Felicity Jones on the Empowering Experience of Producing Her First Film

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Felicity Jones has always been drawn to narrative—first as an actor and student (she studied English literature in college), and now as a first-time executive producer. In Netflix’s “The Last Letter From Your Lover,” Jones plays a heartbroken journalist who pieces together a romantic tale from the 1960s after discovering a series of love letters in her newspaper’s archives. As executive producer and star, Jones was able to inform every aspect of her character, from world-building to dialogue.

What drew you to “The Last Letter From Your Lover” as not only an actor, but a producer?
I’ve been attracted to Jojo Moyes, [the author of the novel “The Last Letter From Your Lover,”] for years. I was looking for something of hers to option, and that came from seeing that she was so brilliant at creating such accessible female characters who were nuanced, who had comedy and humor. Ever since I’d done a film years ago called “Chalet Girl,” I‘d been looking for something a little bit similar. I’d had such fun on that. When I came across this, I thought it had a wonderful mixture of the modernity in the character I play, Ellie’s, story, mixed in with this romantic sweep of everlasting love. I thought, I’d love watching this film with some chocolate and a glass of wine. I’d done some quite heavy lifting in “The Aeronauts,” and I was ready for something a little bit more cozy. Actually, when I first met Augustine [Frizzell, the director], she and I sat down;  and we were talking about what we were hoping to do, and she used that word, “cozy,” and that’s what I responded to and wanted to do next.

When you were reading the script and deciding how it would take place on the screen, was there ever a time when you considered taking on Jennifer, Shailene Woodley’s role, or was Ellie the character you connected with more?
I totally, immediately connected with Ellie’s character. I felt an empathy for the moment that she’s in in the film. She’s lost a little bit of the meaning of things, and she’s a little bit aimless. She’s got to a decent point in her career, and she’s going, “Is this it?” She’s been burned in the past in relationships, and I liked the way she was handling that with loads of sarcasm. That really appealed in that moment.

“I was very fortunate that I felt that I had a voice in terms of the outcome of this film.”

Does producing inform how you perform, or are these two separate jobs?
What’s brilliant [about] being involved as a producer is that, very early on, you have a direct dialogue with the writer so that you can create the character together, which increasingly, to me, makes so much more sense than coming in at the end of the development process, where everyone’s been through all the hoops and things are pretty set. It’s something I’ve found that’s naturally happened in the films that I’ve done—that I’ve been able to have a voice in that development process. So, it was formalizing something I’ve been doing for a few years. Obviously, you and the writer share a microscopic view of that character, so if you can share a head space, you can build something that feels very truthful. 

What has being involved in this film, both as a producer and a star, added to your skills as an actor and a producer? 
I was very fortunate that I felt that I had a voice in terms of the outcome of this film, in terms of the edit. Augustine was very open, as was Peter Czernin, one of the producers. It was a very empowering experience to be able to be involved in the architecture of something. I’ve always been drawn to story—I studied English literature at university—so it feels like a really natural evolution of what I’ve already been interested in. 

I know you started acting when you were young, and then, as you mentioned, studied English literature in college. When did you decide acting would be your path?
I started when I was about 10 years old; I was doing a workshop for a television channel in England called Central Television. That was my first taste of acting. Then I was in a one-off drama called “The Treasure Seekers,” and that led to a series called “The Worst Witch.” I did “The Treasure Seekers” when I was 12 and “The Worst Witch” when I was 14, and I loved the independence I was given. I loved how grown-up it was. I was able to travel to London, and when I was doing “The Worst Witch,” I was living with the other girls in the TV show. I loved the challenge of it at such a young age—balancing being at school and doing that and then also having this business that you were running.

READ: This Is the Kind of Work Leonardo DiCaprio Looks For

Tell me about your first day on a professional set.
It was a costume drama set in the Victorian period, and it was set in this big country house just outside of London. It was, for a child, pretty fun. There was a big swing in the garden that we would go on between takes. It was pretty carefree. I wish it was like that now; it’s a little more serious. It felt like an adventure. 

I can imagine you’ve had parts that are physically demanding. How do you put your body into the work that you do?
With those kinds of roles, specifically “Rogue One,” it’s just being completely on top of your physical fitness. I trained with an ex-army guy, and he was just brilliant. We did loads of weights, and I wore these heavy boots in the film, so I would get on the running machine with those on. I did a lot of boxing for that film, too. It was building agility, because [my character, Jyn Erso, is] so scrappy and she’s always fighting for her life. You want it to feel like she could reasonably, physically get out of most situations. That’s how she survives: through her physical agility. 

The coziness of playing Ellie in “The Last Letter From Your Lover” must’ve really been a welcome change, then.
With her, I wanted her to feel like she always had a hangover: Let the dark circles come through sometimes, and keep her a little bit on the blurry side of things. Everything to her is a little bit fuzzy in this moment in her life, which was really fun to play.

READ: How to Become a Producer

What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t sweat it. But I still tell myself that now, and it doesn’t work. It’s an ongoing journey of not worrying about the little things, but it’s a hard one. It’s the thoughts that will get you if you’re not careful. 

“What’s brilliant [about] being involved as a producer is that, very early on, you have a direct dialogue with the writer so you can create the character together, which increasingly, to me, makes so much more sense.”

What’s your worst audition horror story?
When I first came out of university, I spent years auditioning in London for everything, and then again doing the same in L.A. I just remember going from one meeting to another to another, sleeping on people’s floors. It was all just making the best of what I had. Sometimes you obviously have to audition, but at the moment I’m not—which is such a relief, because I used to find it incredibly nerve-wracking. Also, what’s expected of you—it’s extraordinary. Sometimes you’re given 10 pages of dialogue to learn overnight, and I remember thinking, God, I would love to be able to get to a point [where] I’m not needing to hang myself out to dry. That audition process is so much a part of building that thick skin that you need to keep going. It sometimes feels like you’re just going through the motions, but there’s a rite of passage in flogging yourself in auditioning, and everyone has to go through that.

What’s the wildest thing you ever did to get a role?
Probably the greatest length I’ve gone to was for a part in “Like Crazy.” Drake Doremus, the director, wanted an audition tape. I got so sick of doing these audition tapes where you say the lines in front of the camera that I thought, What I’m going to do is shoot the scene as this is actually happening. There was one scene set in the bathroom, so I got in the shower and my friend helped me out and shot the close-ups, and I just totally went that extra mile. That, in the end, worked out. 

How did you first get your Equity and SAG-AFTRA cards?
Initially, in the States, I did a film called “The Tempest,” directed by Julie Taymor, with Helen Mirren. I played Miranda in that, and I remember very specifically it was through that job that I was able to become a member of the union. In the U.K., it happened much earlier. I did a TV series called “Servants” when I was about 18, and that was when I joined Equity. 

What performance should every actor see and why?
It may sound like an obvious answer, but the person I always come back to for such a collision of emotion and technique is Leonardo DiCaprio. I grew up on a very strong diet of Leonardo DiCaprio, from “Romeo + Juliet” to “Titanic.” The emotion he brings, but also the skill, is pretty much one of a kind. I use him as a bit of a benchmark. He brings such physicality.

This story originally appeared in the July 15 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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