THE INVISIBLE WOMAN movie poster | ©2013 Sony Pictures Classics

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN movie poster | ©2013 Sony Pictures Classics

Although THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is the title of the new feature film directed by Ralph Fiennes and scripted by Abi Morgan from Claire Tomalin’s book, that’s now how we see its female protagonist Nelly Ternan, played by Felicity Jones.

“I am the visible woman,” declares Jones with a laugh. The film has Jones playing Ternan from the age of eighteen, when she meets Charles Dickens, played by director Fiennes, through her thirties. The bulk of the movie is about how the eventually intimate relationship unfolds between young Nelly and the much older, famous and married author in 1800sEngland.

Jones, originally from Birmingham, England, has a thriving feature film career. Her credits include LIKE CRAZY, CEMETERY JUNCTION (which also featured Fiennes), THE TEMPEST, BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, HYSTERIA and the upcoming THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 and THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. DOCTOR WHO fans will also know her as Robina Redmond from the 2008 episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp.”

At a round-table group interview for THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, Jones gives her thoughts on playing the film’s title character.

On what she knew about Charles Dickens before beginning work on THE INVISIBLE WOMAN …

FELICITY JONES: In England, he’s so ubiquitous, so you feel like you know him. Obviously, I knew his work and his books, but I didn’t know about his private life. I didn’t know that he’d had an affair with Nelly Ternan. I knew that there was some gossip about him having a closeness to his sister-in-law, but that was kind of the extent of it. Coming to the film, I was new to the background.

On how she sees Nelly Ternan …

JONES: I feel that she was quite angry. I think for Nelly there was a real conflict. I don’t think she wanted to be a kind of floozy mistress. That was so antithetical to her identity, but at the same time, she fell in love with someone who had a very particular way of living, and so it was this battle between her love for him and wanting to be with him, but at the same time trying to attain her own dignity and identity. And I felt like my job was trying to portray that conflict. What I loved about her was her seriousness, in a way, and that she wasn’t this sort of giggly, sycophantic girl. I mean, she loved and appreciated his work and his writing, but there was an absolute authority in her, a natural authority, so I hope that comes across, that’s what I wanted to bring out.

On the relationship between Nelly and Charles …

JONES: Well, I feel like Nelly had a profound influence on Dickens. I think after she comes into his life, I think his female characters become far more three-dimensional than they ever are before her, even if they’re pretty sketchy, his female characters, before her presence [laughs]. I think they connected in a really fundamental way. I think they were equals intellectually, actually, despite their age difference.

On what Nelly actually wanted for herself…

JONES: I think she would have wanted him to have divorced his wife – he separated from [his wife] Catherine but didn’t divorce her – and to have married her. But at the same time, that was completely – just at the time, that was an impossibility. So I feel like she made a huge sacrifice by being with him. When he dies, it’s fascinating – she doesn’t spend years mourning him. As soon as he’s dead, she’s off, she goes to Italy, she goes to see her sisters, she uses the money he left her to have this incredibly independent existence, and that, for me, I felt, signified that in many ways her relationship with Dickens was somewhat of a burden for her. At the same time as being in love with this man, it was not a straightforward sort of airy-fairy love affair.

Interestingly, [after Dickens’ death] she pretended to be a lot younger than she actually was, so when she met George Wharton Robinson [played by Tom Burke], she was in her late thirties, and was pretending to be twenty-three, and this was a way almost of reliving her life, really. She didn’t tell her husband or her kids about her relationship with Dickens. It was very much kept a secret from her own family. And so it was almost like she started her life again by pretending to be twenty-three, and that’s why I’m quite fascinated with her. She was a real survivor. She did what it took to survive in difficult circumstances.

On Nelly’s reaction to being introduced to Caroline Graves (Michelle Fairley), the unmarried romantic partner of Dickens’ good friend Wilkie Collins (Tom Hollander), and whether Nelly realizes this is where her own relationship with Dickens is headed …

JONES: I think she can feel it, which is why she’s so vehement [in being offended] about it. Because she can feel that she’s going to be in a similar position, but she’s trying to fight it, because it’s not what she wants to be. I feel so strongly if she could have lived now, she’d have been a writer and done her own thing, and she’s so constricted and constrained by the time that she lived in. I just think that there’s something really conservative in [Nelly], she’s very judgmental, and I was keen to bring that out of her. She’s not a sort of straightforwardly kind person, she’s a human being with edges, and she immediately judges someone, and then has to immediately eat her own words when she’s in the same position. After being quite judgmental [toward Caroline Graves], I think she’d have to be a bit kinder to her [laughs].

On playing Nelly at younger and older ages …

JONES: I try and just believe – I feel like as an actor if you believe that we’re playing eighteen, then naturally a different way of being will come out of you. And then obviously playing her older, she’s much closer to my own age, so I can bring out more of myself, I guess. It was much more fun being older than younger, that’s one thing I realized. There was so much pressure in being a young female, and there’s a strange sort of interesting confidence that comes as an older woman.

On playing a woman of the Victorian era …

I love the aesthetic. There’s a sternness to the way women presented themselves at that time. It was very fashionable to have a very severe center parting [in the hair] and I felt even the bonnet becomes a frame round the face. I felt there was actually a strength to it, rather than it being inhibiting, but it’s interesting how people seem obsessed with telling stories of the past. I don’t know quite why that is – maybe that’s whenEnglandthought it was great, when it had the Empire [laughs]. Now it’s not the same.

On how the period costumes affected her performance …

JONES: [laughs] I was like, “Thanks, dude. This corset is really comfortable.” It was fascinating, because I feel like these women, they not only didn’t have the vote, but they also had to wear incredibly uncomfortable clothes that were kind of a battle in itself, just walking. So trying to do anything else was incredibly difficult. But I think it all helped to play Nelly, appreciating the truth of what she actually wore. Michael O’Connor, who’s the costume designer, he was – you don’t just wear – you literally wear period undergarments, the whole lot. They would wear a cage and then three very heavy petticoats, which I managed to fall over in as I was walking on the beach, as it just kept absorbing water [laughs] on my first day in front of a crew of fifty people. I just went headfirst into the sand. I thought, “Gosh, this is a good start …”

On acting opposite Ralph Fiennes …

JONES: I think you try and play each scene before that with truth and honesty, and also, we didn’t want it to be cheap in any way, that interaction with each other. We felt like they were very careful about their connection to each other and I feel like Nelly is in some ways, there’s something quite Puritan about her, because she’s having these sexual feelings for this older man, but has no one to talk to about it. She doesn’t live in a world where that can be discussed with friends or family, and there’s a sort of guilt to it, so it was about charting that process towards Dickens. So it’s very important that it’s gradual, and then the audience is on both their sides as it’s happening and doesn’t judge them for it.

On acting opposite Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Nelly’s mother, Frances Ternan …

JONES: Oh, she’s tremendous. It was so surreal when I was in the read-through. I was sitting between Ralph and Kristin – it was like being in THE ENGLISH PATIENT, strangely [laughs]. I love that film so much, and they’re both so great in it. And I actually have kept watching Kristin Scott Thomas as I was growing up, and she’s a real idol. She does such great, cool films and interesting work and challenges herself. So yeah, it was really amazing to work with her.

On being directed by Fiennes …

JONES: Well, with Ralph, I was slightly intimidated, because I thought he was going to be a bit like Voldemort. There is a moment when you’re like, “Oh, my God, is that Voldemort there?” But then Ralph is actually very sweet, kind and a lovely person, and nothing like Voldemort at all.

He’s very honest, so he would come up and say, “That was awful. Do it again, but better.” So he was very focused on the performances, as you can imagine, being an actor. He had a very strong idea about being totally true to the period, which I thought was very fascinating about his direction. Often, when they make period films, they’ll just try and make them more appealing to a contemporary audience by maybe being a little more lenient with the truth, whereas Ralph was very particular about us retaining this truth, with the bonnets and the austerity of the period. And I love the integrity of the film because of that.

On playing the scenes where the audience sees that Nelly is not a good stage actress …

JONES: Ralph and I talked about this at length, actually, because we thought, we don’t want her to be just a hammy actress. And I don’t think that’s the case. I think she just wasn’t comfortable being on stage. I think it just didn’t come naturally to her. Rather than her being sort of over the top, it’s more that it didn’t feel natural to her to be on the stage, and so that was more my approach than trying to make her really bad in any broad brushstroke way.

On how she chooses projects …

I do feel like I’ve played a lot of serious roles recently, so I’m looking forward to something a little lighter [laughs]. Because I find I take on that character as I’m playing them and I feel such a responsibility to those stories, to portray them and their feelings accurately, and I care about them. But I try to take each project as it comes to me, rather than in any way trying to contrive it. If I like the director and I think there’s something interesting in the role, it has something that I can get my teeth into, then I want to do it.

Related: Interview with THE INVISIBLE WOMAN actor and director Ralph Fiennes

Related: Movie Review: THE INVISIBLE WOMAN

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: Interview with THE INVISIBLE WOMAN star Felicity Jones

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