Shailene Woodley and Felicity Jones are no strangers to films about epic romance, but it’s arguable that Augustine Frizzell's “The Last Letter From Your Lover” presents them in lights we haven’t seen before. As the reserved 1960s London socialite Jennifer, Woodley portrays an American woman who is married to a controlling industrialist (Joe Alwny) but falls in love with a journalist named Anthony (Callum Turner), before experiencing amnesia after a car crash. Decades later, Jones channels some major screwball energy as Ellie, a journalist with bad communication skills (and a developing crush on a coworker played by Nabhaan Rizwan). Ellie discovers the letters sent between Jennifer and Anthony, and tries to investigate a love story that includes gutting moments of the secret 1960s couple getting close, and then being torn apart. In a story that's "100% romantic," the two leading women provide contrasting comedic and dramatic energies throughout the film (based on the book by Jojo Moyes, which was then adapted by Esta Spalding and Nick Payne), and also contrasting ideas of what women of their era do and don't have control over, especially with regards to who they love.
Speaking with RogerEbert.com over Zoom, Woodley and Jones discussed their performances in the film, the story's depiction of two women from contrasting eras, and much more. To read our interview with author Jojo Moyes and director Augustine Frizzell, click here.
In the book and in the movie, there’s the senes that when Jennifer comes out of the coma, she’s relearning what kind of role that she’s playing in this marriage and society. What was most important to you in presenting that?
SHAILENE WOODLEY: I didn’t know what the rules were, in England in the 1960s for divorce for women, and it turns out, they couldn’t get one! Even if they wanted one. It was fascinating and difficult, a challenge, to put myself in the mindset of knowing that Jennifer couldn’t do something that she wanted because there was legal implications for her following her true heart’s desire. And I think that was probably the biggest challenge, because that was something I've never had to face in my life, I’ve always had the privilege and blessing to live the life that I want. Reckoning with her instincts, and her desire, while also having the landscape of a very suppressive and controlling experience for women, was something that Augustine and I spoke about a lot.
Your character is now American in this version—did that affect how you approached it?
SW: Originally she was supposed to be English, and when Augustine and I got to England, we were two of the only Americans on the whole production, which was amazing. To be immersed in a different country and a different culture. And she actually decided to change Jennifer to being an American, she thought that it would help isolate her even more in this world of not having family around, being from a different country all together. It would make her feel even more kind of stuck in the circumstances she was in. And I actually really loved that decision, and through that I think we were able to really set the tone, that this woman is completely on her own, even though she’s an American, surrounded by her peers and her community. Her emotional state, and her emotional being, is very isolated.
Felicity, your half of the story brings a different kind of energy; for one, it’s very funny. I was curious about the scene in which you stuff a sandwich down your throat.
FELICITY JONES: Yeah, it was actually kind of classic movie moment. But it was, it took a few takes, and we shot it early in the morning so I was really happy to be eating numerous amounts of croissants. I was really into it. But then slowly as we did more and more takes, then I realized that I was getting a little full, so we did the old, hold it in your mouth and spit it out in the bin under the camera, which is a good old trick. But we did try different versions of that sequence, because it’s so precise, the timing. And then when she goes for there coffee as well. It was definitely fun to do, total physical humor. Screwball, old fashioned 1940s vibe.
Were there different ways you were eating the croissants?
FJ: I think it was the length of time that she made Rory observe her eating and drinking. It’s the perfect timing that just becomes uncomfortable enough that it’s funny.
Speaking of classic movie moments—are you usually drawn to a project by genre, or story and character?
FJ: I think it’s story and character initially, and then I definitely needed to do something that was contemporary, and that was a big part of the appeal. But to do something that humorous—I liked Ellie’s wit, and her sharpness—it did feel very appealing. But I think I never sort of let the time dictate it, it’s about whether the story hit you. Does it move you, or make you laugh in some way? That’s usually the guide.
Shailene, how does hair and make-up help you be present with the character, especially when Jennifer can be so silent, or still?
SW: It helped astronomically. Look, I’m from California and the most casual person on the planet. When I look in the mirror, and I see myself with eyeliner with a lot of curlers in the morning, and when you’re wearing … it’s a corset-like contraption on your stomach to restrict your breathing and tighten your waist and you’re wearing a bra that’s extremely constructed. I didn’t feel like myself, I really felt like Jennifer. And the wardrobe and the hair, because everything is so set and specific, in a way it did make me feel more controlled and more trapped. I think that subconsciously probably played into the way that I physically held Jennifer. And the way that I had her breathe, which is something we don’t really talk a lot about. But breathing changes and shifts, depending on where we are emotionally, and where our anxiety levels are. And how free we feel, and how comfortable we are in an environment. I really noticed how much Jennifer’s breathing was affected by hair, make-up, and wardrobe.
Those scenes where you’re coming out of the coma, what can you tell me about filming those?
SW: We shot the scenes in Mallorca first. So when we got to those earlier scenes where she’s living in a post accident world, and trying to piece together parts of her past and trying to understand her present, and her future, I had memories in my own storage bank of being in Mallorca with [Callum Turner] and feeling the sun on our skin and the freedom of filming on a beautiful location. Those memories were really helpful in me trying to figure out how I was going to have her then feel realistic in her scenes of discombobulation, and not understanding where she’s at. And also to have an essence, or an energy within her, that constantly reminds her that there is more, even if she can’t get her mind to be able to remember it.
Felicity, your character provides a strong contrast to Jennifer, in regards to independence for women in modern society, but also with Ellie's inability to properly communicate.
FJ: I think there’s an interesting comparison in the sense that both are exploring the obstacles to connection. And for Jennifer, there are the socio-economic factors that are involved, that she has no rights as a person being a woman in that time. And then, comparing that to Ellie, who is also finding it difficult to forge connections, but for very different reasons. Through Jennifer’s sacrifice, that generation has enabled Ellie to have the freedom that she has. But what are those things that are preventing that connection? The film is a bit of an explanation of that, and to a certain extent there is a sense that the technology that we have is not building those connections, or helping those connections. Which is why I think Ellie becomes so obsessed with the letters. There’s something very nostalgic in them. And I think there is an underlying political statement to the film, it’s not on the surface but underneath, definitely.
Do you feel that society has started to embrace or validate more complicated backgrounds with relationships, compared to Jennifer's time? Or do we we think it's about the same?
SW: I think it would depend on who you ask [laughs]. I think with mainstream media, it might be a little more open and lenient than in the past. But on personal levels, I think there’s some strong opinions in both directions.
FJ: I was gonna say, I think it depends on the perspective that you’re coming from. I think in some way that it’s more unspoken, people’s perceptions and judgments ... they were more formalized in the past. I don’t know necessarily whether they are less, but they are maybe less out in the open.
"The Last Letter From Your Lover" will be available on Netflix on July 23.