This story about Felicity Jones first appeared in the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Her character in the book was described simply as “mum.” So generic as to be meaningless, the description didn’t give Felicity Jones much to work with when she thought about coming on board director J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls,” the film adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel about a young boy who receives late-night visits from a mysterious tree-like creature while trying to care for his dying mother.
But despite the lack of detail in the character description of the mother, Jones said she found herself deeply moved when she read Ness’ script and then his book. “I was completely overwhelmed by it,” said the British actress.
“I remember being in tears after I finished reading it. It has a mythological way of telling the story, and the characters almost become like archetypes. And it was very unsentimental — it felt like a true story and didn’t try to sugarcoat anything.
“There was a real gravity in the telling, and it hit people in a quite visceral way. That’s why I felt that in cinema, it could be quite extraordinary.”
The result is a relative rarity: A film that manages to tug at the heartstrings despite the fact that it features a giant CG creature (voiced by Liam Neeson) as one of its main characters. Bayona, the Spanish director whose previous films include “The Orphanage”and “The Impossible,” turns the stuff of fantasy and horror flicks into an exploration of childhood pain and loss, with the help of terrific performances by Lewis MacDougall as a boy whose life is collapsing, and Jones as a young mother dying of cancer.
“I didn’t want the character to become a cliché,” Jones said. “I wanted to find her edges. It was about filling out that character who was only described as ‘mum.'”
She did extensive improvisation with Bayona and Ness to develop a backstory, deciding that she had been a rebellious teenager and was still something of a child. “The key was not to get too cozy to find the reality of this woman, not only as a mother but as a person,” she said. She also did extensive screen tests with makeup to convey the progress of her character’s cancer.
“It was very much about charting her physical decline with as much precision as possible,” she said. “I spoke to women who had gone through chemotherapy and come out the other side and did a lot of research into how that affects someone’s physicality and emotionality. All they’re trying to do is be strong, because they do not want their illness to define them.”
And yes, she got tips about portraying a progressive disease from starring alongside Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything,” where he won an Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking. “I never went to drama school, so I definitely observe other people’s ways of working,” she said. “We’ve all shared ideas, though it’s ultimately about trying to inhabit it yourself.”
Jones went from “A Monster Calls” to a movie with even bigger special effects: Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” in which she plays a Rebel Alliance pilot. But don’t try to persuade her that those CG movies are entirely different from smaller films like “The Theory of Everything” or “Like Crazy.”
“I still want to feel relevant and tell stories rooted in our humanity,” she said. “And I enjoyed seeing how Bayona and Gareth are both rooted in human emotions and authenticity, and seeing how CG can enhance that. So I just want to keep telling stories about interesting female characters.”
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