There’s a scene in The Aeronauts, the hot air balloon historical thriller – yes, you read that right – that reunites Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne onscreen, that appears designed specifically to make women’s blood boil.
In it, Amelia Wren (Jones) sweeps through The Royal Society, Victorian skirts rustling over the flagstones, in search of James Glaisher (Redmayne). She comes bearing bad news: despite promising that she would take him further into the skies than any previous balloon expedition, Amelia feels unable to complete the mission. She is still reeling from the emotional impact of the tragic death of her husband in a balloon accident a few years prior. Despite James’ noble pursuit – Redmayne’s James is a meteorologist keen to document the science of the weather, imagine Newt Scamander meets Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow – Amelia believes she cannot undertake the mission, and she wants to deliver her decision in person.
Only, she can’t. On account of her gender.
“We have a policy in regards to the fairer sex,” one Royal Society member huffs, balking at the very sight of her. In short – no women allowed. Get out.
This scene, coupled with the many in On The Basis Of Sex in which Jones – as trailblazing legal authority Ruth Bader Ginsburg – was the only woman in the room, was cause for the actor to reflect back on her own career.
Despite it being a successful and satisfying one, filled with Oscar nominations (for The Theory of Everything), cult favourite romantic comedies (Chalet Girl) and epic blockbusters (Rogue One), Jones admits that she has “often” been the lone female voice on all-male projects.
“On film sets, I would be one of about 60 guys on a regular basis,” she says. “The more I see it breaking down, the more I feel a more comfortable working experience [is coming] where we have parity, and we can all do good work.”
She adds: “It has been a very male-dominated industry, and there are so many macho aspects to it… But I think things are changing. I think technology is a huge part of that change – there’s so many different ways of telling stories now, and getting a voice across that has never been allowed before because it was such a closed industry. And it was, it was rife with bullying and hierarchy, and I’m very, very happy to see that breaking down and something new emerging.”
The great irony of The Aeronauts is that Amelia Wren never tried to barge her way into the Royal Society. Nor did she, after eventually relenting and accepting James’ challenge to pilot his dangerous mission, break records as a female aeronaut – because Amelia Wren doesn’t exist. In real life, James Glaisher made his historic 1862 journey into the skies with a man named Henry Tracey Coxwell.
The Amelia Wren that we see onscreen exists as a composite of several different real women including Sophie Blanchard, renowned as the world’s first female aeronaut. “She was an absolute wildcat, and she used to do these solo flights at night and would set off fireworks as she was taking off,” Jones explains. “She also completely redesigned the shape of the balloon, because she knew that it could be more aerodynamic… These are the sorts of people that don’t get written into the history books.”
Gender-flipping the character of Amelia Wren, then, was a chance to tell the stories of those too-often left out of historical films. “That’s what feels so exciting,” adds Jones. “Through Amelia Wren, we’re bringing [these] characters to the fore.”
The film gave Jones the chance to reunite with Redmayne, five years after they starred in the Oscar-winning Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory Of Everything. “We would have only come back together if we were building on something we’d made before,” Jones says. “They were such great parts, and so different from The Theory of Everything, but similarly it is a story of extremes. So to do it with someone where you already have that trust and that you get on with, and we love having chats in between takes, makes the experience much more fuller.”
Because the physical extremes of The Aeronauts were extreme. Aside from flashbacks – being barred from entering the Royal Society; watching rooms full of men decide on what is and isn’t a valid scientific pursuit – the bulk of the film takes place inside the very confined confines of a hot air balloon as it rises ever higher into the sky.
As James fiddles with his instruments, Amelia pragmatically slips into her cold-weather clothing and steers the balloon through rain, hail and shine. “There were a lot of lines where I had to say: ‘Get out your oil skin!’” Jones recalls, laughing. “It got to a point where I had to say, right, I think I’m going to have to start saying ‘Get out your weatherproof clothing’, because I don’t think anybody is going to have a clue what she’s talking about.”
In the scenes where the balloon battles inclement weather, the temperature on the soundstage was lowered to a glacial setting and Jones had to dip her hands into buckets of ice water between takes. There was a method to the madness –being physically cold “did something to the eyes,” Jones explains.
“I thought it was fascinating, it makes your eyes look a certain way. And definitely through shooting we were trying to make it look as real as possible,” she adds. “You’re constantly trying to create this illusion of reality and the cold box was very much a part of that. We had rain machines lashing down on us and then wind machines. The physical extremities of this job were like nothing else I’ve ever done.”
Luckily, there’ll be no rain machines or freezing ice water baths on her next project. The actor is currently filming the adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ beloved The Last Letter From Your Lover alongside Shailene Woodley, Joe Alwyn and The Capture’s Callum Turner, a project on which both Jones and Woodley also serve as producers.
After that, it’s onto a little movie for a streaming service called Netflix co-starring David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Kyle Chandler and George Clooney, who is also directing. “I start in January, and it is a space epic,” Jones says, smiling. “But I will say no more.”
The Aeronauts is in cinemas on 4 November in the UK and on 6 December in the US.
Images: Getty, eOne