Toby Jones talks about his roles in Witness and also Sherlock…
How did you enjoy working on this Christie adaptation?
Agatha Christie’s stuff is often very plot-driven. This feels slightly different. Sarah [ Phelps] has taken onboard the fact that the First World War had finished five years before, what that had done to a recovering England and how that might play out, in a response to what you might call just another death after millions.
Why do you think Agatha Christie’s work endures?
It’s kind of ingenious and sometimes even absurd the game that is being played with you. But having said that, you know, this one is not like that. That’s what I was expecting to read but it is very unfamiliar territory.
Is your solicitor character, John Mayhew, essentially the investigator in The Witness For The Prosecution?
It certainly felt like that. He almost goes beyond his remit because there’s something about Leonard Vole that goes beyond a normal relationship for a solicitor with a client – he seems almost possessed by the need to defend him. It’s to do with their pasts – there’s almost a paternal relationship that he takes on with Leonard.
Does the race to stop Leonard being hanged introduce a thriller element?
Yes, and also a certain confusion. It seems a hopeless case, but actually there’s a kind of manic need in Mayhew to prove that isn’t so, as a result of certain things that happen to him during the course of research, hunting the case down. So, yes, he’s obviously trying to avoid capital punishment – that clock is ticking – and the evidence is ranged against Leonard.
Mayhew’s relationship with Romaine is the crux of the short story. Is it important here too?
Well, all my hopes rest on Romaine. Naively, [ as Mayhew] I kind of put all my eggs in that basket.
How did you get on with your co-star, Andrea Riseborough?
Very well. The schedule was such that you don’t have much time when you’re not on set, so I didn’t get to know her. But that wasn’t a problem because, in a way, her remoteness is both her glamour and her mystery in the piece, and that was very, very useful. And you know she’s a fantastic actress.
How does this compare to Murder On The Orient Express [ ITV, 2010]?
That was a Poirot one. I remember being stabbed by most of Equity in that one – Eileen Atkins, David Morrissey – then European actors coming in, everybody had a go at stabbing me. That’s my abiding memory of that job.
Are you intrigued that Ben Affleck may be playing Mayhew in a movie version?
Intrigued is one word for it. It’s a habitual thing – any job I do, I’m always looking to see who else is doing it. Like with Truman Capote? Very much so, yeah, that’s exactly why I’m looking. You’ve had a wonderful year with The Secret Agent, Wayward Pines and now Sherlock and Witness. Are you drawn to thriller roles? It’s usually the characters that interest me. The Secret Agent is slightly different because it’s a favourite book of mine and it would be hard to turn it down. But I don’t know that I look out especially for mysterious [ characters] – I look out, really, for contrasting characters.
Were you apprehensive about playing characters who are well-known to readers of Christie and Conan Doyle?
No, because they’re both done so expertly. The Sherlock thing is interesting because they’ve clearly honoured Conan Doyle by adapting him using the spirit of Conan Doyle and finding a new way to do it. And that’s exactly what Sarah’s done with Agatha Christie – she’s honoured the spirit of that story and she’s pushed it out into an area that is much darker than you’re expecting. Steven Moffat described Culverton Smith, in the new series of Sherlock, as the “darkest villain we’ve had”… I couldn’t possibly comment. I have to empathise with these people!
How was your Sherlock experience?
It’s come as a bit of a shock to me that I thought I was just doing an episode of a TV show, but clearly I’m part of a world event. I don’t feel apprehensive, I feel kind of excited. I really love that episode and I was really flattered Mark Gatiss said “I’ve written this thing for you”.
I’m constantly moving between projects and I’m lucky enough to have been involved in things that are very, very important to people – you know, the Dobby thing [ the Harry Potter franchise], Captain America, The Hunger Games. They matter to people a great deal. My job is not to get caught up in it – to play the characters not play the event.