Sir Peter’s new war film
Hopefully we’ve humanised something that is usually only read about.
Only the camaraderie of his fellow castmates kept Toby Jones from being overwhelmed on the set of Journey’s End.
The 52-year-old British actor plays C Company chef Mason in the World War I drama, adapted from former army officer Robert Cedric Sherriff’s much-admired 1928 play of the same name.
Set in the French trenches during the final spring of the war, it details the growing tension among the men as they wait for a seemingly inevitable German offensive.
In order to replicate the experience for the actors and the audience, director Saul Dibb (The Duchess) and his team created a purpose built set in a studio in Wales and took advantage of one English farmer’s unique fixture.
‘‘There’s a guy in Ipswich, East Anglia, who has a permanent set of trenches in his fields,’’ Jones says on the phone from the United Kingdom. ‘‘I think that’s a very wise move, given how often dramas take place in trenches or need a trench. It’s not an extensive network, but certainly enough to film a film like this.
‘‘For the internals, we had this amazing warren of a set. It was just fantastic, when you are playing a thing like this, to be able to disappear into a sort of cave-like world. It really helps the imagination because it’s not three-sided, it’s literally foursided – you are completely surrounded.’’
As a late arrival to the shoot, Jones missed out on a WWI ‘‘boot camp’’ with historian Sir Anthony Seldon, however, he believes that whenever you are doing a war film of any kind there is a ‘‘certain amount of drill to be learned. Even in Dad’s Army [Jones played Captain Mainwaring in the 2016 bigscreen version of the beloved British sitcom] that was the case, because the drama [or comedy] lies in the breaking down of order.’’
But while struck by the setting and the play’s sense of claustrophobia and agoraphobia, Jones says there was such a sense of team spirit among the acting ensemble (that also included Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield and Sam Claflin) that he was able to avoid taking home any emotional baggage from the role.
‘‘There was a sense of protecting each other. Where you have more trouble retrieving your day-to-day life is when you’re the only character in a lead role. When you’re being submerged in a fictional reality for weeks and weeks, it usually takes a couple of days to recover. Here, the structure was such
that I didn’t have that problem.
‘‘I think we all felt that the more tragic the script became, the more we would protect ourselves with humour.’’
But Jones also admits that they were careful not to fall into a Blackadder Goes Forth-esque parody of the war (Jones’ character and his struggles to create ‘‘yellow soup’’ and ‘‘onion tea’’ for his colleagues does come dangerously close to the beloved sitcom’s Baldrick).
‘‘I think that was a danger for all of us. In trying to imagine how people would behave in what seems like a suicidal situation, it is very easy to fall into parody because it’s so hard to understand. In a way you can’t understand it really, you just have to trust the voice of the play and the screenplay.’’
As for playing a chef, Jones says while he’s only a basic cook himself, it is always great to have ‘‘something to do’’ in a part.
‘‘It takes the heat off you. You can act through movement as much as the way you are speaking. I often prefer concentrating on a task to words and, here, I was encouraged to invent a kind of silent presence within the film.’’
Looking forward to seeing Sir Peter Jackson’s documentary on the experiences of British WWI soldiers (They Shall Not Grow Old, see review at right), Jones says there definitely seems to be a sense of re-examining that period in the lead-up to this weekend’s Armistice Day centenary commemorations.
‘‘It is hard to get your head around the culture that existed before and during the conflict, because that sense of duty and honour – deference even – seems so much to have been killed off by that war.’’
Saying he would love to come back to New Zealand for a film, theatre or television project (he performed his Wanted Man play here back at the NZ Festival in 2002), Jones hopes that, as with any acting job, Journey’s End gives viewers a window into what the character’s lives might have been like.
‘‘Like any piece of drama, you hope that even if viewers are shocked or upset, they feel maybe a more direct empathy for the day-to-day experience of being in a situation like that.
‘‘Hopefully we’ve humanised something that is usually only read about.’’
Journey’s End (M) is screening in cinemas now.
Toby Jones immersed himself in the role as C Company chef Mason.