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Toby Jones: ‘Nobody is just one thing’

·10 min read

I approach the café from the station side, and there’s Toby Jones under the awning. With anxious charm, he doffs his hat. It’s a week since London reopened for outdoor socialising after another lockdown and we are not yet quite OK: there is graffiti by the gates about a totalitarian regime; an abandoned face mask flies from a tree. Despite doomy weather we have decided to meet in Jones’s local park – it’s a novelty still, the thrill of communicating in person. A pleasure.

But, do I get this, too, he asks, as we sit down with our coffees? “Do you now sort of freak out when you have appointments? Do you find yourself becoming neurotic about them – in a way that is not useful?” He has spoken before about his bafflement at the idea that actors must be interviewed, at the idea that he should be able to package his life and work into a neat and digestible timeline, so interviewing him I am prepared for resistance. What he offers instead, though, is a gentle analysis of how a person becomes themself.

Born into an acting family in 1966, Jones grew up determined not to follow his parents into a similar life, of high emotion and low-level anxiety. His mother, Jennifer, gave up acting to raise three boys, but his father, Freddie, played the ringmaster in The Elephant Man, and starred in Emmerdale for more than a decade, retiring a year before his death at 91.

On the Notting Hill set, Julia Roberts seemed to be mistaking me for a real fan… It was awful, humiliating stuff

Toby Jones

“At home my parents were always talking about ‘feelings’ and ‘people’, and when my friends came round they loved it, because my parents talked about ‘who they were’. I was like: ‘Why can’t we just be a normal family and talk neutrally about facts?’ I felt this wasn’t a life, to be constantly thinking about… consciousness.”

But blood was thicker, and while studying literature and drama, he realised he was becoming an actor. Most of his peers, he says smiling, had the benefit of something to rebel against. “Striking out against the family accountancy firm. It took me a while to accept it. I had to find a way to do it on my own terms.”

And he did. Twenty years ago he was in a play, two shows a day, then after the evening performance he’d zip across London to do another play, one he’d written, and on that late-night journey he remembers thinking: “This is it, I’ve arrived.” He grins. “There was something so romantic about it. Now I’m always trying to locate where that romance will be for me this time; what’s the bit that gives me that shot of energy?”

His career on film has been characterised as a series of disasters in which his work was pushed roughly into the shadows. His breakthrough role was as Truman Capote in Infamous, released in 2006, but a year later Capote came out, for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar. In 2012, he played Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl. That same year, Hitchcock was released, starring Anthony Hopkins. These bruises were nothing though, compared with one of his first acting disappointments.

Jones was in his 30s, “Getting little bit parts where you’d go, ‘He went that way,’ and I got a call offering a day’s work on Notting Hill.” They needed someone to play Julia Roberts’s irritating fan. “But weird things happened that day, and they played into how I was thinking about myself in my life at that time.” He doesn’t relish looking back at his career – he shuffles slightly, as if it’s an embarrassing indulgence. “So, Hugh Grant was personable and welcoming, but Julia Roberts seemed to be mistaking me for a real… fan. And when we did the scene, she kept forgetting to give me the cue that I needed. It was awful, humiliating stuff. And there was just that feeling, of almost having disappeared.” Which was prescient, because the scene was cut. “I was the only witness – when the script came out, there was no thanks. There was nothing. He didn’t exist.”

He turned the experience into a play, and a 2002 Guardian review described Jones’s “rubbery physical presence and slightly misshapen sense of dignity”. It went on, “If God moulded Adam from human clay, then Jones must have come from a leftover lump of Plasticine.” In person though, he is very much clay, compact and warily handsome in a buttoned-up shirt and soft grey porkpie hat. And his so-human performances, whether playing baddies (Sherlock), elves (Harry Potter) or Uncle Vanya, have cemented his place in an area of British people’s minds usually reserved for family members or favourite pets. This year he was awarded an OBE for services to drama.

“One of my greatest delights is that my name is mentioned so often alongside Toby Jones,” says Mackenzie Crook, Jones’s co-star, writer and director of the award-winning comedy series Detectorists. “I’m certain casting Toby made the show what it was. I don’t think he’d done a huge amount of comedy before Detectorists and he seemed to relish the opportunity, turning Lance from my two-dimensional sketch into a complex and heartbreakingly vulnerable character.”

‘Quiet and painterly’: Jones in First Cow (2019).
‘Quiet and painterly’: Jones in First Cow (2019). Photograph: Allyson Riggs/A24 Films

Fans even relish what have come to be known as “Noby Jones” moments: lesser films on to which he’s pressed his thumb of quality. Which means he is offered a lot of work, much of it brilliant. This morning his publicist emailed over the projects he’s promoting and, rather than a single show, as is typically the case, there is a film (the quiet and painterly First Cow, in which he is a pompous trader in 1820s Oregon), a TV show (the factual BBC drama Danny Boy, in which Jones plays human rights lawyer Phil Shiner), a play (an audio production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer) and an album (Melodys of Earth and Sky, where he reads nine poems by John Clare).

We slide through these, each great and possibly important, but land on Don’t Forget the Driver, a BBC series Jones co-wrote and starred in as a Bognor Regis coach driver who discovers a migrant in his wheel arch. Last year it was described as “a comedy for our moment” by the New York Times. Which means, in part, that it also made you want to cry – it was a melancomedy, it was fabulous, and a second series was reported to be imminent. He sinks for a second, “Ah. We’re so, so proud of it. But there’s a certain sadness about that project, because we had the second series written, it was all there. And Covid ate it.” I’m outraged. “Please,” he says, “You launch the campaign, we’ve grieved enough.”

Jones lives down the road in south London with his wife, a criminal defence attorney, and his two university-age daughters. There was a point during lockdown, he says, “where English literature was going on in here”, he points to rooms in his virtual doll’s house. “Theology was going on in here, drama was going on in here and criminal law was going on in the basement.” Creeping past his wife’s laptop, he says quietly, he would hear terrible things – his eyes widen with a kind of loving awe. He and Karen married in 2015 to celebrate 25 years together. This way, he adds, everyone at the wedding knew each other.

As we’ve been talking the rain has hardened and the café emptied. And yet, even those bustling through the late afternoon have double-taked at the sight of Jones. How does he feel about this fame? He pshaws. “No, I’m in the corner of people’s rooms occasionally and the people who recognise me go, ‘Oh, he’s in the corner of our room sometimes.’ The job is partly to be a tabula rasa, you know,” a blank slate. “It’s important for me to remember, there’s a lot to learn from the youngest, most inexperienced actors I work with, their instincts especially, stuff that experience edits out of you. Just like there is from the eldest – you’re trying to protect yourself from that cynicism, irony, detachment, pragmatism. In acting there’s no hierarchy. As soon as you think that there’s a ladder to climb things become more disappointing.”

We politely huddle into ourselves as a wind shakes the plastic gazebo, and he winces a little before continuing. “One of the strange things about the job that you realise as you get older is, you are who people tell you you are. People will pay you money because they think you are that person. But, of course, like any human being, as soon as someone tells you, you resist it.”

I wait a while – this is a man who performs Pinter. “I think it’s interesting, the resistance I feel when people tell me or write that I’m a certain thing. My initial response is always resistance – why am I just that? No one wants to be just that, a person captured simply at a point.” I gesture regretfully to my phone, silently recording his voice and the rain, and allow a second to dread the piece I must write tomorrow.

“Sure, there’s a momentary excitement when someone says: ‘You know what you’re like?’ And then you go, no, but I’m also the other thing. Maybe that’s the same thing with characters, you’re looking for the space to explore as much of someone as you can. They’re never one thing.”

Do his characters stay in him? “I have a very well-developed RAM, but a very bad hard drive. I can’t remember the names of people I played the week before. But, because you’re not picking up a violin to play or a paintbrush to do your work, you do end up thinking about it all the time. It’s sort of all… tied around you.” He looks at people’s neuroses and finds them “useful”.

“I’m always interested in why people do what they do.” Just like his parents. “Yes!” Then softer. “Yes. Why people do what they do, what’s driving them, what’s stopping them. Why do they say one thing then do the other, and my dad pronouncing on that as if this was a normal conversation. There was a point when I realised, much as I’d love to go off and do a different kind of job, I was also drawn to human behaviour.” He loves his work, yet sounds oddly disappointed, as if he’s let down the accountant he might have been. If only he were slightly more rebellious.

“I often find myself crying at Dragons’ Den,” he smiles. It’s very cold now, very cold, my hands have taken the appearance of salami, my toes no longer exist, and we have gone well over our allocated hour. “It’s… It’s something about the pantomime of the dragons, relishing their strange performance, with the real money. It’s always so heartbreaking. Because, well, they’re dreamers, aren’t they, dreaming? There’s something that touches me,” he says, as we heave ourselves into the rain, out towards his bike, and the park, “about normal people, putting on a show.”

Danny Boy is on BBC Two and iPlayer at 9pm on 12 May. First Cow will be released by MUBI in UK cinemas on 28 May and will be available to stream on MUBI from 9 July

Fashion editor Helen Seamons; grooming by Nadia Altinbas using Aveda hair and Skinceuticals; photographer’s assistant Emma Pottinger; fashion assistant Peter Bevan