Although she plays the title role in Ralph Fiennes’ new film, “The Invisible Woman,” British actress Felicity Jones is in no danger of having that name prove prophetic for her own career, judging from the rapturous praise audience members offered in a Q&A session following a Wrap-hosted screening at the Regent Friday night.
In playing Nelly Ternan, the long-term mistress of novelist Charles Dickens, Jones felt some tension between the invisibility that this Other Woman reluctantly accepted, for the sake of Dickens’ public life, and the strength of character that allowed her to be an efficient muse for one of the millennium’s greatest writers.
“For Nelly, I think she wanted to tell this secret,” Jones told Steve Pond, The Wrap’s Oscar’s columnist and the screening’s moderator. “I felt it was very much Dickens who wanted to keep it very private, and Nelly, because of her love for him, colluded with that, yet she felt it was something that was so fundamental in her — being with this man, having this experience — that she couldn’t help but let it come out” in a climactic scene.
“She feels like she’s influenced him in some small way and doesn’t want to be completely lost in history,” said Jones.
When Pond asked if it were true that she and her director/co-star had some disagreements over how sympathetically Dickens should be portrayed, Jones acknowledged that she’d expressed concerns about how virtuously the ”Tale of Two Cities” novelist should come off.
“Dickens was obviously a wonderful writer, but I think he was a deeply flawed man, and I think deeply selfish in many ways,” said Jones. “And I was always keen that that should be shown in the film — which I do think comes across. But obviously when you’re an actor inhabiting a part, as with Ralph playing Dickens, you feel very protective over them and you want to make sure that they’re seen as the full human beings that they are. And I think we had a conflict in the sense that we had different ideas about who Dickens was sometimes.
“But my job was to inhabit Nelly, and she had a complicated relationship with him. She wasn’t infatuated with Dickens in sort of a teenage way where it was just ‘I’m going to throw myself into this man.’ She was a very intelligent, complex woman who was careful with herself in her interaction with him.”
Sympathies toward the two romantic leads shift at least a little over the course of the narrative, and “I think that’s how it should be,” Jones added. “I think you should feel with Dickens that sometimes you’re completely with him, but he did behave very cruelly in leaving Katharine and his 10 children. At the same time, he’s human and he’s flawed, and that’s why you go to the cinema, to see people in all their shades of greatness and fallibility.”
The role calls for a certain level of reserve, given the need for Nelly to mostly remain out of public sight. In real life, Jones seems just as well-spoken and genteel as Nelly, but submissive is not the word that comes to mind. Any fear that Jones felt about working with Fiennes was short-lived, she suggested.
“Ralph Fiennes is a name that everyone associates with great acting and integrity, so I would be inhuman if I wasn’t intimidated by that in some way,” she said. “But as an actor you have to believe in the characters you’re playing, so immediately I tried to interact with him in some ways as Nelly rather than Felicity. And he’s not out to intimidate you. He’s a very genuine person and I liked him, so it wasn’t something where I felt it was going to be a frightening process working with him.”
Jones did have a moment where her mind flashed to a completely unrelated movie. “On the read-through, I was sitting between Ralph and Kristin Scott Thomas (who plays her character’s mother), and all I could think about was The English Patient. I remember thinking, I’ve come in between them—this is terrible!”
Jones is soon to become the object of fanboy obsession, if she isn’t already, for her role in the upcoming “Amazing Spider-Man 2,” which has maintained a certain veil of secrecy, despite leaks and spoilers. Pond said he feared he knew what the answer was, but had to ask if Jones could spill any details anyway.
I just have to say that you’re gonna have to wait and see. It’s going to be very exciting,” a suddenly tight-lipped Jones replied.
But maybe she was letting that cloak of invisibility down when she answered an audience member’s question about what kind of role “The Invisible Woman” left her hankering to try next. “I really want to play a bad-ass!” Jones answered.
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