By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—In 2011, Felicity Jones starred in Drake Doremus’ romantic drama “Like Crazy,” in which she played a British co-ed who falls in love with an American while on a student exchange program here. The young couple’s romance is cut short when visa problems prohibit her from returning to the U.S. after a visit home to London. The indie film, which questioned the feasibility of long distance relationships, received critical praise and made Jones a breakout star.
Doremus was so enthralled with Jones’ performance, he offered her the leading part in a subsequent script he co-wrote with his “Like Crazy” writing partner Ben York Jones (no relation to Felicity). In “Breathe In,” the actress once again plays an exchange student, only this time the complication is that her character, Sophie, is an 18-year-old high schooler. She finds herself attracted to an older, married man, who happens to be hosting her at his home.
No matter that she is 30, the petite, dark-eyed Jones convincingly plays a conflicted teen, who can’t suppress her feelings for Keith (“Memento’s” Guy Pearce). Keith also tries to ignore romantic feelings for Sophie, who has moved in to his upstate New York home, which he shares with his wife and teenage daughter. Both Keith and Sophie turn out to be naturally gifted musicians, who have hidden their talents for their own reasons. Keith always wanted to play in a professional symphony but got sidetracked by fatherhood and adult responsibilities. Jones’ Sophie is an accomplished pianist, who initially tries to hide her musical skills, but Keith encourages her to play. Their mutual passion for creative expression leads them down a risky path. Eventually, Sophie and Keith must consider how much they are willing to sacrifice and determine what they want from life. The drama also stars Amy Ryan and newcomer Mackenzie Davis.
Phoning from New York, Jones spoke about working with Doremus again, playing an even younger exchange student, forbidden love and what’s ahead career-wise.
Q: How do you like New York?
Jones: It’s always a joy to be here. I’m going to have the weekend off to go and eat lots and explore and go to galleries.
Q: In “The Invisible Woman,” which came out late last year, you also played a young woman who gets involved with an older man.
Jones: It wasn’t intentional. The similarities were by accident, not by design.
Q: When did Drake tell you he wanted you to star in this film?
Jones: After “Like Crazy,” he said he had an idea for something else. He sent me the script a few months later and I really responded to it. I really liked the character of Sophie. I was interested in playing someone who was a little bit darker, who was more complicated than other parts I’ve played. She has an anarchic streak in her.
Q: Have you ever been an exchange student?
Jones: I’ve played exchange students a lot but I haven’t actually been one myself. I definitely empathize with the feeling of like the odd man out because, as an actress, I often travel to new environments. I know what it feels like to be a bit of an alien, coming to a new city and having to adapt quite quickly.
Q: Sophie is only 18 but she’s very smart and more sophisticated than the daughter (Davis) of the family she comes to stay with. Is there a reason why she’s mature for her age?
Jones: It’s partly because she’s been a concert pianist from a young age. I worked very closely with a piano teacher who herself was a concert pianist from a young age, and having that extraordinary skill or talent from a young age—sometimes as young as five or six—it definitely means someone grows up very quickly, and they’re touring the world and it’s an incredible mind that can play music on that level. So it was partly that, but also her background. It was very important that we had a strong backstory for Sophie. That she had grown up with her father. Her mother had died and consequently adopted by her aunt and uncle. That meant she felt displaced in the world at quite an early age.
Q: Did you play piano prior to making this film or did you learn how to play for the role?
Jones: I never played the piano before. I actually played the flute when I was younger, rather badly. So with the piano, it was my first time. I spent weeks working with this coach. I wanted to be able to play little bits of (classical pieces) but then most of it was in the artifice of the film, to make it look like I could play when I was miming. So it was about timing and movement. It’s a tiny bit of my skill and a lot of the skill of my coach.
Q: The first time you play the piano in Keith’s classroom, you twist your bracelet to get it out of the way before you start, which seems like something a pianist would do. Was that something you came up with or was that in the script?
Jones: That was about the ritual of preparation before playing. That was something I noticed when I watched concert pianists. There’s a moment of just trying to focus and concentrate and I wanted to show that and build that into the character, and it ended up being expressed in that little bracelet. Now I’m 100 percent focused on playing this instrument.
Q: Though the subject matter—older man/younger woman— is hardly new, this drama seems grounded in reality.
Jones: Yes, the tone is very naturalistic.
Q: Some of the dialogue was improvised. Were there any cut scenes?
Jones: With improvisation, you shoot so much more than is ever used in the film. So when you come to watch it, you wonder, “Where has that bit gone when we were on the hill?” There was a scene where Keith catches Sophie smoking that we did on the first day. She was smoking behind the school behind the tree, and he comes out and says, “You can’t do that here.” That ended up being cut from the film. So, in some ways, it’s like making a documentary that Drake and the others piece together the bits that make the narrative work. But we shot loads because it’s digital film, so there’s lots of extra footage.
Q: What does the title “Breathe In” mean to you?
Jones: It has a double meaning. In addition to Sophie telling him to simply take a breath, it also has to do with living in the present and how much do we live in the present as opposed to planning for the future. That’s always the human conundrum, isn’t it? If I live totally in the present, then I’m going to make different decisions than if I’m thinking about the future and family. What happens between Sophie and Keith is that it’s something that exists absolutely in the moment. But to pursue it would be to have detrimental consequences. That’s the dialogue of the film: do you pursue something to the destruction of so much more. It’s a difficult situation to be in.
Q: The film posits that you can be in love with more than one person. Do you think it’s possible to love more than one person?
Jones: Yeah. You love different people in different ways at different times. It’s often we want to make it more simple than in reality it actually is. Love is earned. Love takes time.
Q: You’re 30 but you still can pull off playing an 18-year-old schoolgirl. At this point, if someone offered you a part where you’re playing a high school or college girl, would you accept it?
Jones: Yeah. In theater, you play so many different ages. If you believe it, then often the audience will believe it. So my priority will always be the character. If it’s a great character and there’s something I can empathize with it, and I can find something in it, then I’ll do it, irrelevant of age.
Q: Are you completely finished with “The Amazing Spider-Man 2?” Have you seen the finished film yet? (Though the identity of her character is shrouded in secrecy, Jones is rumored to play Felicia Hardy a.k.a. Black Cat, an old flame of Peter Parker’s with a vengeful streak. It is due in theaters May 2.)
Jones: I’ve finished it. I had such a fun time doing it. It was really cool to work with (director) Marc Webb, who I think is really incredibly talented.
Q: What’s next for you?
Jones: I just finished a film called “The Theory of Everything,” which is about (physicist) Stephen Hawking and (his wife) Jane Hawking, and their relationship. It’s a love story. They meet in their early 20s, and it’s about Stephen developing his disease, and how that affects their relationship over 25 years. It was a real labor of love.
Q: Did you meet Jane Hawking?
Jones: Yeah, and I read her book (“Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen”), which is about their relationship. It was a real responsibility to play someone who actually is alive.