LONG-READ: Felicity Jones talks about her role in Inferno

Cape Town - Whilst Felicity Jones is keen to point out that Inferno, the eagerly awaited thriller from director Ron Howard in which she co-stars with Tom Hanks, is first and foremost, a hugely entertaining rollercoaster ride of cinematic entertainment, it’s also addressing a thought provoking subject, too.

Based on Dan Brown’s hugely successful novel, Inferno sees Hanks return as the brilliant Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon and Felicity plays medic Sienna Brooks who becomes his partner in a desperate race against the clock to try and avert an epic disaster. 

Felicity sat down for a Q&A about her role in the film and what it was like working with Tom Hanks and Ron Howard. 

How much have you seen of the film?

I’ve seen the whole film. It’s fantastic (laughs).

You never know until you see it, right?

No. I had a sense that it would feel very contemporary from talking to Ron Howard at the very beginning when I first met him. One of the reasons I wanted to do the project was because it felt so current, and that he was going to be using a lot of handheld cameras and he wanted to shoot in actual locations. For example, we shot on a train that was an hour and a half journey, and we had to get the scene done before we got off the train at the other end.

Where was it?

From what I can remember, it was going from Florence to Venice, because we’d shot in Florence, and we were then going to be shooting in Venice, and so Ron’s idea was, ‘let’s use the pressure of the train journey to make the scene.’ So as we were doing the scene, we were actually worried about getting off the train on time. 

Were there normal passengers on it too?

We had the whole train to ourselves. Ron and Tom shoot at such a pace that also goes into the film. It’s very, very fast, and the crew are incredible. Everyone is at the top of their game. There’s not a second wasted in the entire day. It’s actually a thrilling experience to make one of those films.

Describe your character for us.

I play Dr. Sienna Brooks, a very intelligent young woman who meets Langdon when he’s suffering from a head trauma. Immediately they’re in a moment of crisis, and he needs her brains to help him recover and together they go on this adventure to solve this mystery.

He has no idea how he got there, right?

No, he’s suffering from memory loss, and in fact they have already met when she was a younger girl, which she reminds him of. That’s where we start to see a bit of Sienna’s keen attention to detail. Part of the joy of playing her was that she has this quite scientific mind. She’s very logical and she’s not scared of Langdon, nor intimidated by him. She’s very quick to correct him – much to his annoyance, sometimes. It was fun to play someone who is very forthright.

How would you characterise their relationship? Is it paternal? Are they on a level playing field?

They connect intellectually. They’re on a similar wavelength. In some ways, they’re both outsiders, and they both maybe feel a bit isolated, I guess because they’re both thinkers, and you see throughout the film they have both been through things and experienced life. They’re at a point where they meet and there’s just an immediate connection between them.

We find out more about her past as we go along. Is that interesting to play with?

Well that’s what I loved about her, and Ron and I had a lot of discussions about how much to push playing a character who may not be everything they seem on the surface. It was quite a delicate balance working out how much to push that, how much to hold that side back, because we obviously didn’t want to give away too much to the audience, but I loved playing her, that she’s operating on so many levels, and that is such a great challenge.

Had you read the book?

The script came first, and then after reading the script I read the book, and it was a really important resource in playing Sienna. It gave me all of her backstory and was just vital.

Had you seen the other films of Dan Brown’s books?

I hadn’t seen them. I went on to watch them after signing on to the film.

What was your initial reaction when Ron approached you?

At first, my main thought was to make sure that Sienna would be a character in her own right – that she would have her own drive, that she wouldn’t just be running around after Langdon. And then after talking to Ron, I knew that he was very passionate about her being a strong and forthright character. The way he talked about the film, the way it was such an international film, it felt so relevant, with a cast from all different nations, all speaking different languages. I liked that it felt very contemporary.

This one deals with a very contemporary theme, over population, which makes it different from the other Langdon stories where he’s delving into the past to solve the mystery…

Well that’s what the film is. There’s a lot of fun in it, in that they’re going on this quest, they’re finding clues, but at the same time, there is a seriousness and there is a philosophical side to the film. It’s addressing very pertinent issues about what is the state of the world that we’re living in and how do we contribute to making that world as good as it can be for future generations.

In other words, it’s not just a thriller?

Yeah, and again, that’s why I was so keen to be involved with it. It feels incredibly relevant.

Did it make you think about those issues of overpopulation?

Definitely. I feel like, increasingly with global warming, we’re forced to address how we are living, and ask are we living in a way that is sustainable? I am absolutely pro making sure we do everything to leave the planet in as green a state as possible.

Do you have many dealings with Ben Foster’s character?

You see throughout the film that there is a connection between them, and we did get to work together, which was great. 

Ron and Tom have made two Langdon films together before. What was it like working with them on Inferno?

I have such admiration for both of them. They are genuine people who are still incredibly down to earth, and still as ambitious and creatively focused as they were when they begun. They’re both so caring about what they’re doing and what they’re making, and I felt so welcomed into their orbit. For an actor to work with a director who’s been an actor, it makes it so much easier. Ron knows how nervous you get on the first day. A few months before, we all sat down with David Koepp, the writer. We met in New York and read through the script, and then we had discussions about it, followed by rehearsals. Ron took us to every location so that we had a sense of it before we shot there. I personally found that dedication to preparation really, really helpful, because it means you have times to make mistakes and work things out and have the discussions before you get to set. When you get to set, there’s a time pressure, because it’s a lot of money that goes into making these films, so you’re always as focused as possible. But it was an absolute joy to work with them and see the wealth of experience that they both have. I spent a lot of time just watching them, and hoping to emulate them in future jobs, in their professionalism.

Are the first day nerves there irrespective of the scale of a project?

It’s exactly the same every time and it doesn’t matter if it’s on a £10,000 short film budget or a $250,000,000 movie.

But is it part of the process? That sense of anticipation?

Yes and I think that adrenaline is really important, because it means you have to think very quickly and that energy goes into the visual experience. People always think theatre and films are so different, but your crew is the first audience, and you know from how a crew behaves whether it’s going well or not. They immediately key into the emotional connectivity of the scenes. But it’s wonderful by the end of the shoot how, when you get into that, it’s a magical place where you start to feel like you’re not controlling everything, and there’s a lack of self-consciousness. Then it’s fun. And when you can start being playful and finding things you didn’t expect. And that’s exactly what happened on this one. I loved it. 

Like all of us, you must have seen so many of Tom’s films?

I love watching Tom on screen. He’s always so relaxed. That’s hard. What he’s doing is incredibly hard – to be that effortless. You don’t see any of the seams. He also has a great use of language, and he has a fantastic voice. I would be sitting in the make-up trailer and everyone is absorbed in what they’re doing, and then I could hear him chatting to his make-up artist, and it was his voice. It was like, ‘oh, that’s how I know Tom Hanks!’ Growing up, going to the multiplex to see Big. He’s an institution, isn’t he? But such a nice man and such a grounded person.

Can you see the bond that Ron and Tom have on set and how does that play into the work?

They have a huge affection for each other. They have this shorthand and they are both on the same page creatively. It’s what I would hope to do later in my career – to work with the same people and build up a shorthand. It’s like any creative endeavour, if you work with the same people, you actually save a lot of time because you’re not trying to establish a new relationship.

Tell us about the action scenes you have in this…

I had to really get fit for this, because there was so much running especially on the action unit, around the Boboli Gardens. Literally, it would be like, ‘Where are Tom and Felicity off to?’ Oh, they’re just going to do a bit more running. Just more running. There was a lot of running around in high heels, which takes a surprising amount of preparation. They were very beautiful heels, I have to say – Ferragamo heels. (Laughs). But yeah, it was pretty full on. It was boiling hot, as well, so we’d both be dripping with sweat, running around and being chased by a drone. It was quite full on!

Running around the Boboli Gardens being chased by a drone – the combination of the new and the old. Does that sum up the story?

That’s one of the things that’s so interesting about this film – the collision of the contemporary world we live in, a world of intense surveillance, alongside that kind of love of art and literature. I love that combination.

What’s it like to have unprecedented access to those historical places?

Without having to queue for four hours! (Laughs). What’s great is that in between set ups – the really lovely people who work at the Ufizzi took us to see the Botticelli paintings. So in between ‘action’ and the next ‘action’, we all went off and we got a private tour of the paintings, which was really special. And then going to Saint Mark’s Basilica was wonderful. I’ve been to Venice a few times and I’ve always looked outside and seen hundreds of people waiting to go in, and I couldn’t believe that we got to go in and not only walk around but get to film there, as well. I remember looking down on to St Mark’s Square and that was very special. And there were lots of moments making this film that felt very special.

Are you a fan of thrillers generally?

I love a good psychological thriller. I went to Italy earlier this year on a bit of a fan adventure for The Talented Mr. Ripley. We visited all the locations where they shot it.

Inferno has got some pretty intense scenes – the visions of hell that Langdon is haunted by are particularly vivid. 

Ron has done a magnificent job of bringing that to the screen and I feel people will be surprised by this film in a good way. 

(Photos supplied)

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