She earned an Oscar nod for her turn as Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything, but 33-year-old Felicity Jones has remained largely under Hollywood's radar. Until now.

With her face plastered on billboards around the globe, promoting the most anticipated film of the year, her anonymity is about to expire. Jones isn't just part of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. She's the hero of it.

The English-born, Oxford-educated actor is at Lucasfilm in San Francisco, where much of the esteemed cast has assembled. The actors, including Ben Mendelsohn (Orson Krennic) and Mads Mikkelsen (Galen Erso), are excited to talk about the much-anticipated standalone piece, which ranks in timeline between Episode III and Episode IV.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erson in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erson in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

But just how much they can say about the story is limited.

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Mikkelsen offers: "I play a scientist who has the ability to change the world into a better place, but also the possibility to do the exact opposite. Besides that, I am the father of our hero, Jyn Eros, played by Felicity."

Mendelsohn makes the distinction between Rogue One and the four-decade Star Wars franchise. "We're a tougher Star Wars movie. It's a lot more of a brutalist piece in some ways. Very gritty, it looks grittier than its cousins, but at the same time bolts directly into the series that we know."

Helmed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Monsters), Mendelsohn's assessment is right on track with the director's vision. Edwards, an ardent fan of the franchise since his earliest years, says: "This is the most real place we're in. It feels very natural, and in terms of Star Wars, which was always very black and white - the good guys were incredibly good and the bad guys were really bad - our movie is the grey that leads to that polarised event that turns into [Star Wars Episode IV] A New Hope. It's the reality of war, where good guys are bad and bad guys are good. It has complicated layers."

Felicity Jones is the hero of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Felicity Jones is the hero of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

At the centre of the space saga is Jones' Jyn Erso, who leads a team of rebel fighters whose mission is to steal the plans to the Death Star, the infamous weapon of mass destruction. Like many petite-framed English actresses, Jones has done her fair share of "corset films" yet despite her delicate appearance, she beat out every actress imaginable for the role of the protagonist warrior who leads this dangerous quest.

Gareth said of his decision to cast Jones: "When you meet real soldiers, one thing that's clear about them is that they are just people. They are real-life human beings like everybody else ... We wanted in our film to see fear, humour, warmth, all those aspects that I think everybody has at various moments in their lives. And Felicity has demonstrated in her body of work that she is the complete package," he explains. "We were just very lucky that she dropped everything to come on board."

Felicity Jones and Diego Luna star in Rogue One: A Star Wars story
Felicity Jones and Diego Luna star in Rogue One: A Star Wars story

But although she is petite, Jones says the assumption she isn't athletic is wrong.

"I actually was very sporty at school. I loved playing tennis, hockey, and netball, and I grew up around a lot of cousins and we'd often be outside playing cricket. So it was very much part of my childhood to be quite active and outdoorsy," she says, matter-of-factly.

"In playing Jyn, I was able to access that and really kind of take hold of that side of myself. I absolutely loved it. It was definitely hard work and there were a lot of bruises at the end of the day," she says laughing. "But I did enjoy the training very much."

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the most anticipated film of the year.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the most anticipated film of the year.

Budgeted at $US200 million ($NZ280m), Rogue One was largely filmed at Pinewood Studios in London, plus such exotic locations as the Maldives, Iceland, and Jordan. Jones compares it to heading on a gap year. "In a place like Jordan, in Wadi Rum, the desert is a great way to start a film where the crew and cast immediately bonded . When it's 3.30am and you're hanging off the side of a rock, shooting, it becomes a real adventure."

The legacy of the Star Wars phenomenon must engender some trepidation in any actor, but especially one whose work predominantly lies in indie fare such as Like Crazy (2011), or the upcoming modestly budgeted movie, A Monster Calls.

"I knew that I'd be in very good hands with Gareth because he's made Monsters and Godzilla in a documentary-type way, a documentary style, and I really like that he really wanted lots of close-ups with the actors. He wanted to shoot hand-held a lot, so in that sense I never felt like, 'Oh God, I'm on this huge movie! This is really intimidating!' He was able to turn the atmosphere very quickly into a very small, focused, intimate situation."

Felicity Jones in a scene from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Felicity Jones in a scene from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Be that as it may, Rogue One is part of the behemoth that makes up the Star Wars brand. Naturally, her role comes replete with an action figure made in her image. "Yes, it's definitely a little surreal, a little strange," she says, laughing.

"Being part of it, it's a sense of family. I'm reminded of watching the film when I was 6 or 7 years old, and it's now with a great measure of nostalgia and fondness because it takes you back to when you were a child.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens in New Zealand cinemas on December 15
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens in New Zealand cinemas on December 15

"Gareth and I watched Empire Strikes Back together. He's a real reference for the films and I totally nerded-out again watching it," she laughs. "I have to say, there has been a lot of nerding-out throughout the whole process of making this movie. It's been a great ride."