Mad about Miss Jones

With a phobia about sharks, a string of celebrity boyfriends and stories of steamy shower scenes with Liam Neeson, X-Men star January Jones is very different from her Mad Men character, she tells Patricia Danaher

JANUARY JONES is full of contradictions and she knows it. Although she may have won multiple awards and plaudits for her work as an actor, in real life she is terrified of public speaking of any kind, including interviews.

But she’s also very ambitious, so in order to try to deal with this phobia, the diminutive actress forced herself into the acting profession. Sharks are another fear of hers. And in order to face down that fear, she regularly swims with them. Good training for life in Hollywood, you might say.

When the diminutive actress walks into the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills to sit down with the Irish Examiner, dressed in a pair of faded jeans with a navy blue bolero cut jacket, she initially comes over as a little cold and distant. Before Jones tells me about the sharks and shyness, she is at pains to talk about how different she is from Betty Draper, her icy screen character from Mad Men.

If there’s anything else she has a phobia about, it would be getting typecast as an actor. “The struggle for me is to make people believe I can do all kinds of different stuff,” she says. “I feel like I’m in a stronger place in my career, but I’m still fighting for people to have an open mind and broader imagination about the things I can do.

“Mad Men has been an amazing gift for everyone involved. It’s become almost too iconic and people can’t get Betty Draper out of their head. I think I need to do a comedy in between, because people get a little afraid of me at times, walking down the street because of Betty. I do like the icy quality of her, but in reality, I think I’m a very warm, happy person who loves to laugh.”

Having won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her role in Mad Men, it may sound a little as though Jones is looking a gift horse in the mouth. Thousands of actors would kill to be in her place, but then the 33-year-old former model admits she contains many paradoxes within her tiny five foot frame.

“I’m a very complex person,” she sighs. “I have lots of different sides to me. I have issues with fear. I hate being afraid and so I always want to face that. Not growing up near the ocean, I was always afraid of what inhabited it, so for me sharks were these kind of mythical dinosaur creatures. To educate myself about them was a way of making myself swim with them. So now, it’s my charity to swim with sharks to help conserve them.

“I got to swim with whale sharks in Belize and I’ve swam with nurse sharks and reed sharks and lemon sharks in the Bahamas. And I’ve learned there aren’t that many of them left.”

Jones could have had a long and successful career as a model, but a combination of a lack of interest in the profession and fear of public speaking, cut that short. Spotted in her native South Dakota when she was 17, she was invited to go to New York to take up the profession, which she did a year later.

When she turned 18 she met actor Ashton Kutcher when they were both doing a fashion shoot for Abercrombie and Fitch and the two of them were a steady item for three years. She subsequently went on to date Jim Carrey, followed by another three-year relationship with the singer Josh Groban.

“Modelling was something I was never that passionate about and not something I tried overly hard at. But it made me a little braver, just a little. I made myself be an actor to get over my insecurities about public speaking.

“I’ve gotten a little better, but I still get afraid going to awards ceremonies and things like that. My sister got married a few months ago and having to talk in front of 300 people at her wedding, even though I knew everyone in the room, I was the one that was more terrified than anyone.! So, it’s interesting that I have that twitch and I am just not good with living with fear.”

Her parents were school teachers in a town of about 400 people near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and they named their daughter after a character called January Wayne in the novel Once Is Not Enough by Jacqueline Susann.

“It was kind of a trashy romance novel my mom was reading in the ’70s. They did a movie of it in ’77 with Kirk Douglas and my Dad just liked how it sounded with Jones. My sisters are all JJ’s too.”

Outside of Mad Men, Jones has had some mixed roles in various feature films, including Love Actually, The Boat that Rocked and Anger Management. Her latest movie X-Men: First Class sees her acting opposite German-born Irish actor Michael Fassbender, whom she calls a “gem”. Earlier this year she played Liam Neeson’s wife in the psychological thriller Unknown, in which there are several sex scenes in the shower. I have to ask if such contact with the man from Ballymena was as difficult as, say, swimming with sharks. She lights up.

“Those scenes are never comfortable. There are 50 people watching you, so there’s no sense of intimacy. Liam is very gentlemanly and he had this Errol Flynn line that he used with me, where he said, “Forgive me if I do, forgive me if I don’t”. If anyone else was saying it, it would have been really cheesy, but coming from him, with that voice was like, ‘Wow’, and he’s just a pleasure to work with. He’s got this really quiet wit and he’s very kind. I study actors and it’s so nice to see someone who’s been in this business for as long as he has and still really excited to go to work every day.

“I think I suffer more with intimate scenes on an emotional level more than on a physical one. I’d rather do something like that in a shower than have to cry in front of 50 people. I’m very protective of myself.”

In spite of the high-profile actors she’s been involved with, Jones is currently single, after recently breaking up with the Saturday Night Live star Jason Sudeikis. She has recently announced she’s pregnant, but refuses to be drawn on who the father is.

“I come from a very tightknit family so motherhood and marriage are really important and a major priority for me. I’ll never be a wife and mother like Betty Draper though.!”

Jones’s taste in clothes ranges from the classical to the artistic and has made her something of a fashion icon in recent years.

“I’m a huge fan of fashion. I think it’s another form of artistic expression and a fun way to express yourself. I don’t think people take enough risks. I think people are too scared of the judgement that comes with being on the red carpet and I want to fight that every chance I get. If I find a dress I love and that I feel beautiful in, I’m going to wear it, no matter what anyone says. Some people applaud that and some people hate that about me, but at least it’s a strong opinion on either side and not luke warm.”

X-Men: First Class opens nationwide on June 1


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