If industry hullabaloo is anything to go by – and it usually is – the great British hope at this year’s Oscars will be The Theory Of Everything, the biopic of Stephen Hawking that hits cinemas on 1 January.
Most of the plaudits thus far have been directed at Eddie Redmayne, whose portrayal of the scientist with motor neuron disease is one of the most remarkable performances you’ll see in the cinema next year.
But as Redmayne himself told Esquire recently, it’s his co-star Felicity Jones, playing Hawking’s first wife Jane, who is many ways the more impressive presence in the film.
There are several pivotal scenes, such as one where the couple acknowledge they’re relationship is coming to an end, the 31-year-old has to carry almost on her own, acting beside someone whose expressions are limited to moving an eyebrow.
“Some days were hard,” she admits when we meet in London’s Claridge’s hotel, where she is wearing a purple and black mini dress and looking surprisingly glamorous for a morning spent talking to journalists.
“But Eddie and I had got to the point where we were reading each other very well, so it made doing those scenes a lot easier.”
Batting away the compliment is typical of Jones, who like her co-star embodies a very British ideal when it comes to celebrity. Polite and mannered, she has talent and beauty in spades that, of course, she far too demure to acknowledge.
Take for example the Oscars buzz.
When I first ask about it she goes in autopilot: “I love this film so much. James [Marsh, the director] made us such a part of the process. It felt very collaborative and I feel very invested in it on many levels. I’m just excited people care about it.”
But come on, doesn’t the film feel like a big moment for you personally?
“You can’t really define moments in your own life, can you? You just experience things as they happen,” she reasons.
“It’s lovely to have made something people have a visceral response to. It’s just very exciting. You don’t get to make films that are purely character-driven, it’s very rare, and so I am reveling in it, actually.”
The Theory Of Everything is based on Jane’s memoir of her and Stephen’s years together, and Jones and Redmayne – who met the (happily) divorced pair two months into filming – both undertook the challenge of portraying a real life couple with a grave sense of responsibility. They were very fond of them.
“I remember saying to Eddie a couple of months after shooting had ended: I am still thinking about Jane! It takes a bit of time to rediscover who you are afterwards” she says.
“Jane has an certain energy and eccentricity I wanted to capture. She has this incredibly idiosyncratic way of moving and talking. I wanted her to feel almost like a ballerina, like she was dancing through the first act [when her and Hawking meet as students]. But I also loved playing her later, after 25 years caring for Stephen, when her sense of humour has become more caustic after all the prejudice they experience.”
Despite a script that occasionally seems at pains to portray the first Mrs. Hawking as positively as possible, Jones captures her journey from spirited student to embattled wife, mother and carer with a restraint and subtlety that shows why she has long been marked out as one of our most exciting acting talents (as acknowledged by her Golden Globe nomination last week).
Her breakout role came back in 2011 alongside Jennifer Lawrence in romantic drama Like Crazy. It earned her recognition at Sundance, and led to supporting roles in Ricky Gervais comedy Cemetery Junction and Spider-Man 2 in recent years.
But it is The Theory Of Everything which is being tipped to catapult both its leads to a new level of stardom. If that happens, what next?
“I’d love to do more comedy,” she says, half joking.
“It’d just be nice to go into work and not be crying every day. Some broad slapstick would be great. Falling over banana skins would be wonderful.”
Not a million miles off, by the sound of it, is her next project, an action film with Nicholas Hoult, Ben Kinglsey and Anthony Hopkins called Autobahn that, she says, had her “jumping off buildings, dying my hair blonde and hitting someone over the head with a suitcase.”
Sounds like fun, but are enough big, complex roles like Jane being written for women?
“I feel like I personally have been lucky,” she replies, measured and diplomatic.
“If the part isn’t always there on the page, I’ve had good relationships with writers where there’s an openness to bring more to the role.
“But you know, Reese Witherspoon is producing Wild, Angelina Jolie is now directing. That’s really important, to have women in those roles. There will be more great female parts, the more that happens.”
Let’s hope she’s right. But before that, possible Oscar glory. Just don’t talk about it yet.