Felicity Jones started getting attention from American audiences at this year's Sundance, where she won the special jury prize for her naturalistic performance in Drake Doremus’s painfully realistic, almost totally improvised drama Like Crazy (in theaters October 28). The charming, petite Brit plays Anna, a university student who overstays her U.S. visa to get in some summer spoonin’ action with her doe-eyed Californian boyfriend, Jacob (Anton Yelchin). An entanglement with the nasty side of U.S. Immigration and miles of bureaucratic red tape ensues, forcing the young pair into an anxiety-ridden, super long-distance relationship. Felicity chatted with Vulture about the movie's "unconventional" script, improvising with Yelchin, and working on her American accent.
Like Crazy is your first American film. How did you get involved?
I was looking for a domestic drama, and Like Crazy came along at the right time. It wasn't a conventional script; it was just an outline. The idea of completely improvising a film was really exciting — I didn't realize you could do that. So I spent the weekend in my flat in East London making a tape. I tried to make it as natural as possible: Once, when we were taping a scene, I was eating an orange, and I wondered, Should I put this orange away, or should I carry on eating it?
You’ve done films like The Tempest where improvising isn’t possible at all. What was it like doing it here?
I absolutely loved it. I was ready to do something more naturalistic. When you’re improvising, you don't even remember half the things you said when the shoot is over. There’s a bit in the film where one character walks away and he goes “Meh, meh.” You would never write “meh, meh” into a script. But because it’s coming directly from the truth of the scene, you have these idiosyncratic moments.
You and Anton have a really intense and tender chemistry. How did you develop your rapport with him?
We spent a week together hanging out with Drake, eating lots of In-N-Out burger, talking about the characters, improvising scenes. We took a tiny 7D home camera to the beach in Santa Monica, ran around, went into the sea, played on the swings. It loosened everyone up. And because that camera was so tiny, nobody noticed it. We got to the point where we felt like no one was watching. I remember we were doing one of the scenes where Anna and Jacob are getting to know each other, and Anton and I were walking around Santa Monica thinking we were alone — then we see that Drake is hiding out in the bushes, listening to us.
What was it like on set?
Every scene was shot as though it were a sex scene: The set was cleared, and often it would just be Anton and I, Steve the boom operator, and John Guleserian, the DP.
So Drake wasn't there with you?
Often, if it was a very intimate scene between Anton and I, even Drake would be outside. It was his idea. He wants the acting to be the focus: We’d do as many takes to make it feel as naturalistic as possible. Also, Anton and I got involved in every aspect of the film: I helped write the books Anna gives to Jacob, and we used photographs that Anton actually took. I even stayed over in Anna's room one night, and when we worked there the next day I definitely felt an emotional attachment to her room. I mostly did my own hair, makeup, and costumes; I always want to be involved with that. It feels more like a real person, then.
Anna overstays her visa in the U.S. to laze around in bed with Jacob all summer rather than going back home and returning in the fall, which is something many viewers would consider really stupid. Could you relate to that kind of behavior?
I’m much more cautious, and I think I’d be a bit better behaved. That moment was something we discussed a lot, particularly with Anton. I kept saying, “This is insane. Why doesn't she go back to the U.K. and wait a couple of months?” Anna is extraordinarily impulsive and doesn't think through the consequences, and that's partly what made her intriguing.
You’re joining a slew of in-demand young British actresses: Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Emma Watson. Have you ever seen them as competition?
It seems in history you get groups of people coming up at the same time: Like in the seventies, suddenly you’ll have all these great directors. It's only a good thing. They're very nice girls, very talented. I’ve worked with Keira when I was 11 and I worked with Carey about four years ago, when I was 23. But we all have very different things that we're attracted to.
Most Americans are already familiar with Anton Yelchin, but your win in Sundance is likely to raise your profile. How does “fame” fit into your career?
That’s something that I’m hoping to avoid! I don't mind being photographed if I’m at an event or things like that, but I think it's very different when it becomes part of your life. That’s something I’ve never encountered, something I would be very afraid of. I think it’s nice as an actor if you’re respected for doing good work.
What sorts of roles are you looking for now?
Something that's going to be a challenge in a different way. I’d like to play American.
Can I hear an American accent?
My accent coaches were having me do that thing where they make you say, “Five slayebs o’ bloo cheeze, ‘n’ maybe a snack fer our Brother Bob.” That one’s sort of more Virginian. Accents are really useful. It’s just like learning a foreign language.