Felicity Jones was wandering through a museum exhibit when she noticed some black-and-white videos being projected on a wall.
She had seen the 8-millimeter home movies from Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s personal collection before but was nonetheless transfixed by the silent footage.
“She has this almost movie-star-like quality,” the movie star said, staring at the Supreme Court justice on her honeymoon.
Even after getting to meet and subsequently play Ginsburg in “On the Basis of Sex” — the new biopic about the equal rights leader — Jones still seems genuinely starry-eyed by the justice. And it was only a couple of years ago that she even learned who Ginsburg was. Growing up in England, Jones was unfamiliar with the 85-year-old icon until her mother heard a BBC radio program about her.
“She said, ‘I’ve just been hearing about this extraordinary woman who’s a lawyer in the U.S.; I think you’d be really interested in her,’ ” recalled Jones, now 35. Within a year, the actress received the screenplay for a film about Ginsburg’s life and excitedly shared it with her mother: “ ‘Mum! This is the amazing woman we’ve been talking about!’ ”
It was a juicy role — one that Natalie Portman had previously been attached to play — but Jones was most heartened to hear that the project had the blessing of Ginsburg herself. The justice advised her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, on the facts of her life while he was at work on the screenplay.
“Knowing that Ruth had been involved in casting and approved my casting was incredible,” Jones said.
It was late on a Friday night, a few weeks before the Focus Features film was set to open in theaters on Christmas Day, and she had arrived after-hours at the Skirball Cultural Center to meet up with Stiepleman. Together, they were exploring the museum’s new exhibit: “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
“Oh, Ruth loved Felicity’s casting,” Stiepleman insisted. “It was, like, ‘Felicity Jones from “Theory of Everything”? Oh, she’s wonderful!’ Then she was like, ‘Do you think she’ll sign my “Star Wars” poster?’”
Jones laughed at the joke — she played Jyn Erso in 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” — and replied: “She does have the Force in her, I have to say.”
Stiepleman — a Peace Corps volunteer turned high school English teacher turned NYU adjunct film professor — had the idea to write “On the Basis of Sex” at the 2010 funeral of his late uncle. At the memorial, one of Martin Ginsburg’s friends gave a eulogy in which he mentioned the only case he and his wife had ever argued together.
“And here I was, pretty newly married, and my wife and I had always looked to Ruth and Marty as our role models for what a marriage is supposed to look like,” Stiepleman said. “I was like, ‘This is perfect. This would be an incredible movie.’ And then I thought: What kind of [jerk] am I? I’m sitting here mining his life for material.”
“A true Hollywood screenwriter,” Jones kidded.
A year later, Stiepleman proposed the idea to his aunt. He wanted to write a film that explored her marriage with his Uncle Marty — one that began in the 1950s, when she was getting her law degree at Harvard University while simultaneously caring for a newborn daughter and her then-ailing husband, who had testicular cancer. The movie would ultimately build to focus on the 1972 tax law case that the couple argued together, helping to reverse gender discrimination laws.
At first, Ginsburg didn’t seem all that impressed with her nephew’s pitch. She told him to move forward with the idea “if that’s how you want to spend your time” and didn’t understand why Stiepleman wanted to focus on the 1972 case — hardly one of the most memorable she’d argued in her decades-long career.
“You’re fighting in court but also trying to figure out how to live at home in true equality,” he said he told her. “And once she figured out it was about her and Marty, she was all in.”
Quietly changing the world
Growing up in Long Island — in the same home his uncle was raised in — Stiepleman hadn’t been particularly close with Ginsburg. He saw her for Thanksgiving and Passover, viewing her as the quiet relative 50 years his senior sitting at the other end of the table.
“People would be, like, ‘She changed the world!’ and I always found that really confusing,” he remembered. “I’d be, like, ‘Her? Are you sure? She’s so quiet!’ As a kid, I had a visual in my head of what a feminist from the ’70s was, like Gloria Steinem standing in front of a crowd bringing everyone up to their feet. And here is Ruth, who keeps her head down and is quiet.”
Over the years, though, the two grew closer, with Ginsburg officiating Stiepleman’s wedding in her trademark robe and collar. So when the “On the Basis of Sex” team wanted access to the justice before production began, her nephew served as their conduit.
Jones, who had found it helpful to meet with Jane Hawking before playing her in 2014’s “The Theory of Everything,” requested a one-on-one meeting with Ginsburg. Prior to their sit-down, the actress observed her in court and went to her office with director Mimi Leder and costar Armie Hammer, who plays her husband in the film.
“The office visit was all about Armie Hammer,” Jones said with a laugh. “Because the moment that we walked in, Ruth couldn’t take her eyes off Armie. And I could see how much affection she had for Marty because of the way in which she looked at Armie. It was a really beautiful moment, and all really useful for me to see all these nonverbal moments having read everything about her.”
Later that afternoon, Ginsburg invited Jones to her D.C. apartment for a one-on-one meeting. At first, Jones said, they were “both a bit mute” because of how shy they each are. But as Ginsburg showed the actress around her place — showing off Marty’s old kitchen pots and old family photographs — the tension began to ease.
“She showed me her desk in her bedroom,” Jones said, still wide-eyed. “It’s about less than a meter away from her bed, so when she wakes up, she can write down anything if she’s inspired.”
Before the afternoon ended, Jones asked Ginsburg if she had any advice for her in approaching the role.
“You don’t need advice,” she was told. “I’ve seen your work, and I know you can do it.”
Stiepleman too felt confident that Jones could play his aunt — especially because she was coming at the project with a foreigner’s perspective.
“I always thought it was to my great benefit that you were reading it from London,” he told Jones, sitting on a replica at the Skirball exhibit of the Supreme Court bench. “There’s a perception of who Ruth is supposed to be. For some people in America, she’s a divisive person. For a lot of others, she is this heroic, sassy, sarcastic 85-year-old bubbe we all know now.
“And I was just trying to write Aunt Ruth who was at home with the kids. I always thought the fact that [Jones] didn’t come in with those preconceptions helped you believe in the Ruth that was on the page, who I know is an accurate Ruth.”
Ginsburg has participated in a few promotional events for the film, attending a screening in D.C. and another in New York, where she sat for a Q&A with NPR’s justice correspondent Nina Totenberg. Stiepleman said she’s excited about the film, viewing it was a way to “further her work.” He still hasn’t gotten her full review of the movie, however: After she saw it for the first time, he said her immediate remarks were, “I’m so glad it was Felicity.”
Though the actress has already played a variety of roles — earning an Oscar nomination for her role as Hawking and appearing in blockbuster franchises like “Spider-Man” and “Star Wars” — she said playing Ginsburg affected her in a more lasting manner.
“I think she taught me how important it is to not be scared to speak publicly, actually, and to be fearless,” said Jones. “I’ve found public speaking difficult in the past, despite being an actor. That’s something I’ve had to work incredibly hard at. And it was playing Ruth when I finally thought, ‘Right, you’ve just gotta get on with this and embrace it, in fact, and don’t be scared of it.’ This is an opportunity to be out there and stand up for what you believe in.”
That message is part of why Stiepleman thinks Ginsburg’s story seems to be resonating so much with Americans right now. Earlier this year, a documentary about her life, “RBG,” became the second-highest-grossing nonfiction film of 2018, earning over $14 million. And when it was revealed last week that Ginsburg had two cancerous growths removed from her left lung, there was an outpouring of support online, with some celebrities even offering up their own lungs.
“I think Ruth has something that is really lacking right now, which is authenticity,” offered Stiepleman. “There’s nothing she wants from you. She’s not a politician. She doesn’t want your vote. She’s got a lifetime tenure. She’s not selling you anything. She doesn’t want your money. So if she says something, you can actually believe she is saying it from a place she believes in.”
“And I think we see how much she fought for in terms of gender equality and still how much further we have to go,” added Jones. “We don’t have equal pay yet, and we’re in a world where we still need the Ruth Bader Ginsburgs to come forward and fight for these things. She reminds us how important it is, particularly now, to stand up for what you believe in, come forward with those views and be quite outspoken about them.”