As she takes on the notorious US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for her latest role, Felicity Jones tells Afua Hirsch about the importance of unashamed ambition, marrying a feminist and why she’ll always be proud of her Birmingham roots
When you watch a Felicity Jones film, you may think you are being entertained. And rightly so: you’d be hard-pushed to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed the force-of-nature performances behind her Oscar, Golden Globe and Bafta nominations – from Jyn Erso in Star Wars spin-off Rogue One to Stephen Hawking’s unstoppable other half in The Theory Of Everything.
But here is an actress with an agenda. ‘I’m fascinated by how culture intersects with political changes,’ Jones tells me when we meet in a brightly lit Italian cafe in central London. ‘Obviously it’s never a direct effect, but what interests me is how we shift ideology through entertainment.’
Jones, 35, has plenty of ideas about how to shift ideology. A lifelong feminist, she wants crèches on sets as well as equal pay – she reportedly earned more than her male Rogue One co-stars. But today she is talking explicitly about her latest, and most overtly ideological, role as US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose life and career she depicts in On The Basis Of Sex.
It’s been a long time coming. But having begun her acting career aged just 12, with a long-running stint on BBC Radio 4 drama The Archers, which she later combined with an English degree at Oxford University, Jones has never been in any doubt about what she wants. ‘I spent months after Rogue One looking for a script and a story that was about an ambitious woman,’ she explains. ‘I was so sick of having the odd line here and there. I wanted a role that was about a woman pursuing her ambitions unashamedly.’
By all accounts, On The Basis Of Sex more than makes up for the scarcity. ‘I really did get what I’ve been asking for,’ she laughs. ‘I had a five-page monologue towards the end of the film!’ And not just any monologue – a rousing piece of court advocacy in a landmark case in which Bader Ginsburg (then a law professor) successfully challenged taxation law that discriminated against carers on the basis of sex. It’s no mean feat. Bader Ginsburg – still a Supreme Court incumbent at the age of 85 – is one of the most recognisable judges in the most visible court in the world. Her powerful feminist, pro civil-rights judgements – often dissenting from the majority conservative court – have earned her the affectionate nickname Notorious RBG.
But before she was notorious, as the film explores, Bader Ginsburg was one of a small handful of female law students at a then shockingly sexist Harvard Law School, who, despite coming joint top of her class after transferring to Columbia Law School, went on to be rejected by every law firm to which she applied…
For a film centred on the fight for gender equality, it’s remarkable that you started production at the exact time the #MeToo revelations first emerged. How did that affect the atmosphere?
‘Every single day we were hearing about new cases that had come to light. It made us even more focused on the work that we were doing. It felt as if this was everything Ruth had been fighting for – that’s why the #MeToo movement is so fantastic – it’s decades of work really coming to fruition.’
And now the release of the movie coincides with the aftermath of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination hearings to the Supreme Court: with allegations of sexual assault and concern that women’s reproductive rights might actually be scaled back.
‘I can’t believe the situation that we are showing from the 70s in the film is happening almost identically in 2018. It’s depressing. I guess it tells us that the forces of patriarchy are everywhere. There are so many things that we felt were in the past and suddenly they feel more present than ever.’
Obviously Ruth was gifted, but do you think the level of adversity she suffered from sexism was also the making of her?
‘I think that’s the case for everyone. Failure always makes you stronger, doesn’t it? Because you get angry. And when you get angry you want change. In Ruth’s case, she had her husband Marty [played in the film by Call Me By Your Name star Armie Hammer], who was open to sharing domestic responsibilities. Ruth would definitely say it was through that partnership [they were married for 56 years until his death in 2010] that they were able to do what they did.’
Are you able to relate to that, as someone who recently got married [last summer to film director Charles Guard]?
‘I’ve really enjoyed being married so far. It’s about healthy communication, and particularly with busy careers, it’s about how you find that balance. We’ve been quite lucky in the sense that we’ve managed to be in the same country at the same time – being in the same industry definitely helps, and having similar interests. I believe that to be a feminist doesn’t mean you have to do it all on your own; the partnership, the sharing, that makes it so much easier. But you have to be on the same side. You have to be with a man who is also a feminist. That’s why the patriarchy is everywhere. Men are forced into these gender roles, they are made to feel that if they stay at home it’s “unmanly”.’
Where does your feminism come from?
‘My parents are vehement feminists. They both [having divorced when Jones was three] brought my siblings and me up in an environment where there was always discussion around the table about politics, economics and literature. It was very much a safe place to debate. If [that] happens in the home, it gives you a confidence that you can go out and your opinion be respected. I was very, very lucky. Particularly for our generation, what our mothers have given us is [the] importance of economic independence. And you do have to fight for that because ultimately that’s how you gain greater equality.’
You speak so fondly about your childhood. How did growing up in Birmingham shape your world view?
‘In my sense of humour. You cannot take yourself too seriously if you’re from Birmingham! No one will let you. It definitely has been formative and I think it spoilt me, in the sense that it is an incredibly diverse city. We used to go to the Midlands Arts Centre; there were plays, galleries, a real sense of artistic invention. If I hadn’t grown up in Birmingham, I don’t think I’d be who I am today.’
You began acting from an early age. Was that a big part of your childhood?
‘It started because I was quite shy and my parents thought it would be a good idea to build my confidence. I’d enjoyed doing theatre at school and little plays with friends and cousins and that sort of thing, so it was a natural extension of that. I started going to an incredible drama group run by Central Television – it was free and brought children from all over the city, from all different backgrounds and ethnicities, together. They took us seriously at a very young age, which made you feel like you could be an actor. And, what was also really good about it – coming from an all-girls school – was that I was able to have friendships with boys!’
You’ve been working for over 20 years now, but even for a seasoned actor, playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg can’t have been without its challenges.
‘Ruth was very involved with the film – it was written by her nephew Daniel and very much comes from her – so that’s a lot of pressure! I had to build trust. She has expectations that you will do justice to her life; it’s an enormous responsibility. Having done The Theory Of Everything helped me navigate that – I had experience in playing a real living person. My responsibility is to understand their psychology; why they made the decisions they did. It’s important these stories are told, that young women know there is a way through.’
Much of the preparation is physical, too…
‘It’s an ambush on all fronts. It’s also what makes the job fun: using wigs, working closely with the hair and make-up team. I had my teeth capped, to get the shape of Ruth’s mouth. I have very English teeth, and she has very [straight] American teeth, so to make that change was helpful. And wearing contact lenses so my eyes were more like hers.’
And the voice, of course. (On first meeting Jones, Bader Ginsburg was impressed, before adding, ‘But can she do the Brooklyn accent?’)
‘It’s very much about finding her voice. I listened to a lot of early recordings. There’s such integrity in her voice, a real musicality to it as well. And a real power.’
You’re often described as obsessive when it comes to preparing for roles. Is that fair?
‘Yeah. I can’t help but be focused. I admire those characters that fly a bit too close to the sun. And I feel the set is a sacred place. When you walk on to it, I like to be in character as much as possible. I get distracted so easily that I’ll start chatting before a take, and then I’ll completely lose my thread. So I have developed a mental process where I like to be in that person’s headspace – quite quiet and focused. You need that in order to take risks.’
How do you relax away from the set?
‘I love reading. It’s my favourite activity in the world, and I always have a book in my bag. At the moment I’m enjoying Swing Time by Zadie Smith. It’s excellent. One thing I take from Ruth is that you can be scholarly, you can be literary… and you can also enjoy fashion. Ruth has such a distinctive style. The robes she wears in court were made for men, so she wanted to adapt them to make them true to her. There’s a bit of Jackie Kennedy going on with the little suits, and the scarves in her hair during the 70s were fantastic.’
And what about your own style?
‘I would say there always has to be an element of tomboy in there! I love wearing trousers. I love a bit of French, a bit of Jane Birkin, but not too formal. I don’t like to feel contained.’
Do you think we are contained by rigid ideas of what it means to be a woman?
‘I think we get driven into boxes, like the idea that if you are an “ambitious woman” you have to be mean in order to be heard. I don’t like that attitude. That, I think, is the challenge of our generation: to challenge this idea that to be heard, and to have an opinion, you are somehow frightening. It is basically this fear of women, isn’t it? And this fear of change.’
What do you think needs to happen?
‘I’m definitely interested in the stories that are put out there and having more say in them. I felt like a bit of an outsider growing up. I always had a sense of not being in the cool gang; not being on the inside. What I love about what I’m doing now, is that I’ve worked with people from all over the world. Hollywood is getting better as a place to harness talent, and getting the right person for the right job.’
On The Basis Of Sex is in cinemas from 22 February