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Emotion-tugging movies like Manchester By the Sea, Arrival, and Queen of Katwe have meant lots of teardrops are raining down on this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. But no movie has provoked as much audible sniffling and sobbing as A Monster Calls, the J.A. Bayona-directed adaptation of Patrick Ness’s novel about a young boy (Lewis MacDougall) who’s visited by a wisdom-spewing tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) as his mother (Felicity Jones) succumbs to a deathly illness.
It’s one of three films this fall for the red-hot Jones (an Oscar nominee for 2014’s The Theory of Everything), who also teams with Tom Hanks for Robert Langdon’s third big-screen adventure, Inferno, and leads a team of rebels against the Empire in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In a Toronto sit-down with Yahoo Movies, Jones, 32, talked about the emotionally grueling role in A Monster Calls, and how she referenced a classic movie character originated by costar Sigourney Weaver (who plays her mother in Monster) in her portrayal of Star Wars heroine Jyn Erso.
A Monster Calls is making everyone cry. There was sniffling coming from every direction at the screening I attended. What was your reaction to seeing it for the first time?
It was quite a lot to absorb, because you have no idea what to expect, particularly with a film like this. There have been so many other elements. There’s been CGI and animation. So the first time I was just processing it. I’m looking forward to seeing it again, to hopefully see it with a little more perspective. But it’s what I loved about it initially, this blend of fantasy that also tells a very true, serious story underneath it.
Can you give yourself over to your own movies? Have you cried at one before?
No, I try not to be that narcissistic [laughs]. I try to keep a healthy distance.
‘A Monster Calls’: Watch the trailer:
You keep yourself separated from them.
Actually, there’s so much that goes into a film that I feel like it’s a bit arrogant to say, ‘Oh, I never watch my own movies.’ Well, it’s not just you. There’s a whole host of other people. So much skill goes into it. But I would say it does take a couple times seeing it to get a level of perspective. Because the first time you’re watching it you’re just monitoring what you did and the decisions that were made. But I think it’s important to see all the work that went into it.
Do you take some type of delight in bringing all these people to tears? Movie critics are crying all over the place.
I’m really stunned! Because you don’t know what to expect, particularly with a film like this, which is very unusual. And the fact that it’s hit people quite squarely in the heart, it’s very special.
Your character Lizzie (Mum) is already succumbing to this illness when we meet her, she’s very frail and weak and has lost hair. What was the physical transformation like for you to play a terminally sick woman?
It was trying to be as detailed as possible. Talking to women who had gone through that experience. Being as precise as possible about how it would affect your breathing, your movement. But also as is with people who go through any illness, you just want it to be over. So your focus is on who’s around you. It’s more of a nuisance for her. It felt like that was true to the way to play it. Lizzie just wants to be alive for her son.
How did the experience affect you emotionally? It looks pretty grueling to take a role like this.
It is. Everyone has in some way been affected by someone who’s very ill. So with a film like this it was personal for all of us making it.
Are you taking your work home with you? Is it hard not to be affected when you leave the set?
Yeah, you definitely take it home with you, without a doubt. You don’t sign off and then not think about it… Any creative process comes with a level of self-analysis and self-criticism. There’s a lot of waking up in the middle of the night going, ‘Oh, I wish I had done that differently.’
You’ve got three films coming out this fall. Have you been working non-stop or was it a matter of these movies just all be slated close together?
It’s funny because you don’t know when they’re going to come out. I made A Monster Calls two years ago and suddenly it’s coming out now. You realize you have such little control over when films come out. Then they all come together.
Let’s talk some Star Wars. Are there any past action heroes, male or female, that you based Jyn Erso on or looked to for inspiration?
Well, it’s interesting because I didn’t know [when shooting A Monster Calls] that I would be playing Jyn, who is very much inspired by Sigourney’s character [Ripley] in Aliens. So it’s interesting that we had worked together. But I’ve been so inspired by her work and she was a role model growing up.
Watch the ‘Rogue One’ Cast Explain Who Their Characters Are In the New ‘Star Wars’ Film:
So Ripley was part of the basis in the writing of Rogue One?
No, no, just in terms of, obviously, you have different references that you look at. And I love the qualities that she brought to that part. And early on in my research it was one of the films that I watched that informed my process.
Have you talked to Sigourney about it?
I haven’t, actually. Yeah. It’s one of those things where I sort of have a silent respect and I’m quietly a fan of hers.
What other characters in Rogue One do you think fans are going to latch onto?
I think you’ll love all the rebels. Because they’re flawed. They’ve all had histories, they’ve all had their own struggles, and I feel like people are going to really champion them and fall in love with them.