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Felicity Jones, Ruth Bader Ginsberg & The Feminist Lessons of ‘On the Basis of Sex’

This month we speak to the magnetic Felicity Jones on her personal icons and the activists who inspire her, how fashion and make-up operate as a language, channeling the spirit of Rihanna, and her new film, ‘On the Basis of Sex’

The voice on the other end of the line is warm and engaging; possessed of an easy laugh that is sprinkled throughout our conversation. Felicity Jones is the kind of person who immediately sets people at ease. Through our conversation, the British actress emerges as someone to have a glass of wine with, get life advice from, or talk to about societal challenges and how to address them through activism. She is layered, brilliant and human; personable, political and passionate.

This feeling closed the immense distance between us, as I chatted to her from Cape Town at 11pm, while she commenced the the start of a busy press afternoon in Los Angeles – speaking as if she doesn’t have multiple interviews waiting; paying keen attention and giving each answer thought. It is this kind of affable nature that has become distinctive: an essential part of the way she is known, throughout the world.

This Summer, Felicity Jones stars as the iconic Ruth Bader Ginsberg in Mimi Leder’s ‘On the Basis of Sex’. The film explores the arc of Bader Ginsberg’s career and personal life, beginning with her experiences as one of nine female lawstudents at Harvard University to her struggles finding a law firm to hire her, eventual professorship at Rutgers University and relationship with her husband and daughter. Finally, it follows the case that would define her work on sex and gender discrimination and lead her to become an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court: Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. 

Of her journey, Bader Ginsberg once said: "Not a law firm in the entire city of New York would employ me…I struck out on three grounds: I was Jewish, a woman and a mother."These multiple sites of discrimination echo the textures of oppression that many of us face daily, simply for who we are and what that means in the world. We now know Bader Ginsberg as The Notorious RBG, a riff on the rapper The Notorious B.I.G. – a name earned for her stature, legal swagger, and stand on democracy, in a time that asks for modern heroes molded in her image, particularly following the controversial appointment of justice Brett Kavanaugh.

There’s much that connects Jones to her Ginsberg, including a common and deeply-rooted sense of social justice. ‘What is the world that you hope the next generation will inherit? I ask. ‘I hope that we can go forwards and not backwards. I hope that we can build a society that is collaborative. I want to feel like things are getting better, that there is more harmony between human beings’. Building such a society will talk work, on all our parts, which is something Bader Ginsberg’s presence in the world reminds us.

Jones breathes life into Bader Ginsberg, playing her with the kind of extraordinary complexity that female characters so deeply deserve, in an era where so many are refusing to be abbreviated into avatars or spliced into stereotypes. She emerges as strong, sexual, struggling and smart, but also questioning, insecure, firmly rooted and unwavering. Through her portrayal, Jones reminds us that Bader Ginsberg, and herself, are as complex and human as we all are. 

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Jones crafted these layers through a process that was rich in research. As she has previously commented, ‘What I love in my work is showing a full-sided woman, women who are strong but flawed.’ The actress, who read for a degree in English and Language at Oxford University, journeys deep into the heart of a character through an intense research process. Her research included practicing walking in Bader Ginsberg’ precise style for hours on end and chronologically compiling images of her over the course of her life. Theatre director, Michael Grandage, who she worked with on the play ‘Luis Millar’, describes her as ‘someone who excavates a role really deeply and builds it from the inside out’. She laughs, slightly and modestly, as I remind her of this quote.

Jones is quick to point to the power and importance of collaboration. ‘Can you talk me through the moment where you are offered this role? I ask. She responds, ‘I knew instantly that it was a great script from the way that my agents were behaving before they gave it to me…I knew we were onto something rather wonderful, and then I read it in one easy sitting and knew exactly that I wanted to do it’. She explains that films are ‘always a collaboration, explaining the importance of meeting the director Mimi Leder. ‘The director sets the tone, the look and feel and everything of the film’, adding, ‘After I met Mimi I knew that we were going to have a good time.’

The environment we work in has become central to conversations about discrimination and violence, on the basis of sex. It’s encouraging to hear Jones speak about the film set as one which ‘had an equal balance of men and women, which is so important - particularly behind the camera, in technical roles behind the camera and lighting. They are very male dominated environments and it is shifting, but there's still a lot more that we can do to keep that changing and keep that moving and it's really encouraging young women to go into film and go into those technical aspects. There's a charity that I've been talking to, and they are very much about promoting women behind the camera and young people behind the camera, and people from all different backgrounds. and that's the key, really, that's where it's really important to encourage people’.

Knowing the importance of activism to Jones, I ask if there are any contemporary young activists who inspire her? 'Oh absolutely! She replies. ‘I recently, I've been working with a company called Clé de Peau [Beauté’]. ‘We've recently been doing various interviews and understanding more about female education in the world, and I recently met an incredible young woman called Muzoon Almellehan who was a refugee from Syria and now lives in the UK and she just blew me away’. Jones explains that she possesses ‘Just incredible belief in what she was doing…she speaks in front of thousands of people and I said “do not get nervous” and she said “I know the importance of what I'm saying is vital...there's no need for me to be scared”, and she's been championing female education in refugee camps’.

Beyond her work with Clé de Peau Beauté’, Jones understands that styling and beauty have substance. Part of Jones’ journey into Bader Ginsberg explored the dimensions and power of style, wearing the same Towncliffe suits that the legal icon wore, and using colour to convey political leanings. Speaking about using Bader Ginsberg’s personal style, Jones says ‘She understood a power suit more than anyone’. Style can make an incredibly powerful statement in the world. Fashion and beauty are not frivolous; possessing and conveying a vast range of meaning, they are languages – and Jones is fluent in the art of such communication.

Strong red lipstick helped her find the character too. The actress has previously explained that Bader Ginsberg wielded it like a weapon. As we talk, Jones says that make-up and hairstyling are ‘vital tools’, saying ‘You can make very subtle changes using make up and hair and you find a different part of the character, or a different story for the character, and I've always enjoyed that aspect, in that sort of Cindy Sherman way. I love how you can manipulate [your]self to access these different realities’. It’s telling that she refers to the critical photographer, Sherman, who uses portraiture to subvert stereotypical depictions of women in media, film and advertising, critiquing gender and the construction of identity. 

When I ask if make-up serves a similar purpose for her, outside of acting, she tells me ‘Ah, yes! Definitely! I love fashion and I love aesthetics and make-up is a huge part of that’ and says ‘it's very much an artistic expression’. 'I find in getting ready, it’s “what kind of person do I need to be in this outfit or what do I need the outfit to do in the world”, even', I say.  There is recognition in her voice as she responds 'Yeah, it's a language isn't it, that you are having with the world and you get to express yourself through that'.

I tell Jones that her words on Ginsberg’s red lipstick remind me of the strength that I find in wearing Fenty Beauty’s ‘Uncensored’. ‘I think it’s the spirit of Rihanna’, I say. She laughs in response, adding: 'The spirit of Rihanna is with us all. Literally she is in my head every time I am on the red carpet. That's all I'm channeling’. 

I ask Jones who her icons are. She responds, ‘'it's probably my parents on a personal level’, adding the director Mimi Leder and Drama teacher Colin Edwards to the list. ‘And then on a global level obviously Ruth, someone that constantly gives me hope when it seems things are a bit bleak’. In terms of acting, Jones says ‘I love Leonardo DiCaprio, I love the work that he does, and how the stories he tells are always so relevant’. She describes di Caprio as someone who makes ‘Fantastic choices, always doing work that feels that you want to and have to see it’. I tell her that the same could be said of her career, with her choices to star as Jane Hawkings in ‘The Theory of Everything’, Jyn Erso in ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ and now as Bader Ginsberg in ‘On the Basis of Sex’.

Jones describes the film as‘a story that gives us all a tremendous amount of hope’. Such hope is one of the building blocks of our feminism, rooted the belief that change is possible. It is what inspired Bader Ginsberg to set out to challenge 176 laws that discriminated against people on the basis of sex, and it is what should move us to fight all forms of oppression that appear before us, daily. 

A different world is possible, the film tells us, through its exposition the life work of Bader Ginsberg. This sentiment echoes throughout our conversation.As Jones has previously stated about the film, ‘What I loved about the story was that it was about someone going actually you know what it doesn’t matter where I’m from or who I am, I have the power to make change’. These are words that we all need to hear, see depicted through action and in art, and realise, as we strive for more inclusive societies, that do not discriminate, on the basis of anything.

There is a central quote in the film that will stay with me for a long time. Quoting a professor, the celluloid version of Bader Ginsberg says ‘a court ought not be affected by the weather of the day, but will be by the climate of the era’. It’s a statement about the central importance of context. This film cannot be divorced from our context; a world reeling from the momentum of the ‘Me Too’ movement, and one in which we are giving acknowledgement to the fact that gender is not simply a binary, but a vast spectrum. Our generation continues the fight, for all genders to be acknowledged, respected and be treated equally – before the law and in society.

Images: Supplied

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