Felicity Jones on Playing and Meeting Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Portraying a real person adds a layer of difficulty to a performance for an actor, especially when the subject is alive to critique it. And playing iconic Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the film “On the Basis of Sex” was quite intimidating for British actress Felicity Jones.
“It’s a huge responsibility and I definitely felt that going into it,” Jones, 35, told the Journal. “It’s about how do you do justice to the justice?”
When it came to meeting the 85-year-old Ginsburg (nicknamed the Notorious RBG), “I was petrified,” Jones said. “This is someone I deeply admired and respected. But when we went to meet her in her chambers in Washington, D.C., she was incredibly welcoming. [It gave me insight into] understanding the woman behind the icon. What would it take to get to the position she’s in today? What were those struggles? What were those triumphs? My way into it was to become obsessive about the details, explore every part of Justice Ginsburg’s life, to understand her motivations.”
Jones prepared by watching video footage, including home movies, and listening to audio of Ginsburg arguing cases in court. “I spent hours obsessing over the minutiae of her accent and vowel sounds, the tone and pitch,” Jones said. “Her voice is such a testament to the power she’s been able to have in the world. She fought injustice on every single front. And the way that she managed to harness her
anger and frustration and turn it into something positive is a testament to her use of language and her ability to get her voice heard.”
The actress received the ultimate validation when Ginsburg gave her performance a thumbs-up. “We email each other and she wrote to tell me how pleased she was with the work,” Jone said. “It’s the best review I could possibly get. If there’s one person whose opinion I cared about, it was hers.”
Directed by Mimi Leder, “On the Basis of Sex” has a script by Daniel Stiepleman, a nephew of Ginsburg’s late husband, Martin. “It’s very rare to find a script about a woman who succeeds and not only lives at the end but makes the world work for her and does so with her relationship fully intact. It’s such a celebration of female success,” Jones said. “It’s as much a family story as it is about becoming RBG.”
The origin drama focuses on a gender rights case that Ruth and Martin Ginsburg argued in 1970, in which the IRS denied a man a caregiver exemption because it only applied to women at the time. “You can look at the film and think it’s a relic from the past, but with #MeToo, you realize that everything that Ruth had been arguing for is more relevant than ever,” Jones said.
“I spent hours obsessing over the minutiae of her accent and vowel sounds, the tone and pitch. Her voice is such a testament to the power she’s been able to have in the world.” — Felicity Jones
“At such an early point in her life, she understood what it was like to have a sense of injustice, and she used that to her advantage,” Jones continued, noting that as a Jewish woman from Brooklyn, Ginsburg “was discriminated against on many levels, not only because she was a woman but because of her faith and where she was from. I can relate to that, I’m from Birmingham, a place in England that there’s an awful lot of snobbery about and gets made fun of for its strong regional accent. So I empathize with her on many fronts, as a woman and growing up in an industry that’s a male-dominated environment.”
Jones began appearing on British TV at age 12. Her desire to perform “came out of a hobby and a passion and continued from there,” she said. “I went to university and studied English literature and language and psychology, to have something to fall back on.” She didn’t need Plan B. She has worked steadily, most recently in “The Theory of Everything,” “Inferno,” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
Ginsburg is not Jones’ first real-life Jewish role. In 2009, she appeared in a BBC miniseries version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” as Anne’s older sister, Margot. “We know Anne Frank so well, so it was great to bring someone who is less well known to the foreground,” she said.
Jones’ next film, set to be released in November 2019, is “The Aeronauts.” It reunites her with her “Theory of Everything” co-star Eddie Redmayne. “It’s about two balloonists who see how high they can go and survive. My character is based on French balloonist Sophie Blanchard, one of the first women to pilot a hot-air balloon on her own. She used to go out at night on balloon rides and set off fireworks in midflight,” Jones said. “We did a lot of our own stunts in the film, so we came out with a lot of bumps and bruises along the way.”
Jones also has a new film version of “Swan Lake” in development. “I’m always looking for stories that feel relevant and characters that I can get my teeth into,” she said. “At the moment, I’m just rolling with it and open to what comes along.”
Jones currently is on promotional tour for “On the Basis of Sex,” which has included a screening and Q&A session in Washington attended by Ginsburg.
“It was hugely emotional seeing her joy for the film. Mimi and I were in tears,” Jones said. “It was the best reward we could have had.”
“On the Basis of Sex” opens in Los Angeles on Dec. 25.