Toby Jones: 'Actors talking about acting? It makes you scream!'

Twenty minutes after we meet, I worry that I’ve given Toby Jones some kind of existential crisis. “Why are people so interested in what performers have to say?” he exclaims, genuine angst etched on to his face. “Actors talking about acting has to be has to be one of the most appalling things to read. I mean, it makes you scream!”

He swivels on his chair, gazing towards the window and into the night beyond. “It’s just … well, it’s not something you can … sort of really describe,” he adds, turning back towards me and looking at me with his big, boyish eyes.

Blimey. All I’d asked is what drew him to acting in the first place. But, if he’s worried about taking himself too seriously – if it all feels a little, well, inexplicable – you can perhaps understand why. Fifteen years ago, nearing 40, Jones looked like just another employed but jobbing thesp: an elf in Harry Potter here, TV “character” parts there, some BBC radio drama.

An Olivier award for best supporting actor in The Play What I Wrote got him noticed, but didn’t appear to transform his career. Jones’s chances of making it to the big time seemed exemplified by the fact that he was cast as Julia Roberts’s stalker in Notting Hill, only to find out afterwards that he’d been axed from the edit. (Ever the pro, Jones turned the yarn into an Edinburgh show, Missing Reel, which became a radio play.)

Chekhov cleaned of fustiness and affectation … Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter theatre, London. Photograph: Johan Persson

Then everything changed. A pitch-perfect turn as Truman Capote in the 2006 docudrama Infamous stole the show from Daniel Craig and Sandra Bullock, and the bit parts and voiceovers transmogrified into meaty roles. Jones’s gift for impersonation (Hitchcock, Karl Rove) proved invaluable; he seemed able to dip his toe into superhero franchises such as Captain America without losing his arthouse cool, or his theatre chops. Suddenly, Toby Jones was everywhere.

The man himself doesn’t quite see it that way. “It’s really way more chaotic than that,” he sighs, ruffling his hair. “It’s not like you feel you’ve arrived, that you can get any part you want with anyone you want, that there’s loads of money and it’ll be fun all the time.” He brightens. “But I kind of like the fact that there is no ladder. I want to keep moving.”

We meet after Jones has spent the day rehearsing for Uncle Vanya – his third collaboration with director Ian Rickson, and a return to the theatre where the pair did Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 2018. In Conor McPherson’s plain-spoken, down-to-earth adaptation, Chekhov’s script is cleaned of fustiness and affectation. Vanya himself, stuck managing a rural estate while his domineering brother-in-law gets sleek on the proceeds, is forever scraping food off his clothes and fumbling for the vodka.

Given Jones’s eye for oddballs and outcasts, Vanya must seem like the part of a lifetime, I suggest. “It’s on the very, very short list of roles I’ve really wanted. It was the first Chekhov I read, it was the first Chekhov I saw. But I’m hesitant to say it’s the role of a lifetime, because that cuts off my supply of future roles.”

Rickson says that Jones “manages to get this deep feeling without sentiment, the sense of existential crisis but also tremendous longing. He’s sublime.”

There’s so much going on with Vanya – loneliness, envy, self-hatred, craving for acceptance, and a painful crush on his brother-in-law’s glamorous new wife. Some have compared the character to Hamlet in middle age. What does Jones think drives him? “Always in Chekhov, it’s the need to be heard. The need to matter, to be registered, to be seen. There’s an element of classic midlife crisis, but there’s also something really profound.”

An affable yet sinister performance … Jones, right, in Caryl Churchill’s Glass. Kill. Bluebird. Imp.

An affable yet sinister performance … Jones, right, in Caryl Churchill’s Glass. Kill. Bluebird. Imp. Photograph: Johan Persson

Lest this all sound too doomy, he adds that they’re eager to play up the comedy of the piece, too: “It’s the kind of comedy where you walk into a lamp-post, but still.”

Born in London before his family moved to Oxford, Jones comes from thespian stock. His father, Freddie, who died last summer, played the thunderous freak-show owner Bytes in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and became a much-loved fixture on Emmerdale. His mother Jennie’s own acting lineage stretches back several generations. Nonetheless, even after studying drama in Manchester, Jones wavered about whether to pursue it as a career, wary of entering the family firm, along with the perennial anxiety that it was all a bit self-indulgent.

Then came a spell at Lecoq school in Paris, which transformed his outlook. “It teaches you to learn – to watch, you know, to see patterns and rhythms in the world,” he says. With its emphasis on physical training and movement, it’s not hard to see Lecoq everywhere in Jones’s subsequent roles: that near-microscopic obsession with voice and mannerism and poise, the determination to get the shading of a character just so.

Though his appearances on stage have been limited in the last decade, these traits were evident in his bewildered, almost beatific turn as Stanley in the Birthday Party, as well as a harrumphing, cockneyfied JMW Turner in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s The Painter in 2011. Last autumn, he popped up in the ensemble for Caryl Churchill’s Glass. Kill. Bluebird. Imp., offering an affable yet sinister performance in the longest of the pieces – a reminder how subtle he can be as a live performer.

Bewildered, almost beatific … Jones as Stanley in the Birthday Party.

Bewildered, almost beatific … as Stanley in the Birthday Party. Photograph: Johan Persson

Jones says that, after years in which he’s done five or six screen projects, it’s a relief to be back in theatres again, and spend proper time getting inside a script. “The thing I enjoy most is rehearsing a play,” he says. “Getting into the characters, asking why people behave the way they do.”

I’m struck by his workload, which even by his standards seems a little intense: I count 50 films in the last 20-odd years, plus half as many TV shows and series. Is he ever not working? He seems genuinely flummoxed by the question. “I, um – well, I don’t know what to … It doesn’t feel like work. Other actors say, ‘Oh, are you going to take a holiday?’ But our work isn’t really like that, at least for me. There is a kind of release in your work. I don’t need a holiday from acting.”

Thinking about it again a moment later, he admits it might be something he’s inherited from his dad, who was doing Emmerdale until the year before his death at 91, and left claiming that he wanted to pursue other projects. “He was an extraordinary guy. And he remained remarkably open until a very old age. It’s an enviable thing to have as an old man, to remain that impressed by the world.”

Was his father proud of him? “You know, he said, ‘It’s nothing to do with me.’ He wasn’t uncomplimentary or anything like that, but he just saw me as my own person. That’s a fantastic thing.”

I overhear that one of his teenage daughters is attending the run-through of Vanya the day after we meet – will the Jones acting dynasty extend into the future? He laughs. “I honestly don’t know. They’ve seen a lot of theatre. But they’re not saying that at the moment.”

Long-suffering … Jones, extreme left, in Don’t Forget the Driver.

Long-suffering … Jones, extreme left, in Don’t Forget the Driver. Photograph: BBC/Sister Pictures

Family is a kind of anchor, you sense: he and his wife Karen, a criminal barrister, have been together since college, and he’s done his utmost to finagle his work schedule so that he can spend as much time as possible at home in south London. “I’ve learned a lot about how to manage things from my wife. She’s much busier than I am.”

I’m intrigued by a recent crossover project, Don’t Forget the Driver, a TV collaboration with the maverick theatre-maker Tim Crouch, his first writing for the screen. The pair have known each other for decades, since their days at the National Theatre Studio, and have co-written the script; Jones stars as a long-suffering coach driver with a clip-on tie and a hangdog look. The show has recently been renewed for a second series, and will be returning to BBC Two later in the year.

“It’s pure pleasure,” Jones says – the chance to write for a change, as well as the chance to delve into a pleasurably unglamorous aspect of contemporary Britain. Difficult though acting can be to talk about, that’s the thing he loves, he says – the sheer range of it. Coach drivers one week, Chekhov the next.

“You know, I’m in a business that has Mark Rylance and Leonardo DiCaprio as well as Phillip Schofield, Simon McBurney and Tim Crouch in it.” He laughs. “I mean, these people are my people.”

Uncle Vanya is at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, until 2 May.

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