Toby Jones on playing Alfred Hitchcock and improvising with Danny McBride
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: At a glance, Toby Jones wouldn’t seem to be someone destined for a filmography filled with big-budget blockbusters, but between his unique look and formidable acting ability, he has secured roles in the Harry Potter franchise (voicing Dobby the House Elf), Captain America: The First Avenger (Dr. Armin Zola), and The Hunger Games (Claudius Templesmith). In addition, Jones has carved himself a niche as a go-to guy for biopics, having played such diverse characters as Truman Capote in Infamous, Karl Rove in W., and, most recently, Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl, which premières October 20 on HBO.
The Girl (2012)—“Alfred Hitchcock”
Toby Jones: This was a project that came to me and… I feel this with a lot of real-life characters, because playing real-life characters is a familiar challenge to me now, but it’s a very interesting challenge to delve behind the public persona of someone, which is usually what they’re about. But Alfred Hitchcock in particular, because he was so ubiquitous. He was everywhere. People knew him, people know him now, they know his face, and he was a great self-publicist. And I knew quite a lot about him, so it was very intriguing to me to try and work out behind this very inscrutable man who always wore this uniform of a suit. So when the job came, I said, “Well, this is fine, but… wasn’t he a vast man?” I’m many things, but I’m not big. [Laughs.] Well, it transpires that he was only about an inch taller than me. Obviously somewhat bigger than me around his waist, so that would require a fat suit. And then we talked about the prosthetics, and that was the big challenge: that I’d be in every scene and have these four hours of prosthetics.
Then there was a conflict, because I was finishing Snow White And The Huntsman at the time, and it looked like the TV schedule wasn’t going to move. I have to say that, at that point, there was an element of real relief, because I went, “Well, playing Hitchcock… It’s un-turndownable, but I know how I want to do it, and it’s going to require a lot of research.” I had all these books when Julian [Jarrold] rang up and said, “It’s not going to work out.” So I was disappointed, yes, but there was profound relief as well. [Laughs.] But in the end, they were able to shift the dates, so I was indeed able to do it. And, of course, it was a fantastic, fulfilling role. Which is odd, because there’s obviously a very dark side to him as a character, and the story is one of a particularly dark facet of his personality.
The A.V. Club: In the end, were you able to get all of the research done that you’d wanted?
TJ: Yes, I was. But the thing is, that it is just endless. I always embark on a project saying, “If I could just do that other bit, if I could just look at that other video once more, if I could just read that book…” And I realize that I never feel as though I get to the end of it. Which is probably a good thing, because I’ll never complete it. [Laughs.]
Orlando (1992)—“Second Valet”
TJ: Wow. First-ever job. Didn’t really know what was going on. What I recall about that is being in a trio. I haven’t seen the film for a long, long time, but obviously if I was Second Valet, there was a First Valet and, indeed, a Third Valet. I also remember having really bad food poisoning. With a false beard on. Not pleasant. It was a low-budget film, and I remember it languishing somewhat, but when I eventually saw the film, I also recall my shock at how much I was overreacting to Tilda Swinton. [Laughs.] That was rather a key lesson for me in screen acting.
AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?
TJ: My father [Freddie Jones] was an actor, so it was part of the family. And it certainly was on my mother’s side, where it goes back about seven generations. Right back to horses and carts. I didn’t want to become an actor, though. Like most children, I didn’t want to follow. I wanted to become a director. But where I studied drama, the division between director and actor wasn’t so strong, so that’s how it evolved.
Ladies In Lavender (2004)—“Hedley”
AVC: You actually got to act alongside your father in the film Ladies In Lavender. What was that experience like?
TJ: Wow. You’re picking them out, aren’t you? That was a small part. I’d done a play, which involved having guest stars on every night, different guest celebrities came and took part in the show, and one of those guests was Charles Dance. He said he had this idea for a film, and he showed me what he’d written and said, “I’d love you to be in it. There aren’t many big parts, apart from Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, but would you do it? And do you think your father would do it?” I’d never acted with my father, so that opportunity was a unique one, so I seized it. Now I can always say I’ve acted with my dad.
Infamous (2006)—“Truman Capote”
TJ: That same show that I worked on, it toured to Broadway, and I was invited to read a one-man show called Tru that I think Robert Morse made famous. It was a one-man show about Truman at the end of his life. I didn’t end up doing that, but the person who showed me the script said, “There is a script about Truman Capote that’s going around. You should get your agent to look into it.” By the time I got back to England—this is 2003—my agent had heard of this script, and she said, “Johnny Depp and Sean Penn are looking at the script, but I think you should look at it.” To be honest, as an actor, you learn not to get your hopes up too high when you hear those names ahead of you in the queue. [Laughs.] But a year after that, for whatever reason, I finally met Doug McGrath, the writer/director. We had a meeting, and he says that he was thrilled because I looked so like him already that he felt that he could make me really look like Truman Capote. But the big test was the screen test, and we had that the following day. And because it was the first lead role I’d played on screen, I think I’ll never have another job like that again. The script for Infamous was so poised between tragedy and comedy. It’s a dream part. One reads those scripts with a sense of melancholia. When you read a script that good… I remember thinking, “Oh, this script is too good. They’ll never give it to me.” [Laughs.] And you learn to protect yourself when you’re starting out as an actor with these sorts of premonitions of failure: “It’s not gonna happen, so don’t get your hopes up.”
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)—“Dr. Arnim Zola”
TJ: Well, I’m hoping that’s an ongoing role. [Laughs.] Because they’re doing a sequel to Captain America. I went to meet Joe Johnston, the director, and he’s charming. I’ve been very lucky. Most of the directors I’ve worked with are charming. But Joe’s a particularly charming man, and he showed me lots of designs and, rather memorably, welcomed me to the Marvel Universe. Which was a universe that I wasn’t entirely familiar with, so I’m hoping that my visa’s still open for that universe, now that I’ve entered into it.
AVC: Have you seen what your character eventually comes to look like in the comics?
TJ: I have! Isn’t he a character [projected] on a TV screen? In the film, I believe there’s a little sketch when he’s escaping which shows that future plan. I remember someone saying, “That’s a great character to get in the series, because he invents everlasting life.” A very good part for an actor. [Laughs.]
W. (2008)—“Karl Rove”
TJ: When I came to research the part of Karl Rove, the overwhelming impression is that Karl Rove had done a very good job of making sure that there wasn’t much to go on in terms of research. [Laughs.] So that was a part I attempted with all of this huge help and huge insight but largely through observation of video footage and news footage of that time. It was a great part. The key into that part for me was that I sensed a sort of delight in him, a smile playing on his lips all the time, even in the face of huge pressure. I think at the time I sort of described him as looking as if he’s got fairground music playing in his ear the whole time. He’s a supremely intelligent man and, like a lot of intelligent people, the world would tend to occasionally appear to be a joke to him, so easy was it for him to manipulate.
Harry Potter And The Chamber of Secrets (2002) / Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)—“Dobby the House Elf”
TJ: Well, first of all, I can only take partial responsibility for that part, because I think that first the people at Industrial Light & Magic and the people who brought Dobby back to life in the seventh film [Double Negative] do such an unbelievably good and complex job that my contribution of showing up and voicing and offering suggestions on how the character should move… I mean, it’s certainly partial, but it’s far from all. But when I was offered the part, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t have children at that point. Or they were too young, anyway, to know the books. So I was ignorant of the books. But every parent that I met was an expert in Dobby, and all had their own version of the Dobby voice and asked me whether I’d be doing it the way they’d been doing it as they read the books. [Laughs.] I’m very proud that I’m part of that series. I didn’t realize and was very naive about that role as far as how significant it would turn out to be, but I still get a lot of mail from people who were very moved by his death.
Your Highness (2011)—“Julie”
TJ: Ah, yes, Julie. One of the more exposing roles of my career. [Laughs.] I went to meet David Gordon Green and Danny [McBride] at a hotel, and we improvised together. And I didn’t realize then quite what was in store. This was before I’d seen a script. Once I did… They’re amazing people to work with, because they’re constantly daring you to do ever more outrageous things. Things I dared to do and things I didn’t dare to do. Either way, I learned many lessons, none of which I care to discuss. [Laughs.]
The Mist (2007)—“Ollie Weeks”
TJ: That was a fascinating film to do because the end of the story was kept from all of us as we were making the film. It was shot with two cameras, and… It was pretty tiring for a film: You had to be on set for the whole time because there were two cameras and we were in one location. I got to use a gun onscreen for the first time, and I remember Bob Weinstein saying, “Oh, maybe there’s a future for you as an action hero!” [Laughs.] Maybe that’s how I got Arnim Zola. Perhaps that’s the fulfillment of that prophecy!
Doctor Who (2010)—“The Dream Lord”
TJ: Somewhat like Dobby, but my children were older by then and were big fans of Doctor Who. And the opportunity to be a part of that was, again, un-turndownable. Often jobs are un-turndownable even before you read the script. You go, “Well, I have to do that.” But that was a great part because it’s actually lots of parts. He’s a chameleon character. He travels between times and in different costumes. So it’s fantastic. To play sinister, and to actually play the Doctor at one point, or a facet of him, anyway.
AVC: Had you been a Doctor Who fan?
TJ: I had been as a child, certainly. My Doctor growing up had been Jon Pertwee, who was the Third Doctor, I believe.
Frost/Nixon (2008)—“Swifty Lazar”
TJ: Shot in this very hotel [the Beverly Hilton]. Or certainly parts of it were, anyway. A great character to play, and one I wish I could’ve played for longer, really, because there are just so many interesting contradictions. On one hand, he was apparently amusing and warm, and yet at the same time he was a ruthless businessman and dealmaker. A bald character, and we talked about that. There were big chats about whether we could do the bald cap or whether I was going to shave my head, and as with Hitchcock, there was a long time spent in makeup every day, preparing my bald head to shoot.
The Hunger Games (2012)—“Claudius Templesmith”
TJ: [Excitedly.] And we’re going to do more! My daughter read that book in about two days, and the idea that I could be part of that was… Well, I was slightly less naive on that one. I could tell from the book as I read it that it was a fantastic story. I do always feel very proud and flattered by being asked to be a part of American productions playing American characters. You have plenty of great American actors, so to be asked to be a part of it, I was very proud.
AVC: How long did it take you to master an American accent? Or did it come to you naturally?
TJ: If I am a master of it… [Laughs.] I find accents quite useful, and I quite enjoy mastering them if I can. And if I can’t, then I work on it every day and I’ll stay in the accent all day. I have a warm-up to prepare, and I work with a vocal coach, so I try to be as precise as I possibly can.
Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998)—“Royal Page”
TJ: Well, there’s a long period of my career where I was doing these sorts of parts, like Second Valet and Royal Page, not quite having a line to speak. Or having very few, anyway. That one was very surprising, though, because for a long time I would be recognized by groups of teenage girls who absolutely adored that film. It was a film that sort of kept coming back. People have come to love that film very much, and I was surprised by how, although I was only in it for a very short amount of time, so many passer-bys would recognize me. Beautiful locations in France. And, of course, working with the great Anjelica Huston. I remember being thrilled about that.
Naked (1993)—“Man at Tea Bar”
TJ: Mike Leigh, a hero of mine. I wrote him when I came out of drama school, because it appeared sometime that he would answer letters. And he did. He invited me to go up and meet him, and I auditioned for him, and it was all very positive. And then in the end, he said, “In this film I can only offer you this part. Will you come and do it?” “Of course!” I’d do anything to be near Mike’s world that he’s created. So I have memories of a couple of very long nights in the cold in the east end of London shooting that, watching David Thewlis’ fantastic performance.
Nightwatching (2007)—“Gerard Dou”
AVC: In addition to Leigh, you’ve also worked with another definitive British art-house director: Peter Greenaway.
TJ: Well, working with Peter Greenaway is about the opposite of working with Mike Leigh. [Laughs.] He’d throw paint at me. Acting is, I suspect, of less importance to him than the visual effect of your character within the wider picture. It’s fascinating to work with these different people and with people who have such strong style.
The Rite (2011)—“Father Matthew”
TJ: Working on The Rite in Budapest, I didn’t actually work with Anthony Hopkins, but he was obviously there shooting, and when I’d played Truman Capote, Anthony Hopkins had been very, very supportive of that performance and asked to meet me. So we met, and he congratulated me on that performance. And that meant an awful lot at the time, so it was great to meet him again. Ironically, at this time, we’re both playing the same part. So I hope that we’ll get the opportunity to meet up again and compare notes. [Laughs.]