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Interview: Toby Jones on playing Hitchcock

Toby Jones, left, plays director Alfred Hitchcock beside Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren

Toby Jones, left, plays director Alfred Hitchcock beside Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren

  • by CHITRA RAMASWAMY
 

TOBY Jones took hours to get into his Alfred Hitchcock outfit, and even changed the shape of his own voice to get the director just right but, he tells Chitra Ramaswamy, he still doesn’t understand what drove the master of suspense

IT TOOK Toby Jones four hours to become Alfred Hitchcock for his latest role. First, there was the fat suit he had to wriggle into each morning to pull off the Master of Suspense’s notoriously rotund silhouette. Then the layers of prosthetics to achieve the pendulous jowls, double chin, bald pate, and walrus-like profile. A lip plumper was fitted by a dentist to create that famous pouty underbite. And finally a 20-minute warm-up to switch over to Hitchcock’s voice.

“His voice was so beautiful,” Jones tells me. “There’s something in the rhythm and roll of it that is connected to the way Hitchcock thinks and moves. Then there is everything he ingested – the cigar smoking and drinking that’s imprinted on his voice. And everywhere he lived; you can hear cockney London, California, and a plummy received pronunciation in that voice.” Now, without warning, Jones switches into a pitch-perfect Hitchcock drawl, as deep and dramatic as his films, droll and serious at once. It’s an uncanny likeness.

Jones, incidentally, wields a pretty neutral London accent, which we don’t get to hear much because he is such a master of voices (and transformation in general): Scottish in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Brooklyn/Jewish as the talent agent Swifty Lazar in Frost/Nixon, Denver American as Karl Rove in W. and most renowned of all, the singular, southern falsetto of Truman Capote in Infamous.

And now in The Girl, a darkly glittering HBO/BBC drama that recently won Jones a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, he nails the son of a London grocer and poulterer who became the most famous film director in the world.

“I had to change the shape of my own voice,” he says. “It was quite hard to pull off and so once I had it, I stayed in Hitchcock’s voice all day on set. I tried to move like him, because he was very light on his feet, and became obsessed with his voice, his orderly routine, and the uniform he wore on set, which looked like a bank manager’s dress. Yet at no point did I feel that I was like him. There is only one Hitchcock.”

The Girl zooms in on a particularly dark period in the director’s life and career: the shooting of The Birds and Marnie and his fateful relationship with Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller), a model he plucked from obscurity and moulded into his own remote ideal of the so-called “icy blonde”. The Girl opens with the famously sadistic and misogynistic quote: “Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” In Jones’s hands, Hitchcock becomes a kind of controlling and predatory creep. Charming and brilliant, yes, but also vicious, cruel, and ultimately pitiable.

“I didn’t realise the extent of Hitchcock’s darkness,” says Jones. “It was a shock to me when I read the script. Of course you can see it in his films. What makes Hitchcock fascinating are those biographical clues he plants up there on the screen, like the themes of wrongful imprisonment and sexual obsession and bondage. But I didn’t want to present him as a monster. Yes, it’s all grim and dark and rather sad but there is a pathos to it as well. To me, it’s an odd love story, a kind of Beauty and the Beast or Frog Prince. There is a great tragedy at work. Look at Hitchcock at the very height of his success having this very private and complete fall from grace. Just when he could be at the peak of his nobility, he is at his most pathetic.”

The Girl opens in the early 1960s when Hitchcock had just made what many consider to be his greatest trio of films: Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. Grace Kelly had recently married the Prince of Monaco and Hitchcock found himself a leading lady short. Step forward Hedren, who would go on to be mentored, aggressively pursued, and finally terrorised by Hitchcock during the filming of The Birds. The stories of the director promising mechanised birds and then presenting Hedren with huge cartons of ravens, gulls, and pigeons that were hurled at her repeatedly for five horrific days in a row are well documented. Cary Grant apparently showed up on the fifth day and said: “I think you’re the bravest woman I ever met.” But they remain shocking none the less. Hedren ended up under a doctor’s care for a week and, much later, when she broke her contract after making Marnie, she said Hitchcock told her in no uncertain terms: “I’ll ruin your career”. And he did. Yet Hitchcock’s own career dwindled too, and today The Birds is considered to be his last “unflawed masterpiece”.

Jones, 46, comes across as one of most unassuming, modest, and slightly embarrassed actors you’re likely to encounter. At the end of our long, fascinating conversation, he tells me that “I find it hard to believe anyone will be interested in any of that”. He is not nearly as actorly as I imagined. Bascially he’s about as far removed from the egotistical flamboyance of Hitchcock as you can get. Yet he grew up surrounded by actors. His father, Freddie Jones, is a respected character actor who continues to work into his eighties. His mother, who stopped acting when he was born, came from a line of actors stretching back into the 19th century. Yet for years Jones resisted it. “All of it made me absolutely determined that I was going to have nothing to do with it. That was my dream – to not go into acting. I wanted to be a writer.”

What did he make of his father’s profession as a boy? “He never brought his work home. He just went away for most of the 1970s and 1980s. There were no set visits or theatre luvvies turning up at the house. It was a very quiet, homebound childhood.” Yet by the time he was at Manchester University studying drama he had changed his mind. Jones went on to train at the Jaques Lecoq school in Paris and made his screen debut in Sally Potter’s Orlando in 1992.

His career has since been long, varied, and impressive. Jones has done blockbusters (the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games), smaller, critically acclaimed films (this year’s raved-about Berberian Sound Studio, Frost/Nixon, My Week With Marilyn), and won an Olivier for his stage performance in The Play What I Wrote. Unfortunately, what you’re likely to read more about is his apparent bad luck. This is because his mesmerising turn as Truman Capote in Infamous was overshadowed by Philip Seymour Hoffman playing the same part in Capote. Hoffman’s film came out first and won him the Best Actor Oscar. Jones’s was all but forgotten.

And now, with The Girl, it appears to be happening again. In February next year, we’ll see Anthony Hopkins weighing in as Hitch in a film charting the making of Psycho. At least this time The Girl got there first. “What?” Jones jokes. “Anthony Hopkins is playing Hitchcock too? And Philip Seymour Hoffman did Capote? This is unbelievable. What terrible news.” But does it bother him? “Listen, I don’t want to be disingenuous. It’s an issue in a world where we’re all trying to draw attention to the work we do. And with Capote, our film suffered. But I didn’t personally. Look, I get it. It’s happened twice. Apparently this means there is a terrible curse hanging over my entire life. But it doesn’t feel like that to live it.”

Talk returns to Hitchcock. Earlier this year Hedren referred to the director as a “sad character”, “evil, and deviant, almost to the point of dangerous, because of the effect that he could have on people who were totally unsuspecting”. The Girl is based on leading Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto’s book Spellbound by Beauty and Hedren herself (now 82) advised on the script. Apparently when her daughter Melanie Griffith watched an early screening she jumped up afterwards and announced “Well, now I have to go back into therapy again!”

Jones ended up meeting Hedren in California. “If you ever have the good fortune to meet Tippi Hedren, she’s an amazing woman,” he sighs. “You can’t quite believe she is the age she is.” What did she make of his Hitch? “She was very complimentary,” he says sheepishly. “And I think she was pleased that the humour of the man came across. Tippi didn’t leave that experience loathing Hitchcock. It’s more complicated than that. She was scared of him, but she also got to have one-to-one tutorials with him. She was amused by him and charmed by him. The fact is, a person can behave appallingly and yet we feel warmth and sympathy for them.”

And how did his impression of Hitchcock change? “I still don’t feel I know Hitchcock at all. I find that the more one looks, the more elusive he becomes. But my admiration for Hitchcock the filmmaker remains undiminished. He is a giant of the cinema and the darkness in him informs his cinematic language. You can’t separate one from the other.” And did the master get under his skin? “I became obsessed with him,” Jones admits. “It was a huge relief to leave him behind.”

BACKGROUND

BORN in London in 1966, Toby Jones could hardly have avoided a career on stage or screen. His parents Freddie and Jennifer were both actors, and indeed young Toby appeared alongside his father in the 2004 film Ladies in Lavender. Meanwhile, brothers Rupert and Casper are a director and actor respectively.

After studying drama at the University of Manchester and L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, Jones landed his first movie role in 1992 in the film Orlando. Since then he has appeared in more than 20 films, including Frost/Nixon, Captain America: The First Avenger, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and The Hunger Games.

Jones also provided the voice of Dobby the house elf in the Harry Potter films.

 

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