When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, came to her with a request to write a screenplay based on her life, she had only one response. “If that’s really how you want to spend your time,” she replied.
British actress Felicity Jones, 35, knew that playing the formidable justice was how she wanted to spend her time. “On the Basis of Sex” centers on Ginsburg’s pre-Supreme Court days, when she finished first in her class in law school but couldn’t get a job because firms didn’t want to hire a woman.
Jones, best known for her role in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Jane Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”
Review-Journal: What is a perfect Sunday for you?
Felicity Jones: It’s definitely a day of destressing at home. I just need to sleep late and maybe I’ll cook my favorite breakfast — hard-boiled eggs with salt and pepper. I’ll cook something for dinner and then have friends over later. We talk, listen to music and maybe binge-watch a show, or I love putting on favorite films like “Annie Hall.” Diane Keaton has been such an inspiration for me.
What was it like meeting RBG for the first time?
That first day, I kept calling her Ruth by mistake when you’re (supposed to) call her the Justice! I remember we were all nervously waiting outside her private chambers at the Supreme Court. When we went in, she couldn’t take her eyes off Armie Hammer (who plays RBG’s husband, Martin). She was very welcoming and just made you feel comfortable. She allowed herself to become an open book. The best moment is when the Justice said, “I’ve seen your work, Felicity, and I know you can do it.” It gave me enormous confidence.
What surprised you the most about RBG?
She came from very modest circumstances and had to face trials and tribulations. The odds were always against her. She was such an outsider. The system wasn’t designed for her to be there, so she had to change the rules. I kept thinking of her in the vein of Rocky because she’s such a fighter. She gets knocked down but gets right back up again. That was my inspiration when I’d go to work. I’d think about all of those punches.
How did you feel when your name was thrown in the mix to play her?
I’ve always loved her and she has become this punk icon. But the key was really learning about her. Most of us have this wonderful image in our minds of the Justice in her robes with her collars. But the story is so much more than what we know today.
How did you prepare?
I listened to her recordings and became obsessed with her vowel sounds. I had a vocal coach. I also wore special contacts and practiced walking like RBG. I’m so detail-obsessed when I take on a role. I just become meticulous about how that person behaves, walks and talks. In terms of the physicality, it was working with the hair and makeup departments closely. I tracked images of her from the ’50s through the ’70s and looked at her face in a very detailed way.
Didn’t you change your teeth?
I have horrible British teeth. I wanted to get my teeth capped to imitate the shape of her mouth. I spent a lot of time at the dentist trying to get my teeth in the right way.
This sounds extreme.
I love becoming another person. I want to inhabit them in a way that’s living and breathing them.
Didn’t you go to her home?
She welcomed me into her apartment where she showed me her pictures and her desk in her bedroom. The desk is key. She can get up in the middle of the night if she feels inspired and wants to write something down. She lives and breathes the law and cares so deeply about America. You just feel the absolute integrity of this woman.
You also explore her private life in the film with her late husband, Martin.
Her apartment is covered with photos of her family, which really warmed my heart. Her heart is her family. The great love of hers was her husband, Marty. They were teenage sweethearts who had a very long and loving marriage.
Why is this film important in 2019?
We’re living in a time when we’re exploring real equality. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been fighting for that her entire life.
You grew up in England, where your dad is a journalist and your mom worked in advertising. How did you become interested in acting?
I grew up loving movies as a way to get away from it all. We lived in a small town and my mum and I would drive over an hour in her tiny car just to see the latest release at the nearest movie house. Those are some of my dearest memories of being a little girl. Even now, I’ll go see a scary movie, munch on my popcorn and scream at the monsters. It’s the most fantastic experience because dreams come true on that screen.