As our own Oli Lyttleton pointed out in his under/over selections, Ralph Fiennes (starring and directing) has a new movie coming out this month that is really quite brilliant and barely anybody is talking about. And that film is “The Invisible Woman.” It’s based on the real-life affair Charles Dickens had with a young actress who served the author in one of his theatrical productions, and is based on the nonfiction book (of the same title) by Claire Tomalin. We were lucky enough to get a chance to talk to the Invisible Woman herself, Felicity Jones, about what it was like playing this forgotten historical figure, what additional research she did on her own, and whether or not she can tell us anything about what she’s up to in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”
Catching the film at the Hamptons International Film Festival earlier this year, I marveled at how, exactly, no one could be talking about this beautiful, frequently touching period drama. (It played a few hours after another Jones movie, “Breathe In,” her most recent collaboration with her “Like Crazy” director Drake Doremus.) In the film Jones plays Nelly Ternan, a woman who Dickens had a longstanding, highly inappropriate affair with (Joanna Scanlan plays his entirely too-trusting wife) and who formed the basis of many of Dickens’ most memorable characters, including Estella in “Great Expectations” and Bella Wilfer in “Our Mutual Friend.” (She even made it in, some say, to “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” the novel Dickens was working on at the time of his death.)
This makes Ternan an important historical figure who has also been relegated to a footnote of the past. It also makes her great fun to play as an actress, exposing this woman’s contributions to audiences who would otherwise have never known she existed. It’s a twist of fate worthy of a very good (or very bad) Dickens story, indeed.
What brought you to this project initially?
It started with Ralph, really. I was sent the script with my agent and read it and fell in love with Nelly and the story. And then I met with Ralph and found him really fascinating as an actor and even more so as a director.
What other research did you do?
It was about understanding … Obviously Claire’s book gives you such an understanding of her background and her theatrical background and the tradition of how this family survived after 50 years in the theater. So it started with them and spread out from there. So I went to her house in London where she grew up and I visited that house and imagined her there in that house with her sisters and her mother bustling about in their big dresses. And at the same time there was a Dickens exhibit at the museum of London. So I went and there was great resource material there. So it was all about trying to feel and understand and create Nelly. So there was obviously some research but you also use your instinct as well.
In this research can you tell us one that didn’t make it into the movie but you felt was important for your understanding of her?
In the film, I felt like her father’s death was important. I felt like these women were very protective of each other and a real wariness of outsiders. I felt like Nelly was someone who was quite reserved but at the same time very willful and very proud. I liked that clear combination of characteristics in someone. I found it quite interesting.
Can you talk about working with Ralph as an actor and a director and what that dynamic was like?
Sometimes you felt like you were being directed by Charles Dickens, which caused us some laughter on set. He’s unflinching. He’s very honest with you. And he cares very deeply about the integrity of an importance. We did a lot of rehearsals, we used moments in between scenes on set to run scenes to make sure that the character was embedded inside of me as much as possible.
The movie obviously doesn’t have a big budget movie but looks incredible. Can you talk about it was like trying to pull off something like that?
I think it was all about the communication between all the departments, and Ralph was very encouraging about that. I met with the set designer very early on and had a strong impression of what the world we were going to be existing in. And I think those people who worked on the film are incredibly experienced and show meticulous detail and care for what they produce. I love in the film how many of the scenes start as a still live and the characters emerge from that still life. And all of the costumes and sets play into that.
Even the train crash is like that.
Yeah that was a boiling hot day and lying on the ground with five petticoats and a huge coat on, face down, was a pretty long day. But it was amazing how I thought that the set design was so beautifully done.
One of the other amazing sequences in this movie is your interaction with Joanna Scanlon when she’s bringing you the necklace. Can you talk about that scene?
Well, neither of us wanted that scene to be a bitchy scene in any way. We said both women were intelligent and had a empathy for each other. They weren’t against each other, there was just a sadness and a tragedy to the circumstances they found themselves in.
I saw “The Invisible Woman” around the same time as we saw “Breathe In,” with you toggling between a modern setting and a historically based one. Do you ever have whiplash?
I think they do demand different styles of performance in you. So much of it is about the dynamic with the director and that creates another performance again. I don’t think you can judge anything based on what time it is. I like doing things set in the past but it doesn’t feel like it should be any less relevant or that you should play it in a very different way. The key is just being truthful to the character.
Can you talk about your relationship with director Drake Doremus?
Well, that experience is very different from a more traditional way of making a film; it’s improvised. So I feel that Drake and I have a very easy communication and collaboration. We both like to work in a similar way. And obviously “Breathe In” and “Like Crazy” we keep developing that dynamic and relationship.
What can you tell us about “True Story,” with James Franco and Jonah Hill? It sounds nuts.
It’s a thriller in many ways. It’s an intense story about obsession and it’s coming out next year.
You’re also going to be in “Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Is there anything you can say about that?
I would love to … But you’re going to have to wait and see it.
Have you been assured that you are going to make it into the final movie?
You never know. We shall see. It was a fantastic thing to be a part of.
Are you a fan of that character?
Oh yeah! I loved the cartoon. I used to watch it with my brother when I was younger. I always have such an affection for that story. As an actor, I love to keep doing different things and am always open for a challenge.
What’s something that you’ve never done that you’d love to do?
That’s a good question. I did a movie called “Chalet Girl.” I loved doing something that was funny and comic. That would be great. I haven’t done a horror movie. I don’t really see horror movies that much myself, I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to horror movies. Maybe I should push myself to be in one.
We’re reaching the end of the year. What were your favorite movies of 2013?
I loved “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” I thought it was fantastic and beautifully made with incredible acting. And I also loved Michael Winterbottom‘s “The Look of Love.” Again: I thought that there were some fantastic performances with that. Those are my two favorites of the year.
“The Invisible Woman” opens on Christmas Day.