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Felicity Jones’ ‘On the Basis of Sex’ covers the life of gender defender Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Felicity Jones’ ‘On the Basis of Sex’ covers the life of gender defender Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Felicity Jones stars as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "On the Basis of Sex." “I loved playing this part, every minute of it,” says the actress. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

One of the more unlikely of today’s pop-culture heroes has to be 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

There are viral memes of the 25-year high-court veteran bearing her affectionate nickname, “Notorious RBG” (a reference to the late rapper sometimes known as “Notorious B.I.G.” – which Ginsburg has publicly acknowledged and enjoys), often depicting her wearing a crown. She’s inhabited by Kate McKinnon on “Saturday Night Live” as a wildly dancing dynamo. And this year, there are two major movies about her. “RBG” is the second-highest-grossing documentary of the year. “On the Basis of Sex,” a biopic covering her ascent as a gender-equality crusader, will be released at Christmas and stars Felicity Jones.

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“I loved playing this part, every minute of it,” says the actress. “Her story is universal. She’s alive and kicking and stands for such wonderful things in our society.

“I loved the montage pieces with her students, when they’re eating and discussing ideas. It just reminded me of a classic American film, and I always wanted to be in one.”

Jones, 35, is British; the Oscar nominee has certainly been in major American films already — “Rogue One” comes to mind, though she points out there was “not much eating in ‘Rogue One.’” She was undaunted by being asked to play a living American icon.

“I channeled my status of being an outsider,” she says, “which I felt she also felt when she was growing up. When she was at university, she was always the other — she was in a minority of women in a very male-dominated environment.”

Academy Award-nominated actor Felicity Jones poses in front of an image of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the exhibit, "Notorious RBG, The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg," at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
Academy Award-nominated actor Felicity Jones poses in front of an image of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the exhibit, "Notorious RBG, The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg," at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Of course, by “classic American film,” she could as well have been talking about the comic-book genre, as “On the Basis of Sex” feels like a superhero origin story. Ginsburg humbly honed her craft during a time when women were hardly encouraged to practice law — there were only nine in her class at Harvard — much less eventually argue before the Supreme Court.

“Ruth hadn’t had it easy; she’d constantly been up against it,” says Jones. “She’d fought hard for her successes. I could feel there was someone there with a very, very strong core.”

Though Ginsburg has since developed a reputation as a fighter, largely for her fiery dissents in recent years, she’s also known for her remarkable civility.

“I liked her shyness. She doesn’t put all her cards on the table,” says Jones. “She’s had to adapt – that’s another huge thing! – she’s had to adapt so carefully to every environment she’s in, but she’s a very intuitive person. She read, very well, the temperature of the courts at that time. The way to be listened to was to use language in a very, very careful way.

“You listen to old court cases of her talking; she can keep such a lid on her delivery. But then in moments, there’ll be an eruption in her speech, and that’s when her Brooklyn accent would come out. And then quickly, it’s reined back in. There’s such passion lurking underneath, and such fire. She cultivated a manner that was very careful. She knew her power came in the respect she’d get from those around her.”

The script for “On the Basis of Sex” is by Ginsburg’s nephew, first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman. For the answers Jones couldn’t get from the screenplay or her research, the production fortunately had Ginsburg’s cooperation.

“I met her before we started shooting,” says Jones. She says co-star Armie Hammer (as Ginsburg’s beloved late husband, Martin), director Mimi Leder and others “went to visit her in her chambers. She was incredibly welcoming. Her chambers are full of this humanity, this light. She has a very universal approach, she’s very all-embracing. She’s very careful about things fans have sent her; she takes great care with everything. She has absolute respect for the position she finds herself in.

“But we wanted to capture her humor as well. There’s a real rock star in there. Someone who loves people, who actually has an enormous love of opera, and performing in opera. There’s a performer in there, someone who, in the right conditions, likes to take the stage. I definitely channeled that. She has great charisma.”

Jones says when she and Ginsburg spoke at length, she asked the justice for advice.

“She said, ‘I’ve seen your movies; I know you can do it,’ ” says the actress with a laugh conveying her surprise. “I felt really moved that she even had an awareness of me. But also it shows you she does everything so carefully and she’s part of every point of the process. It’s like a case for her. She has very much been a collaborator on this, all the way through.”

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When asked if Ginsburg has seen the finished product, Jones laughs and says in assent, “Apparently, she has been telling everyone she meets to go and see the film.”

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