CODA Star Emilia Jones Returns to Sundance, Where It All Began

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Emilia Jones has been acting since she was 8 years old, but her career as an adult actor was born at the Sundance Film Festival. Her Sundance breakout—a landmark moment for so many future stars—happened remotely when CODA premiered there in 2021. The film managed to be a crowd-pleaser even though the entire crowd was stuck at home. 

Jones had a great time, doing interviews and connecting with her castmates over Zoom. Granted, when CODA (which sold to Apple in a fierce bidding war for $25 million) won a historic four prizes, the virtual awards ceremony was a bit anticlimactic. “You’d hear a knock at the door, and there would be an award sitting on your doorstep, and you’d kind of take it in, but then there’s no one to really celebrate with,” Jones remembers now.

More than a year later, CODA won the Oscar for Best Picture, an outcome nobody could have imagined at that virtual Sundance, and one Jones is still getting used to. “I’m still quite bad at saying no because I’m used to doing eight rounds of auditions. So now when I get offered something, I’m like, Oh God, I don’t want to say no,” the 20-year-old English actress says and then laughs. “I feel very lucky because I can be more picky.”

The roles she wound up choosing are taking her right back to Sundance. 

In the much-anticipated adaptation of the viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person,” she’ll star as a college student who becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the older man she’s dating. And in Fairyland, she stars as a young woman growing up in San Francisco in the ’70s and ’80s with her gay father. Both roles allow Jones to prove she’s not interested in taking the easy path in this next chapter.

“I always look for a challenge, something that maybe scares me,” she says. “I think less about how I relate to a character, and I think more about how I don’t because then it pushes me.”

Cat Person

Courtesy STUDIOCANAL SAS.

“I kind of fell into acting by accident,” says Jones, whose parents signed her up for an improv class for kids when she was seven years old. The class had an agency attached to it that submitted her for her first film, the 2011 romantic drama One Day, in which she played the daughter of Jim Sturgess’s character. Following her debut at eight years old, she landed on British series Utopia and Doctor Who, along with a few roles in theater.

But her accidental career turned into an intentional one in 2016, when she starred in a Western horror film with Guy Pearce called Brimstone. At just 14 years old, she realized that acting would be her future. “The director didn’t treat me like a kid, and he really pushed me,” she says. “It was that moment where I thought, Wow, this is an incredible thing to be able to do. I’m being pushed, I’m learning about history, I’m learning about a character. That was a moment where I was like, I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”

She nabbed her first leading TV role in Netflix’s fantasy drama Locke & Key in 2020, before beating out a hundred other actors for the lead role in CODA. She studied American Sign Language for nine months, took singing lessons, and learned how to operate a fishing trawler. After CODA’s release, she landed the Gotham award for breakthrough performer, along with BAFTA and Critics Choice nominations.

Soon after CODA’s release, she had a general meeting with director Susanna Fogel, who mentioned that she was working on an adaptation of “Cat Person,” the viral short story that captured the complicated power dynamics in modern dating. Jones had just read the story and couldn’t get the main character, Margot, out of her mind. A few weeks later, Fogel called and offered her the role. “I hadn’t done a role like this before. I’d done kind of coming-of-age stories, and I hadn’t been able to explore dating,” she says. 

In the adaptation, Margot works at a movie theater concession stand, where she meets an older man (played by Succession’s Nicholas Braun), who asks for her number. They bond over text, but when they meet in person, she begins to feel increasingly uncomfortable, while also being concerned about hurting his feelings or offending him. “It was really interesting to play the moments between the moments,” she says. “I’m saying one thing, but my face is saying another.”

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