‘My job de­pends on be­ing a ci­ti­zen’

Few ac­tors bring more char­ac­ter to a role than Toby Jones. It’s all in the sub­tlety and the ev­ery­day ac­tions, he tells Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

Toby Jones stands up to il­lus­trate a point. Del­i­cately as a sap­per step­ping through a mine­field, he moves to­wards an imag­i­nary el­e­va­tor. We are dis­cussing his in­ter­pre­ta­tions of real peo­ple such as Tru­man Capote, Al­fred Hitch­cock and Karl Rove. Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, he needs to move to ex­press him­self.

“If we knew how Karl Rove picked up a phone or pressed a lift but­ton, there wouldn’t be any need to make a movie,” he says.

“What can I say about this guy when I am on my own in a room? There are those great bits in movies when you just get to in­ter­act with your­self in a space. You eat an egg. You touch a lift but­ton. Peo­ple think they know th­ese peo­ple, but they don’t.”

What a sin­gu­lar ac­tor. Jones’s voice is now fa­mil­iar: a class­less war­ble with many an­gles in the vow­els. We know him as a short man whose re­ced­ing hair al­ways seems to be striv­ing for free­dom in re­bel­lious clumps.

But it’s the way he moves that re­ally sets him apart. We should not be sur­prised to learn that Jones – son of the great char­ac­ter ac­tor Fred­die Jones – trained at the fa­mously ex­haust­ing L’École In­ter­na­tionale de Théâtre Jac­ques Le­coq.

They take their clown­ing se­ri­ously there.

“They talked a lot about try­ing to re­main ver­ti­cal when ev­ery­body is try­ing to send you to the ground,” he says. “There is this con­stant at­tempt to main­tain dig­nity. Stay­ing upright is all.”

There’s a lot of that – both lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively – in Toby Jones’s cur­rent role. Few of the once-real, fleshy hu­man be­ings he has played have quite the iconic res­o­nance of the en­tirely fic­tional Cap­tain Ge­orge Main­war­ing.

When it was an­nounced that a film was to be made of

Dad’s Army, more than a few fans placed heads in hands. Early in­tel­li­gence about cast­ing then cheeredthe spir­its. Michael Gam­bon as the in­con­ti­nent Pri­vate God­frey? Tom Courte­nay as the an­cient Lance Cor­po­ral Jones. Toby Jones step­ping into Arthur Lowe’s brown boots as Main­war­ing? This might work af­ter all.

“I thought a lot about it af­ter be­ing­cast,” he muses. “Am I play­ing Arthur Lowe be­ing Cap­tain Main­war­ing be­ing me? I don’t re­ally have an an­swer. But I did find my­self watch­ing an episode of

Dad’s Army from a dif­fer­ent era ev­ery night. I wasn’t try­ing to avoid him. But the rhythm of film is so hec­tic it means those wor­ries get cast into the back­ground. I do like it when peo­ple say: it’s not Arthur Lowe, but there’s a hint of him.”

Set among the vol­un­teers in a Home Guard pla­toon dur­ing the se­cond World War, Dad’s Army, which ran from 1968 to 1977, sparked on the con­trast­ing styles of the era’s great­est char­ac­ter ac­tors.

There was, of course, a great deal about class in there. Sergeant Wil­son, played by John Le Mesurier in the se­ries and Bill Nighy in the film, is a great deal more posh than his su­pe­rior of­fi­cer.

I be­gin to de­tail in­ci­dents from key episodes. Jones smiles in­dul­gently.

“I bow to your deep knowl­edge of all the episodes,” he laughs. “How­ever asym­met­ri­cal they are about class, the pla­toon gets the job done. I think that’s the point. Some­times Wil­son and Main­war­ing are ge­nial. Some­times they’re re­ally at one an­other. They’re like masks. It’s a tra­di­tional comic troupe where ev­ery comic type is cov­ered. It’s Com­me­dia dell’arte.”

It comes as a mild sur­prise to learn that Fred­die Jones never ap­peared in Dad’s Army. A madly charis­matic North­ern hulk, Fran­cis has been adding colour to Bri­tish film and TV for 50 years. He was the cruel

ring­mas­ter in The Ele­phant Man. More re­cently, he has been a reg­u­lar in Em­merdale. Did he seem like a fa­mous man when Jones was young?

“He did seem fa­mous, yes,” he says. “He was in a few iconic chil­dren’s se­ries at the time: Chil

dren of the Stones and Ghosts of Mot­ley Hall. He was fa­mous among the other kids. Then they’d see him in Franken­stein Must be De­stroyed.

“When I was 14, he was work­ing with David Lynch and he there­fore be­came re­ally cool. So, I have al­ways been struck by the af­fec­tion that he’s held in by the pub­lic. So many ac­tors have a story I may or may not want to hear about a late night with him. Ha ha.”

He re­mem­bers Fred­die be­ing largely sup­port­ive of his son’s de­ci­sion to take to the stage. As Toby ex­plains things, the busi­ness had changed so much the older Jones barely recog­nised it. Gone were the days when you could “stroll into the Granada TV can­teen and emerge three months later hav­ing done two se­ries”.

Jac­ques Le­coq’s col­lege in Paris is fa­mously rig­or­ous. Stu­dents are driven to tears in their ef­forts to sat­isfy a per­fec­tion­ist clown mas­ter. Even un­em­ploy­ment is frowned upon.

“It would be great to ro­man­ti­cise my past,” Jones says. “But it was stan­dard pro­ce­dure where I trained that you leave Paris and then you join a theatre com­pany you have made. You have been taught to make your own work. You be­long to a tra­di­tion that goes back be­fore there were di­rec­tors or pro­duc­ers. There were just ac­tors trav­el­ling alone.”

Sure enough, a man with a de­fi­antly dis­tinc­tive face, Jones seems to have worked steadily through­out the 1990s. When did he gain his cur­rent sta­tus as or­na­ment to the na­tion? His Tru­man Capote in Infa

mouswas on a par with Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man’s in the in­con­ve­niently con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous Capote. He’s su­per in Tin­ker Tai­lor Sol

dier Spy and Ber­be­rian Sound Stu­dio. At any rate, some­where in the past 10 years, he be­came an off­beat star.

“It’s a sen­si­tive area,” he says. “On the one hand, my job de­pends on my be­ing able to wan­der round and get on the Tube. Be a ci­ti­zen. See how peo­ple carry their shop­ping, how they’re us­ing their phones. That’s the real source ma­te­rial. I feel I can still do that.

Some­times Wil­son and Main­war­ing are ge­nial. Some­times they’re re­ally at one an­other. They’re like masks. It’s a tra­di­tional comic troupe where ev­ery comic type is cov­ered. It’s Com­me­dia dell’arte

“Yes, peo­ple come up oc­ca­sion­ally, but they are al­ways pos­i­tive. I don’t ques­tion how well known I am. I feel some­where in there I might en­counter a curse. I might put a hex on things if I con­tem- plate it.”

Toby Jones seems to have kept his feet on the ground. He and his wife, Karen Jones, live with their two chil­dren in a cor­ner of busy, mul­ti­cul­tural Brix­ton. Would it make sense to sug­gest that Karen, as a crim­i­nal bar­ris­ter, uses some of the same pro­fes­sional mus­cles as her hus­band?

“We are both in­volved in the busi­ness of bi­og­ra­phy,” he

agrees. “And she only ever de­fends. So there is some­thing in that.”

Inevitably, the stu­dios have come call­ing for Jones. He has turned up in both The Hunger

Games and Cap­tain Amer­ica films, but he still finds time to ap­pear in minutely bud­geted projects, such as last year’s su­perb By Our Selves.

In Cap­tain Amer­ica he shouts at enor­mously ex­pen­sive col­laps­ing build­ings. In By Our Selves he dis­cusses John Clare in a field with Alan Moore. Is there a con­scious ef­fort to strike a bal­ance at work here?

“Oh, yes. We all think about what we en­joy most about our job. Don’t we?” he says. “I think the thing I find most glam­orous and the most ex­cit­ing is not know­ing what the fu­ture holds. It’s the most pre­car­i­ous, hor­ri­ble thing, but it’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing.

“There is no spe­cial place I’m head­ing for where ev­ery­thing is lined with Os­cars and I am mas­saged 24 hours a day.”

I’m sure he’ll get there, any­way. “Ha. Well, my job is just to have as rich and var­ied a time as pos­si­ble.”

Home front

Jones, Gam­bon, Nighy and the rest of the Dad’s Army troops

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