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'Invisible Woman' Star Felicity Jones Talks Her Dickensian Drama, Ralph Fiennes, 'Spider-Man 2' & More

Interviews
by Drew Taylor
December 19, 2013 12:06 PM
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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.

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