In the moving new biopic, "The Theory of Everything," Felicity Jones plays Jane Hawking, who made the extraordinary decision to stand by Stephen Hawking, even when he was diagnosed with a devastating motor neuron disease and given only two years to live. It's debatable whether Hawking (played in the film by Eddie Redmayne) would have survived without Jane by his side.
While Jones has played real-life characters before (in "The Invisible Woman" and an "Anne Frank" miniseries), this is the first time she's played a character who's still very much alive. Jones talked to Moviefone about drawing her inspiration from the woman she refers to as a having "the determination of a battle general" and how nerve-wracking it was to film scenes with their real-life counterparts looking on.
Moviefone: How much time did you spend with Jane?
Felicity Jones: Well, it was really amazing to meet Jane because I'd read her book and already started my own research into who she was. I was a little bit apprehensive, because I thought if I start preparing the wrong way, then this is going to be really difficult. But actually, what I found was meeting Jane gave me so much more material. And we were all having dinner together. She invited Eddie and I over with her husband Jonathan, and what I noticed was that she had this incredible ability to control a room and she did it in the lightest of ways. I wanted to bring that element of her into the film; I feel there's something of the general in Jane. And in taking on this situation, she was going into it like she was going into battle and they were all going to succeed as a family and overcome it.
You definitely see that in the scene where her father is gently trying to talk her out of marrying Stephen and she won't hear of it.
Exactly. I had trouble with that scene. You do it before you get to filming and I kept wanting to find a way into it that wouldn't be too stagy. The thing that helped was having met Jane, was that element of this determination of a battle general, actually. She was young, but she's someone who had gone through a very thoughtful process to get to that decision. And that's what I liked about that scene. She wasn't just being flighty and impulsive. She had considered it and not only was she going to survive it, but she's going to make sure Stephen's family get through it. That was absolutely a key scene for understanding Jane.
Did she have a say in your casting?
Anthony, the writer, spent eight years trying to convince Jane to do the project. So she was very much involved in who the production company should be. She liked the idea of Working Title and James [Marsh, the director of "Man on Wire"]. She gave a lot of freedom when she met James. She trusted him and she let him decide on who he liked. I know that they''d seen "Man on Wire" and they'd liked that very much. She's someone who considers things very deeply. That's what I liked about her. All the way through her relationship with Stephen. She wasn't reckless in any way.
If the film hadn't taken so long to come together, you likely wouldn't have been in it.
It's all timing, isn't it? [Laughs] It was also lucky for Eddie and I to come together and work. We'd both been working in independent films and theater and have very similar ways of working. So it was great to share a method with him.
Had you met him before this?
We'd met at auditions and been turned down for a lot of stuff and commiserated over it, so.... [Laughs].
I was reading that you liked to improvise with Eddie and even shout at him from off-camera.
Yes, it's a technique we'd done in other films where it's just helping the other person out when it's their close-up... going slightly off-script when you're off-camera in order to get a response or a reaction that's more impulsive and naturalistic. And so we would help each other out and get past the boundaries of doing a staid English costume drama. It's about trying to find something dynamic and real and living. And also, in those early scenes, when they fall in love, we wanted to show that this couple really fancy each other and there's a real desire for each other. Even though they're growing up in the '50s, you can sort of sense that they're both feeling this revolution that's about to come. And when they have this three-way relationship with Jonathan, it's almost because it's becoming, in some way, accepted in society.
How much improvising did you do?
Sometimes you just stick straight to the script and it's perfectly formed and everything works. And actually that last scene, when they're looking at their children, it worked in that way. That was in two takes. And then other scenes, you just keep working at them and you're doing six takes and it doesn't work and you're trying different things. The scene where they're in bed and Stephen says, "Thank you" to Jane, that came out of improvisation, and her saying, "I didn't quite hear that," because she wanted to make sure he said it twice. It's doing whatever it takes on the day, really, to make the scene feel real.
Eddie obviously had tremendous challenges, physically, in portraying Hawking. What was the most challenging part of this film for you?
I'd say it's the emotional weight of being in that situation that I've found, speaking to carers. It's that duality of having to be upbeat for the person you're looking after and making them feel good, so they won't get depressed about the situation. But at the same time, having your own enormous fears and sadness. In some ways, you have to conceal that from the person because you don't want them to absorb that because they need their strength and energies to survive. That's what I kept finding in Jane, were all these opposites that you wouldn't think could exist in the same person. That thing of this enormous power and strength, but commanding it with a very light voice. And then being someone who had faith and religion but also was nurturing her own sexual side of herself and valued that. It could be quite a stuffy English situation, but actually, there's a very Bohemian relationship that's formed in the film. I loved all these seeming contradictions.
Did you talk to Jane about being in love with two men at once? Or was all that drawn from the book and the script?
We did. But the book is a tremendous resource. I was very aware of not wanting to ... Jane has really opened herself up in her book. What was more interesting for me as an actor was to just sort of be around Jane and to see her mannerisms and to watch how she picked up a cup of tea and start the physical process of inhabiting her.
You've played real-life people before, but this is the first one who was still alive and that you could meet.
Yes, I've played real dead people. [Laughs]
So there's more pressure to get it right.
Definitely. It comes with responsibility. Eddie and I both knew that and, instinctively, we thought the only way to cope with this is to do loads of homework and to feel prepared and informed.
What kind of reaction have you gotten from Jane and Stephen?
They've both been very, very supportive. I feel like they both feel like the film has real emotional truth. And upcoming to the London premiere, both of them and Jonathan, and so that means an enormous amount to us. There was so much affection between everyone and it was so important that they didn't feel exploited in any way. That was so important.
Talk about pressure. When you filmed the May Ball scene, they were all on set.
They were, yes! I could see Jane at one point out of my eye, Stephen out of the other. Talk about a surreal situation. And at one point, Jane rushed over to Eddie and redid his hair. She said, "Stephen's hair wouldn't have been like that." The first week was pretty much the most intimidating week of the shoot. You're petrified, you're trying to pretend that you know what you're doing when you're just working so many things out. It was quite an intense week having the real counterparts there as well.
"The Theory of Everything" is in select theaters Friday, November 6.