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Felicity Jones on the most important life lessons that Ruth Bader Ginsburg taught her

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Helen Bownass
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Inspired by playing the trail-blazing US Supreme Court justice, Felicity Jones shares what she’s learnt about feminism and equality  

Felicity Jones is telling me about the old issues of Stylist she has at home, and how much she enjoys reading the magazine whenever she’s on the Tube. “It’s so important to have that perspective on the world that is affectionate to women and not pitting us against each other.”

I am not telling you this to show off that Felicity Jones is a fan of Stylist – well, perhaps just a little – but because it is evident that Jones is a woman who implicitly understands the power of words. Cemented, I suspect, during her years studying English at Oxford University (she graduated in 2006) before Hollywood came calling with roles in The Theory Of Everything and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

It’s fitting then that her new role sees her play a woman whose words, and the way she expresses them, have made her one of the most influential voices of our time: US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On The Basis Of Sex.

Bader Ginsburg might not be as familiar to audiences on this side of the Atlantic. 

Born in Brooklyn in 1933, RBG, as she’s affectionately known, was a very high-achieving law student at Harvard, but as you might be able to guess, the fact she had a vagina meant she was unable to get a job as a lawyer. She moved into teaching law and campaigning but her career shifted when in 1971 she took on the case of a man who was being discriminated against due to his gender. 

The ensuing legal battle, the first she’d ever fought, went to the Supreme Court where, spoiler alert, she attained a change in law in cases of gender discrimination. It’s this period that the film focuses on but Bader Ginsburg has spent the past 48 years in the pursuit of justice. 

She was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1993 where, as a liberal, she remains key – particularly with Trump recently appointing two male conservative justices, including Brett Kavanaugh. The Supreme Court protects rights under the US constitution and a further skew towards the right could overturn the court’s previous decisions on abortion and gay marriage.

The 85-year-old – often referred to by her fans as the Notorious RBG – is, to put it mildly, something of a big deal. A woman who has truly, genuinely changed how women move through the world. No wonder there was a huge outpouring of panic when she was taken ill last November. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG

The Notorious RBG

“We don’t have many figures at the moment who we can look up to and she’s leading the way,” says Jones. “It’s so important that someone with her beliefs stays on the Supreme Court. We feel continually let down by our leaders but she’s someone we can trust.”

For Birmingham-born Jones, whose career began in 1998 in The Worst Witch and then The Archers, this role was, in a way, written in the stars: “My mother had been listening to a programme about her on Radio 4 and said, ‘I’ve heard about this extraordinary woman in the US, this lawyer. I think you’d be fantastic,’” she tells me. “A year later I got the script. It was exactly what I’d been looking for: someone pursuing their career and female ambition.”

As we move through 2019, Stylist wanted to explore the idea that achieving equality isn’t just the responsibility of women. It’s about everyone working together. So we put some of RBG’s finest quotes about equality and feminism to Jones to see what conversations they sparked and emotions she felt. Turns out there were many… 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady, and the other was to be independent. The study of law was unusual for my generation. For most girls growing up in the Forties, the most important degree was not your B.A. but your M.R.S.

Felicity Jones: What is interesting about RBG is that in her early years there was a lot of pressure. She was an outsider on every level, because of her religion [Bader Ginsburg is Jewish], her gender and also where she was from. She had to disguise that.

Women now can be much more boisterous and vocal and do it on our own terms because that’s what Ruth fought for. The expectations about what it is to be female are breaking down. 

Jones as RBG in On the Basis of Sex

RBG: Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.

FJ: That’s why the focus has to be on men as much as it is on women. The expectation of parenthood and the burden of responsibility has to be shared, it has to be harnessed. That’s why Marty [Bader Ginsburg’s husband] is such an inspirational figure for men because he had to have his own strength. He was taking on domestic responsibilities and his ego wasn’t threatened. 

Even now I feel there’s still some taboo about men being in the domestic sphere. The key is that men are encouraged into childcare as much as women so there is a sharing of duties in the home which then can enable women to reach those positions of power in the workplace. 

Jones with Armie Hammer, who plays Bader Ginsburg’s husband Marty in On the Basis of Sex

RBG: You can’t have it all, all at once. Who – man or woman – has it all, all at once? Over my lifespan I think I have had it all. But in different periods of time things were rough. And if you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it.

FJ: As I walked out the door this morning I thought, ‘You can’t do it all!’ But it’s also taking away the pressure of being perfect; that’s a huge part of it. Also with relationships, it’s about taking the ego out of it because there are different things people need at different times. 

I think ultimately, it’s not feeling like there’s this standard that you’ve got to be conforming to. That’s why it helps when that’s broken down. You’re not going to be the perfect relative, the perfect daughter, the perfect career woman. You’re going to do your best and taking that pressure off really helps.

Stylist: Does social media help or hinder that?

FJ: I think if you can use it creatively then social media can be fun; it has been good in giving women a voice and a platform. It has been enormously revolutionary. But you have to curate it to look after your mental health. We are the mistresses of our universe. 

Jones in On the Basis of Sex

Stylist: How do you look after yourself?

FJ: Reading is a huge part of how I relax. I’m reading Zadie Smith’s Swing Time at the minute, which is fantastic, and I’ve been reading about Hitchcock and Wes Anderson because I’m fascinated by them. I’m a regular visitor to Daunts and Waterstones. If I have time, off I go to a bookshop, buy a book and have a coffee. I love the smell of a bookshop.

Stylist: Is there a book or author that shifted your understanding of what it means to be a woman?

FJ: Virginia Woolf. I wrote a dissertation on her. She writes about all the in-between moments, the unsaid thoughts. I stand by her concept of a room of one’s own, heart and soul. I believe totally in the need for a space of one’s own, if not a house.

Stylist: Is there one book you’re always telling your friends to read?

FJ: Summer by Edith Wharton was just wonderful. My group of friends are all avid readers so we recommend things to each other. We’ve been reading the Elena Ferrante books. 

RBG: Suppose I had gotten a job as a permanent associate. Probably I would have climbed up the ladder, and today, I would be a retired partner. So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great good fortune.

FJ: You always have setbacks in life and I’ve always found the setbacks have made me a bit stronger. They have made me think: if this isn’t going to work, I [need to] adapt and find another way. That’s definitely something I’ve learnt from RBG – that the world isn’t always going to be on your side. 

Being an actress, your career is formed from being rejected and criticised. You have to be quite punk about it: “Bring it on, you’re just going to make me stronger.” Women have written to me after coming out of the film saying, ‘Because of [RBG] I feel like I can do anything.’ Everything was stacked against her and if she can do it you think, ‘Well, I should be able to do it!’ We mustn’t lose sight that we as individuals can effect change no matter who we are. We do have to stand up and be heard. That’s what RBG shows us. Don’t be scared.

Stylist: That can be quite intimidating…

FJ: Yes, but the more I read interviews with other actresses who are being vocal and honest with their experiences the more I think it gives everyone confidence. We have to create a culture of support and not a competitive one of pitting women against another – that’s starting to feel really old-fashioned. It’s about there being a collaborative spirit and not a competitive one; we’re not in a Fifties pageant. 

Jones at the Dior fashion show

Stylist: How do you find speaking publicly?

FJ: Public speaking is always nerve-racking but because of Ruth I’ve thought, ‘I have to get over this, I have to make this work.’ It’s about really digging down in myself to find what I want to say, and then it’s about feeling confident. 

Ruth is naturally a very shy person, but she realised the power in writing legal arguments and how powerful they could be. It takes a bit of fearlessness to say, “OK not everyone may agree with this”, or admit that this honesty makes one vulnerable but I’m going to do it, I’m going to dig down and be brave.

Stylist: Are you naturally an introvert?

FJ: I definitely need time to reflect and I love my own company; I’m not someone who needs to be surrounded by people all the time. I really enjoy writing, and I like that interiority that you get to explore. 

But it’s a balance between having that and having a voice in the world. Increasingly though, women are able to do it in a way that suits them, and there not being a sense of ‘This is how you should do it’. You need to find your voice in your own way. 

Jones with her The Theory of Everything co star Eddie Redmayne at the 2015 BAFTAs

Stylist: If you have some down time, what’s your favourite way to fill it?

FJ: There hasn’t been very much at all! I love watching films, it’s my passion. I absolutely love the McQueen documentary. It made him human but it respected his enormous skill and talent. I watched Destroyer [starring Nicole Kidman as an alcoholic detective] recently and was really moved by that. 

I love the cinema, the excitement and the anticipation before it starts, and also how you respond together as an audience – that collective experience.

Stylist: Have you ever been to the cinema in America? Audiences can get very noisy…

FJ: What I love there, and I wish we had it more in England, is that you can go and see films at midnight. I’m such a night owl, that I can go out and see a movie at 11 o’clock, I love it. 

RBG: I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.

FJ: The experience of being a woman is shifting in different worlds at different paces. Being an actress, I feel the opportunities are increasing. Post-#MeToo it’s been wonderful in modernising an industry that was stuck in the Fifities. But we’re also seeing women’s rights being threatened in other parts of the world.

There is still further to go; the key is that women and men work together.

On The Basis Of Sex is in cinemas from 22 February.

Images: Tom Van Schelven, Getty, Rex, Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features

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Helen Bownass

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