In director Drake Doremus’ Breathe In, an American family finds itself upended by the arrival of Sophie, a dark, brilliant foreign exchange student played by Felicity Jones, the British beauty who starred in Doremus’ Like Crazy and Ralph Fiennes’ recent The Invisible Woman.
DuJour sat down with Jones recently to talk about improvisation, secret skills and how to fake a piano concerto.
You’d done Like Crazy with Drake—how did you end up working with him again so soon?
He had said when we finished Like Crazy that he had an idea for something else. A few months later I got the script—well, the treatment since it was mostly improvised—and I read it and I really liked Sophie. I thought it was something I could really sink my teeth into. I was looking forward to playing someone who was a bit of a rebel.
One of the great things about Sophie is that she’s not all bad, she’s just really complicated.
Right, she’s had a troubled background. Taking on a role like this depends on a lot of things—the character, the director—but I was very much wanting to do this kind of character, the sort of girl who doesn’t necessarily do what she should do, which is always fun to play. It’s the sort of role Winona Ryder’s played, but she’s had more of a comic edge.
For Chalet Girl, you learned to skateboard and snowboard. Did you learn to play piano for Breathe In?
I had never touched a piano before—but since Breathe In, I’ve had to play the piano three times in films—so I had a great coach. The main thing was making sure I had my posture right and convincing audiences my character could play these amazing concertos.
How does faking a piano concerto work?
I would learn the first few notes and then for the rest of the piece, the piano was muted. I had to learn the rhythm of the movement. Sometimes what you’re playing can be quite crude, but I tried to learn as much as possible.
Sophie’s a piano genius. Are you secretly great at any musical instruments?
I wish! I don’t have any extraordinary talents. I used to play the flute really badly.
Really, the flute?
It’s one of those things. I wanted to play the violin, but for some reason my school only allowed six people to have violin lessons and I wasn’t one of the six. So I played the flute instead.
How do you prepare for a film that involves so much improvisation?
I’ve found that with both of Drake’s films, it’s very important I know the backstory of the character. So I’ll stay home and think about what school she went to, who her parents were, what kind of music she listens to, that sort of thing. I make a real foundation so when I come to set I feel free to improvise.
If an entire cast is improvising, does it get more difficult?
At first, you’re all petrified. I remember doing a rehearsal week in Brooklyn and one other cast member was literally vomiting from nerves. Every time you start a new film it’s so nerve-wracking. But with Drake it’s an easy environment and you don’t feel like you’re making a fool of yourself.
From your role in Breathe In to True Story and Spider-Man, you’ve got a wide variety of roles coming up. What makes a project appealing to you?
It’s very much an instinctive thing, and it’s often about whether or not I’d like to see that film. I like being a chameleon, so that’s part of it. I like having the opportunity to try out different characters. That’s the joy of the work.
Breathe In takes place over the course of Sophie’s semester abroad. Have you ever had that kind of immersive experience?
When I did Like Crazy it was interesting because I grew up in Birmingham and I’d been living in London, but that was the first time I worked in L.A. I’d only found out I got the part a week before and suddenly I was driving myself to set and working until 2 in the morning and just asking myself what the hell is going on. I never imagined I’d be doing that.
Well, I’d hope there’s someone on hand to drive you now.
You know, sometimes you just have to drive yourself.
Breathe In premieres in the U.S. March 28. Watch a trailer below: