“I’ve been shooting in a cold box all day. We’re shooting at freezing temperatures, so it’s a bit like shooting in a refrigerator. It’s been quite the adventure!” says English actress Felicity Jones by phone from the U.K.
The 35-year-old is currently on location filming her next big-screen picture, The Aeronauts, a period action–adventure film produced by Amazon Studios, and directed by filmmaker Tom Harper. Jones has reunited with actor Eddie Redmayne for the Victorian-era story, which began shooting back in August. The two British stars previously worked together in director James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything, for which Redmayne won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking, while Jones (who starred as Hawking’s wife, Jane) earned a well-deserved nomination for best actress.
Set in 1862, The Aeronauts follows a wealthy young widow (Jones) and an ambitious scientist (Redmayne) as they mount a hot air balloon expedition to fly higher than anyone in history. “One of the major influences for my character is an extraordinary woman called Sophie Blanchard, who was an aeronaut and one of the first women to ever go up in a hot air balloon solo. I’ve just been in absolute awe of her,” says Jones. “[The film] is a full-on immersive cinematic experience, and I think people are in for a treat.”
Born in the small village of Bournville, just outside of Birmingham, England, Jones—who’s been acting since the age of 12—began making her name in indie films. When asked what project she considers to be her official silver-screen break, she credits romantic drama Like Crazy. “That was the first time I had worked in America, and it was my introduction to living and working in L.A., which I absolutely loved,” she says. “It opened up a career on both sides of the Atlantic. That felt like a moment.” Jones’s performance of a love-drunk twenty-something opposite Anton Yelchin was met with critical acclaim, winning her the special grand jury prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
Since then, Jones has hit the big time, building a resumé deep with blockbuster roles of take-charge women. Along with her 2014 Academy Award–nominated performance as Jane Hawking and upcoming portrayal of a pioneering balloonist, the actress has also played soldier and lead heroine Jyn Erso in the epic space opera Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and a doctor one mental leap ahead of Tom Hanks’s character in the mystery thriller Inferno—to name a few. “I like playing women who have a bit of punk about them,” says Jones of the character roles she gravitates toward.
No truer words could be said about her latest role in On the Basis of Sex, a Mimi Leder–directed biopic of iconic U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—the second woman ever to serve on the high court. Set to hit theatres on December 25th, and co-starring Armie Hammer, Kathy Bates, and Justin Theroux, the film features Jones channelling a young Ginsburg. “It was a fantastically written script with an excellent female heroine who is Ruth Bader Ginsburg at its centre, so it was impossible not to do,” says Jones.
The motion picture chronicles the early days of Ginsburg’s life and career, from her admittance to Harvard Law School (she was one of only nine women when she entered in 1956) to the rejection she faced when trying to find work after graduation. A major champion of women’s rights and equality, Ginsburg appears in the film arguing her first landmark gender-discrimination case in the 1970s. “The film is sort of an origin story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” adds Jones. “It’s how she became the woman that she is today. You know, what were those decisions, what were those setbacks—those moments that didn’t go according to plan that make you the person you are. And with Ruth, who’s so well-known now, it is very much showing that journey.”
The release of On the Basis of Sex seamlessly falls in line with Ginsburg’s 25th anniversary on the bench. At age 85—and in no hurry to retire—the left-leaning justice (who was appointed to the high court in 1993 by then President Bill Clinton) is the eldest of the current nine sitting justices. During her quarter century–long tenure, Ginsburg has become a unique cultural rock star: she has inspired an opera, a Saturday Night Live skit, a play, tattoos, t-shirts, the “Notorious RBG” meme (a play on the legendary rapper Notorious B.I.G.), a recent critically acclaimed documentary entitled RBG, and more.
“It’s a huge responsibility playing a living person. You have to take it enormously seriously,” comments Jones, who not only worked hard to disguise her British accent in favour of Ginsburg’s Brooklynese voice, but also went under a physical transformation, too. “I delved into as much footage of her as I could watch—understanding her physicality, the way she moved, the way she looks,” she reveals. “I worked very closely with the makeup and hair departments to do as much as possible to make myself look like Ruth.”
Jones copied Ginsburg’s signature style of Towncliffe suits, she changed her eye colour by wearing grey contact lenses over her green eyes, and she even got her teeth capped so that she could emulate the justice’s mouth shape and movements. “We were quite fortunate because there’s such a bank of photographs of her from when she was in her teens and early 20s. She’s always been extraordinarily photogenic,” she recounts. “So that was really helpful to see how she existed. And then, as she became older and had more responsibility and authority, how that was reflected in her voice, in what she wore, and in how she presented herself.”
Shooting in Montreal last year, Jones was able to pay Ginsburg a visit in Washington a few weeks prior to production. “We started off at her office, which is full of pictures of her family and little mementos that people who admire her have given to her. It’s a real sort of treasure trove of how much love there is for her,” describes Jones. “Then, a day or so later, we met up at her apartment. She was very welcoming of us. She had read every version of the script and had been on board with it from the very beginning, so it helped us know that we had her blessing,” she continues. “It was quite strange meeting her because I had read so many books about her, and felt like I had an encyclopedic knowledge of her. It was interesting to associate the person who I thought Ruth was—with everything that I had read—to the person who I actually met. I was just struck by her humanity.”
When asked what she came to admire most about the trailblazing justice after their encounter: “Her humour,” answers Jones. “Her humour and her commitment to her beliefs. I feel like she’s someone who never wavered from that, and has been quite singular in many ways. And I think in times where we don’t have that many public figures we can look up to, Ruth is very unique in that way. We can admire her.”
Beyond the fact that Ginsburg has spent an incredible 25 years on the Supreme Court, a biopic honouring the judicial firebrand who’s helped move the needle couldn’t seem more timely, given the current 24-hour news cycle and President Donald Trump’s two newly appointed—and polarizing—justices to the high court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
“I think it’s absolutely of the moment,” comments Jones. “It was incredible when we were shooting the film; it was chiming with everything that was happening in the #MeToo movement. And what we were finding, with the current revolution that we’re in, is that the momentous things happening are, in many ways, things that Ruth had been arguing for years and years and years. There’s to be mutual respect for men and for women,” she continues. “And that’s what was fascinating as well. Ginsburg is arguing that by giving women equality with men, you also make lives better for men. Both sexes need to have that equality, and they will both be happier for it. Putting people into these gender stereotypes is the thing that limits everyone, ultimately.”
Like Ginsburg, Jones has personally found herself being a proud champion and defender of women in the workplace. “I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve been frustrated in scripts with their presentation of women,” she says. “I’ve had to be quite artful in going in and having lots of meetings with directors and writers, and having to change a lot of dialogue and think, ‘this isn’t actually how a woman would speak,’” Jones recounts. “Often the writers, directors, and directors of photography are male. It would be fantastic to see more women behind the camera. And the more that shift happens, the better the landscape will be.”