Perhaps it's her Welsh background that makes Gemma Jones "feel like a mountain person," but after nearly five decades of acting, she's still climbing.
The 67-year-old veteran of British television and theater who confesses she has "never done an honest day's work" has really only explored film work since Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility" (1995): "I do feel I'm still a bit of a novice, and every one I do, I learn so much on the job."
Now she's enjoying one of her best roles to date in Woody Allen's "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," which opened Wednesday. In the black comedy costarring Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Freida Pinto and Naomi Watts, we find Jones' Helena shattered by husband Alfie's (Hopkins) abandonment. Flailing in her attempts to make sense of a chaotic world, she falls under the spell of a fortuneteller as karmic jokes without punch lines unspool among the various other characters.
The actress allows Helena to be seen as desperate and brittle — hardly glamorous traits. But somewhere in the honesty of that portrayal, the film finds humor.
"Woody was very keen that I shouldn't try to be funny. It would be very easy to tip it over into farce," says the soft-spoken and poised actress. "The bedrock of it for me was this curious bit of information he slips in, which is that Alfie and Helena have a child that dies. It was very useful to me because it grounded me — in a cruel way, but I think this woman was damaged before Alfie left her. I mean, who wouldn't be if you had a child that died? I think she was ripe for falling for this charlatan fortuneteller."
Helena turned out to be one of the primary characters, with a pronounced arc, which came as quite a surprise to the actress, who is quick to point out her relatively short cinematic résumé.
"I was originally asked to screen test and given two little scenes" to read, and only after being cast did she learn the part was much larger. "So then I got really nervous because I'd heard that Woody didn't give his actors the whole script, he just gave them scenes before the day. I thought, 'Oh, dear, how am I going to be able to learn this if there are more than two scenes?' They did actually give me a script, and I was thrilled when I read it. But I'd have done it if had just been two scenes, to work with him."
Jones quickly found the stories of Allen's hands-off directing style were true.
"I blush to tell it," she says of the day she approached Allen to discuss whether the divorced Helena should switch the finger on which she wore her wedding ring. "I realized very soon it was, 'Oh, Christ, another British actress who's thinking too much,' " Jones says with an Allenesque roll of the eyes. She switched the finger.
The few tidbits the director did share, however, were invaluable — as when the actress and the costume designer couldn't settle on a look for Helena that passed the filmmaker's muster.
"He said, 'I like hats, I like gloves, and think Blanche DuBois.' Well, that was just fantastic. Because the hats and gloves were so sort of quaint and Blanche DuBois is such a broken bird. That just clicked something in my mind."
After getting over the hump of making the film, the next peak to climb was watching it.
"Very disconcerting at my age and stage to see myself so big on the screen: 'Oh, I wish I'd held my stomach in there,' " she says, allowing that the nitpicking did move on to a grander realization. "The big moment was in Toronto, when I was doing an interview and out of the corner of my eye I saw a poster of the film and my name on this cast list and I thought, 'Wow, I'm in a Woody Allen film!' It hadn't really sunk in."