His face seems to be everywhere at the moment, but Toby Jones is out to make his biggest impression yet as the master of suspense, writes Siobhan Synnot
YOU know the face. In the last ten years Toby Jones has stealthily become one of our most ubiquitous actors. Barely a month goes by without his face popping up on screen in something. In the past six months alone, he’s appeared in futuristic pompadour in The Hunger Games, as a dwarf alongside Bob Hoskins in Snow White And the Huntsman, examined the paranormal with Sigourney Weaver in Red Lights and starred in ITV’s Titanic.
Now he stars in the Berberian Sound Studio, a mindbending provocation with Jones as a mild-mannered sound-effects man on an Italian horror film, whose work becomes a living nightmare as the film starts to bleed into real life. It is, we agree, perhaps the most disorientating, uncanny role since he put the willies up Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. You don’t remember Jones doing this? That’s because it ended up on the cutting room floor.
“I remember the whole thing being rather awkward with Julia. I was playing a rather stalkerish fan and I think I was a little too convincing. Everything about me radiated fandom, and she kept looking at me as if I might be a little odd. And then Richard Curtis cut the scene from the film anyway.” Not to worry though, because the resourceful Jones wrote a show around his disappearance from the film, called The Missing Reel, and performed it at the Traverse in 2001. “Although it was a one-man show, I had a foley artist to perform with me as I told the story. So when I got into a car, she would roll a ball across gravel to make the sound of it leaving with me. I haven’t been back to Scotland since, and now here I am in Edinburgh talking about a film with a sound-effects artist.”
The karma police would have a field day with that, particularly since the show was about being in a film in 1999, long before Jones had put any real thought into a movie career beyond bit parts as “doorkeeper” in Les Miserables with Liam Neeson, “Gentleman in café” in Cousin Bette, and “man at tea van” in Naked back in 1993. “I was just starting out, and I’d heard that if you wrote to Mike Leigh, he always wrote back. So I did that and he wrote back saying “Come and meet me”. I remember him telling me I was a bit down on myself, a bit unconfident and fond of self-deprecation. And then he very politely offered me a part standing by a burger van. I remember it all vividly, with David Thewlis standing nearby talking about this character that he’d been living with. It was right at the start of my career and I found it inspiring.”
Leigh’s note about self-deprecation echoes down the years. Jones can’t look at twitter reviews of Berberian, even though it wowed audiences when it premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June, “because even if there’s good stuff, I’d be looking for the bad stuff; it can’t be all good, there must be some shit.” He even worries about performing in interviews. “Is this interesting?” he asks, more than once.
Other actors might have steered clear of Berberian Sound Studio as soon as they sniffed the budget, or discovered that writer-director Peter Strickland had made only one other film, the eccentric Katalin Varga, shot in Hungaria over several years. “The more we went on, the more I realised how inexperienced he was in industrial film making. He’d never even been in a studio before. And I had to create a character even though Peter wouldn’t tell me what’s gone on. I ended up making a chart so I could map out the emotions but I tried not to let on I’d done this to Peter in case he tried to say no to me. But I loved the script, and the idea of someone absorbed into a horror film. Usually after the first ten pages, you go, “Oh, it’s one of those films” and make a cup of tea. But I couldn’t do that with Peter’s film.”
Berberian’s woozy malevolence stands in contrast to Jones’s next drama The Girl, where he plays the English director Alfred Hitchcock, whose idea of bad behaviour is perhaps even more psychologically twisted. The BBC film focuses on Hitchcock’s obsession with Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) after hiring her to star in The Birds
Hedren, now 82, has spoken already about her experience working with Hitchcock, who groomed her to become one of his immaculate blonde leading ladies, then turned on her when she spurned his “inappropriate” advances. “There was an element of abuse, physical abuse, in what he put her through,” says Jones. “She wasn’t really an actress when they started working together, and he was at the peak of his powers, having just made Psycho. He exploited her naivity and put her through things that he wouldn’t have if she had been more experienced – Grace Kelly just wouldn’t have put up with it. But Tippi was very keen to say that he was also fun to be with and he did teach her an awful lot about acting.”
Even without the padding, Jones obligingly shows me some of his Hitchcock moves, pouring me an imaginary cup of tea with exaggerated politesse and some regard for an imaginary spare tyre. He studied archive footage to capture Hitchcock’s movements and distinctive slo-mo voice, but he’s something of an old hand at biography. He played wily Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar in Frost/Nixon and the duplicitous Karl Rove in W. And, of course, if there was a turning point for Jones, it was Infamous in 2006 and his remarkable performance as Truman Capote, complete with a remarkably accurate takle on the Capote voice, once described by Gore Vidal as what a Brussels sprout would sound like if a Brussels sprout could talk.
“I didn’t sound anything like Capote at the screen test,” recalls Jones, who has been unfamiliar with the writer before he was approached by director Doug McGrath. “It was more like Bob Dylan. In his early years. With the flu.” In 2006, this account of Capote’s finest hour, writing In Cold Blood, was overshadowed by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning Capote, released a year earlier but with the benefit of maturity, Jones’s version has emerged as the more substantial and daring – after all, he did kiss Daniel Craig as Perry Smith. “We know each other socially,” notes Jones. “I couldn’t get too excited because my wife has kissed him too.”
Perhaps some of Jones’s self-deprecation comes from the fact he comes from an acting family. His father is Freddie Jones, a mighty veteran of 150 films including The Elephant Man, and latterly Emmerdale. “I grew up without any sense of romance about the job,” admits Jones. “He’s 84, still acting away and without any jealousy between us – which there can be in acting families. The closest he gets to critique is going, “Oh, really – do people close doors like that?” And he doesn’t even do that any more.”
The other thing that grounds him is his family, still based in London, partly because his partner Karen has her own career as a lawyer, and they have two young daughters who are barely impressed that their father was the voice of Dobbie in the Harry Potter films.
He admits the balance of film and family has been challenging at times, “They came out to visit me on the set of Infamous, and that was unhappy as a father and partner because I’d never realised how absorbed and obsessed I was by the film. Not because I was staying in character but because you are in the rhythm of the film rather than the kids’ bedtimes. You’re in a constant state of distraction.” Now if he’s working away from home, he uses Skype to tap remotely into family life. On one occasion, while filming The Painted Veil with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts in a remote part of China with little internet access, he finally rang in to find his daughters wrapped up in an episode of Doctor Who. “So they turned the computer around so I could see it too. That’s all they wanted really: their dad watching telly with them on the sofa.” «
• Berberian Sound Studio is released 31 August. The Girl will be on BBC2 in September