The Breakthrough: Felicity Jones, star of ‘The Invisible Woman’

Felicity Jones plays Nelly Ternan, secret mistress of Charles Dickens, in "The Invisible Woman." Credit: Getty Images
Felicity Jones plays Nelly Ternan, secret mistress of Charles Dickens, in “The Invisible Woman.”
Credit: Getty Images

Name: Felicity Jones
Where you’ve seen before: A British student torn from her American lover by immigration laws in “Like Crazy”; small roles in “Brideshead Revisited,” “Cemetery Junction”
Her big break: Playing Nelly Ternan, secret mistress of Charles Dickens, in “The Invisible Woman,” directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes
Where you’ll see her next: No less than “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”

On being inundated with Dickens through her English youth: “He’s so ubiquitous that you feel like you know his work without really knowing it. When I was growing up, I saw a production of ‘Great Expectations.’ I became obsessed with Miss Havisham — her sitting in that hall, waiting in her wedding dress, with cobwebs covering everything. I remember asking my mom, ‘Why is she so sad?’ [Laughs] That’s what Dickens does: He penetrates your consciousness.”

On the joy and misery in Dickens’ work: “It wasn’t until doing this film that I had a wide understanding of his work. He was such a tour de force. He had this strict routine: He would get up, he’d go for a long walk, he’d have a very cold bath, he’d write for hours and hour and hours, and then he’d drink. He used to drink a pint of wine and a pint of Champagne every night. He had a large appetite for life in every sense.”

On the way Dickens both saved and destroyed Ternan: “It’s complicated. Obviously Mrs. Ternan [played by Kristin Scott Thomas] sees an opportunity there. The Ternans were extremely poor. They were very good at keeping appearances and rather obsessed with how society saw them. Dickens comes along and did help them considerably, did give them a freedom they wouldn’t have necessarily had. But Nelly feels quite strongly that she doesn’t want to be a pawn in that dynamic. She was a very proud woman and she didn’t want to be his floozy.”

On playing a character who grows more remote as the film goes on: “I felt there was something very shy about her. Dickens saw the world so instantly. He had this photographic memory, not only for faces and people but for characters. He could see who people were very quickly. With Nelly, there was something elusive about her. She bewitched him.”

On Nelly’s motivations: “I think Nelly wanted to be a writer herself. She loved [Dickens], but she also loved his work and being in that world. In later life she wrote these poems that, unfortunately, weren’t that great. [Laughs] That was her drive. He would send her manuscripts and they would discuss them at length. There was this great intellectual trust between them.”

How the giant period clothes impacted her performance: “They give you an immediate sense of standing. You had to be physically strong, they’re so heavy. You have your corset on, then five layers of petticoats, in a cage. It literally weighs you down. The first day I fell into the sand dunes. [Laughs] The wind’s blowing you and you can’t walk straight. You have to have an incredibly physical as well as emotional strength. You can see it through the clothes how much the history of gender has changed. If you look at a man’s attire it’s not that different. And then look at the women’s compared to what I’m wearing today, that’s how much history and politics have changed. “

On shooting in those clothes during the summer of 2012: “It was boiling hot. In between shots you’re taking off layers, trying to keep cool.”


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