in the minds of people," she says, "and that contradiction between what people are thinking and how they're behaving, which is obviously what we're exploring all the time as an actor." But after graduating in 2006, she decided to give acting a serious shot and landed roles on such British fare as Doctor Who and Brideshead Revisited.
Then, in 2011, she got cast as a lead in Like Crazy, playing an English girl in Los Angeles who falls in love with an American boy — played by the late Anton Yelchin — before getting deported. The film became a Sundance darling and got Jones noticed by Hollywood (and upstaged Jennifer Lawrence in the process), even if it didn't exactly explode at the box office (grossing only $3.7 million). It also began a friendship with Yelchin that lasted until his death in June, when his Jeep Cherokee rolled down the driveway of his L.A. home and crushed him against a gate. "It's been devastating," Jones says of the tragedy, obviously still shaken. "It doesn't feel like there's any justice or there's no way of understanding it, really. It's just been a very difficult time for his family. They're very dignified, beautiful people. He was just like no one else. He really was a unique soul."
After Like Crazy, Jones kicked around British TV some more (co-starring with Bill Nighy in a David Hare spy series called Page Eight) and picked up parts in quirky indies (like Hysteria, about the invention of the vibrator)while occasionally venturing to Hollywood for smaller roles in bigger productions (playing Harry Osborn's executive assistant in The Amazing Spider-Man 2). But in 2013, she caught her biggest break yet when she was cast as Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Her performance not only earned her that best actress Oscar nomination (Jones took both of her parents to the 2015 ceremony), it also, predictably, set off an avalanche of movie offers. Including one from a certain famous tentpole director who was looking for a lead actress in his next giant franchise sequel.
"Her performance in The Theory of Everything was so impressive," says Howard, who decided to cast Jones as Sienna, a mysterious doctor entangled with Hanks' Robert Langdon in Inferno, after seeing the Stephen Hawking biopic. "That character could have been straightforward and predictable, and yet, in her hands, it was the opposite."
Jones, however, took her time saying yes to Inferno. "She's shamelessly balky," Howard describes her. "She'll say 'yes' and then 'no' and then 'yes' and then 'no.' " Her concerns weren't about the script — "That Sienna must be an equal to Langdon in her intellectual capabilities was very clear to Ron and me from the very beginning," she says — or any other creative element of the film (in which Langdon solves a puzzle hidden in Botticelli's Map of Hell). It was scheduling. "The whole contract turned on whether she could have a certain set number of days off when her brother's wife was having a baby," explains Howard. "She was going to blow the movie if we couldn't rearrange the schedule and let that happen."
Once she finally signed on, though, Jones threw herself into the part. She visited museums and galleries and steeped herself in the world of art. She also created a scrapbook, something she does for all her parts. "Pictures that I see that remind me of the person I'm playing, little bits of writing," she describes of its contents. "As much as possible, I'm trying to understand who the characters are and why they're making the decisions that they're making." Her scrapbook for her character in A Monster Calls — which she shot right before Inferno, in September 2014 — obviously was a lot grimmer. To play a young mom dying of cancer, she visited with hospice patients to try and understand how different families cope with death. "It was about understanding physically what happens to your body and chemotherapy and wanting to show that truth in the film," she says. "But also, emotionally, how does someone deal with that knowledge." At least she didn't have to go through it alone: Her co-star (and soon-to-be role model) Sigourney Weaver went with her.
"It was bonding," says Weaver. "We did all that research together, which was important, especially if you're going to play a mother and daughter who aren't very close and don't get along."
Jones made a scrapbook for her role in Rogue One, as well, although her true inspiration for Jyn, a street delinquent turned Rebel Alliance hero, wasn't anything she found in pictures or writing. Before the six-month shoot outside London began in August 2015, she spent hours watching music videos, particularly those of Florence + the Machine. When you think about it, it makes sense: The British indie rock band is led by Florence Welch, an ethereal figure who floats and contorts on the stage. "So much of Jyn is movement," says Jones. "It became a very important part of finding her. She walks almost a bit like a caged animal. Her fight sequences become like dances."
Obviously, of all the parts Jones will be playing over the next three months, Jyn is the one with the most star-making potential — and also the one carrying the highest risks. It's her biggest payday to date (seven figures, while no other castmember received even mid-six figures, according to sources), but she takes the hardest PR hit if the film doesn't match Force Awakens' numbers. And there have been worrying reports of reshoots (some believe to be as much as $30 million worth). Just as worrying, Disney CEO Bob Iger lately seems to be lowering expectations, publicly calling Rogue One "an experiment of sorts." Hardly the kind of hype-building description one would expect for the big-budget, high-profile space epic in which Jyn leads a band of spies on a mission to steal the plans for the Galactic Empire's Death Star (you know, the plans that R2-D2 smuggled to Obi-Wan in the original Star Wars).
Still, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy waves away any concerns as if performing a Jedi mind trick. "I'm sure if you picked up the phone and called every single large, technical movie and said, 'You ever gone in and done reshoots?' they'd all say, 'Oh God, yes,' " she says. "So why has it turned into a big story? Because it's Star Wars, and they put a spotlight and scrutinize every single thing that gets done. But it was always planned and nothing unusual." In other words, these are not the droids you are looking for.
Jones plays down the reshoots as well. "Obviously when you come to the edit, you see the film come together and you think, 'Actually, we could do this better, and this would make more sense if we did this,' " she says. "I've done it so many times. I mean, you wouldn't just give your first draft on this story, would you?"
It was Kennedy, incidentally, who first thought of Jones for Jyn — the actress had been on her radar as far back as Like Crazy. But it was Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn who cast the deciding vote. And there was a crowded field of contenders vying for the part, including Mara and Tatiana Maslany. "Alan was incredibly excited by Felicity's work and loved her as an actress," says Kennedy. "She's relatively petite, but you would never know it. I mean, she comes off very strong and physical and capable, and all of those things were the qualities that we were looking for."
Earlier in the day, before we visited the art gallery together, I got to watch Jones from something of a distance, observing as she sashayed down the red carpet at the Toronto Film Festival. She is exceedingly poised, gamely grinning through 30 separate red-carpet interviews in which the exact same questions are posed over and over again. "Did you have monsters under your bed?" asks yet another reporter. "Certainly," she repeats her answer with the beguiling smile of a professionally trained actress. ("You have to enjoy the moment," she tells me later.) The only beat that seems off-script is when Jones pauses from the interviewing to approach Weaver and whisper something in her ear that obviously touches her co-star.
Though Jones might be a red-carpet-ready star, she doesn't live like a baller. She doesn't go to clubs or date rock stars or get chased by paparazzi (at least not yet). She lives in London, where her group of industry friends is small (Rogue One co-star Riz Ahmed is among the few). Her boyfriend of 18 months is British commercial director Charles Guard. By movie-star standards, her pleasures are simple: She likes swimming and reading (Nick Hornby's Funny Girl is on her nightstand). She doesn't do much social media, which is abundantly clear when she tries to talk about it ("You have a Twitter, don't you?" she asks me at one point). But she is extremely savvy about old media, which isn't surprising considering her father's former profession. "Interviewing someone is very similar to preparing a character, isn't it?" she observes. "You're just asking questions: 'Who is this person? Why did they make that choice? Why are they doing that?' You're being Sherlock Holmes."
She describes herself as an "overthinker," but that's not how others see her. "Practical," is the word Howard picks. "She's that A-plus student who graduated from Oxford. But on the other hand, she operates from a place of intuition. I think she's always balancing these two aspects." Ralph Fiennes, who directed Jones in 2013's The Invisible Woman (in which she played Charles Dickens' mistress) and acted alongside her in 2010's Cemetery Junction (playing father and daughter) has a different word for her: "Healthy." He says he has seen many young actresses come and go over his long career but insists Jones is different. "She's not seduced by the business," he says. "She's not going to allow herself to be hoovered up by any old film just because it looks like an opportunity. She seems to choose very cleverly."
Adds Drake Doremus, who directed Jones in Like Crazy: "She's very calculated but in the best sense of the word. She's so smart, and she's so incredibly efficient with her thoughts and doesn't do anything unless she's considered every possible ramification."
Weaver has her own choice words for her co-star — "a pro" — but what I really want to know when I interview her several days after the premiere is what Jones whispered into her ear on the red carpet. Jones, it turned out, just wanted to thank Weaver for paving the way with female-driven films like Alien. She told Weaver she couldn't have tackled Rogue One had it not been for her lead. "I was floored," says Weaver. "For her to thank me is very generous. And kind of absurd."
Looks like Jones is probably smart enough to leave all doors open.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.