Hearts on Fire: Felicity Jones Breaks Out in the Wrenching Romance ‘Like Crazy’
Felicity Jones is in need of a pep talk. Tomorrow, the petite brunette—who in person looks like a graduate-student version of Audrey Hepburn—will head to Los Angeles to begin the final leg of the promotional tour for her new film, Like Crazy. Reporters, bloggers, and curious fans will grill the 27-year-old about her role in the vérité romance, and she will oblige them. “I’m getting to talk about something I really believe in,” she says. “If it were anything less than that, it would be much harder.” When the questions inevitably turn personal, Jones will instinctively tighten up. Like Crazy emerged from obscurity to win the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, igniting a bidding war won by Paramount. Jones was awarded the special Jury Prize for her own work in the bruising love story about the stop-start masochism of a long distance relationship, and she is keenly aware that journalists—this one included—will look to identify links between the actor and her character, Anna.
“What are some tips to give a good interview?” she asks in a British accent that recalls stately country manses. “Because it’s a fine art.” Don’t give stock answers, I tell her, and be as honest as possible. “Right, right, I know, I know, I know” she shoots back as though the answer had been lodged in the back of her brain all along. I suggest she tell more anecdotes, like she would were she sitting on David Letterman’s couch, and she mentions that she admires the one-on-one skills of Ryan Gosling, and his “weird” and “offbeat” remarks. Promoting films aside, Jones finds interviews to be nerve-wracking. “The whole reason you become an actor is, in some way, that you’re interested in escaping yourself,” she says. “The irony is, you have to then spend so much time talking about yourself.” She admits to having felt uneasy on the way to this interview at the Knave Café, a palatial corridor at the Parker Meridien hotel in Manhattan. “And then I realized, don’t try and be anything. Just be you.”
Jones came of age in suburbia, in Bournville, England, the only village in the world with a chocolate bar named in its honor. (It was founded in the 19th century by the Cadbury family to house the company factory workers.) Her parents—her father is a journalist and mother is in advertising—split up when she was three, and by age 11, she was attending an after-school drama club, with dreams of “making a movie about a love affair between two people,” she says, with a hint of sarcasm. After appearing on British television as a regular on shows like The Worst Witch and Cape Wrath, she took three years off to earn a degree in English Literature at Oxford, where she met “weird and wonderful people” who she still counts among her closest friends.
After university, Jones transitioned to features, with a role in Cemetery Junction, a grim take on stalled youth by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. From there, she appeared as Miranda in Julie Taymor’s risky Shakespeare adaptation, The Tempest, and, most recently, as a lovelorn snowboarder in the treacly Chalet Girl, a British Cinderella story set in the Austrian Alps and costarring Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick. That mountain romance relied heavily on the very genre clichés that Like Crazy so forcefully rejects, and Jones is well aware of that. “As soon as I finished a snowboarding romantic comedy, I knew I was ready for something different.”
Like Crazy was conceived by indie auteur Drake Doremus (who first made waves at Sundance with 2010’s Douchebag), and tracks the story of Jacob (played by Anton Yelchin) and Anna, two intelligent, vulnerable college students in Los Angeles who fall hopelessly in love during a night of heavy-hearted glances and Paul Simon’s Graceland. After graduation, Anna, a British national who’s overstayed her visa, is denied reentry into the United States following what was supposed to be a brief visit home. From there, the film charts the euphoria of their reunions—and the despair of their separation—in a tone that’s natural and true. Gone are the traditional obstacles of Hollywood romances; misunderstandings come not from contrived plot devices, but from unarticulated feelings. “We’re not being didactic or trying to manipulate the audience in any way,” says Jones. “It’s just about these two people trying to be good in a difficult situation.”
The film’s honesty is a testament to Doremus’ idiosyncratic directing style. His scripts function as detailed, scene-by-scene outlines. Instead of dialogue, there are stage directions. Actors improvise their way through a scene, reaching its conclusion organically. The result is the kind of movie where silence expresses more than words. “Drake is as obsessed with subtext as I am,” says Jones. “His note is always to play against the feeling—never show exactly what you want. So if you’re falling in love with someone, show that you’re trying not to fall in love with them, because that’s more interesting.”
The director’s commitment to realism is so unwavering that for a scene where Anna reads Jacob her poetry, Doremus asked his lead to write the verses herself. With some post-collegiate jitters, Jones spent a late night composing a poem that encapsulates the film’s romantic spirit. Several lines wound up being used as a voiceover in the trailers. (Sample: “I thought I understood it, but I didn’t… Not really. I knew the smudgeness of it. The eagerness of it. The idea of it. Of a you and me.”)
During a pivotal shower scene in the film’s final moments, the camera lingers on Jones’ porcelain face, her dark eyes locked in a stormy gaze. What she’s staring at is not onscreen, but instead, one supposes, off in some faraway past or uncertain future. Ambiguity is the point. A homemade version of the scene, which Jones shot in her apartment after speaking to Doremus over the phone, convinced him to cast her without ever meeting her face-to-face, a huge gamble for a director whose film’s fate rested on the chemistry between his two leads. “It was a gut feeling, really,” explains Doremus. “How she shot herself in her flat, the nuance, not having the urge to perform but to just be. She has an incredible ability to feel a moment and own it without overwhelming it.”
Doremus and Jones worked so well together that he cast her in his next project, a Westchester, New York-set story about a married teacher (Guy Pearce) who falls in love with a student, played by Jones. If Like Crazy examines the addictiveness of romantic love, then Doremus’ follow-up, which wrapped last summer and is still untitled, looks at the fallout from loving two people at the same time. Does Jones, who counts fellow Brits Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley as close friends, get to test her American accent onscreen for the first time? “No, I’m English,” she says, half-giggling. “I think Drake is fascinated by people in alien environments. The character is called Sophie and she’s a lot more internalized than Anna. It’s a much darker, more complicated story. But for my next project I’m hoping to play an American.”
Midway through the interview, Jones, who’s holding a topped-off latte precariously over her lap, trembles slightly. It’s enough to send a tsunami cascading onto her pants. “Oh my God, I’ve spilt coffee all over myself!” she cries. “This is so embarrassing!” But you get the sense that it really isn’t—Jones, for one, is smiling. When she returns with paper towels, we both point out how lucky she is to be wearing black pants; once patted down, the coffee vanishes into the fabric. “I’m a really polished, sophisticated actress, okay?”
I warn Jones before I bring up her long-term relationship with the sculptor and conceptual artist Ed Fornieles, with whom she shares an apartment in London. It’s part of my job, I explain by way of apology, and she nods in silent, if grim, determination. Has he seen Like Crazy, and what does he think of the film’s raw intimacy? “He has seen it, and he’s been very supportive of it,” she says. “He said that the film was great, and he’s an artist, so he understands it entirely. I mean, the things he does are far more insane than the things I do.” (Fornieles once appeared on the cover of Vogue Hommes with a tarantula swallowing his face.)
I ask her if she looks forward to working from a traditional script again. (Because of a commitment to a London production of Luise Miller, she turned down the chance to star as the title character in Tarsem Singh’s Snow White, a role that went to Lily Collins). “Yes,” she says, before offering: “But I think people express more through their faces than through their words. As soon as you put something into words, you suddenly become self-conscious and a level of falseness creeps in. I’m always trying to reduce the dialogue as much as possible, because that’s what’s fascinating about human beings—we never say what we think.”
Photography by Emily Shur. Styling by Jenny Ricker.