There are few actors quite as diverse as Toby Jones, an actor who moves seamlessly between genres and projects, each so different from the next, but never any less intriguing. His latest is the mysterious, mesmerising thriller Kaleidoscope, directed by his brother Rupert Jones, and we had the pleasure of sitting down with the leading man to chat about this role, on the set of the film in East London.
Taking place primarily in a tower block, we spent the afternoon on the modest sized, and yet so meticulous set, but our interview with Toby Jones took place a short while later in the editing suite. We spoke about the joys of independent filmmaking, what it was like collaborating professionally with his sibling, and his process is taking on roles, and just how importance contrast is to his vocation.
It’s a boring answer, but it’s always the script. I don’t mind if it’s a lead part or a character part, or just one scene, if it’s a great script, I’ll do pretty much anything. The fact that I thought the whole script was very compelling was the key thing.
It’s a complex narrative structure which moves between different time-frames – when reading the script for the first time did you figure it all out or did the finale take you by surprise?
Often in independent films, one of the reasons you are attracted to them, is they are often trying to push at the form more. The interest of lack of interest in narrative, or some technical thing, or some formal constraint, you will get to explore that stuff. So I suppose here, I knew that something bad was going on but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. The film exists in this kind of throbbing, menacing, ominous energy, that’s what it’s tapping in to, so a lot of my questions were really about how we were going to achieve that, because you didn’t want everything to be sorted, you wanted it to maintain this sense of threat and menace.
Anne Reid is a wonderful actress, it must’ve been wonderful so closely with her on this project?
You know, she really is the most extraordinary actress. In this part she has to play a frail, elderly woman and yet she has to be highly sexual. To have both of those options in play at all times, is a great achievement.
Is there something almost Freudian about your character’s relationship with his mother?
Yes, as soon as you get a mother and son on screen in anything there will be a Freudian element, but I think here maybe there is more than usual, yeah.
In regards to the tone, it seems quite Hitchcockian, is that something you got from this story? Or is his imprint so ingrained into the fabric of British cinema that it’s almost inevitable anyway with this genre.
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, to say something is Hitchcockian is almost to say nothing at all. Because Hitchcok’s influence is so all-pervasive, not just in what he filmed, but in the way he talked about cinema and our understanding of how to make cinematic effects that it’s hard to compare anything to him because in a way everything refers to him. But, Rupert had a very strong interest in trying to create suspense which is obviously Hitchcock’s lingua franca. So there’s an interest in suspense, and Polanski as well and how to shoot interiors, how to create menace using a very limited environment, claustrophobic effects and stuff that maybe Hitchcock and Polanski offered a way into doing that.
In the very brief scenes I have seen, I instantly felt a great deal of pity on your character. When you play somebody can you pity them? Or is that not possible when you become them? Do you even have to like them to play them?
I don’t think I have to like them, but you have to be able to put yourselves in their shoes, quite literally, you’re given a pair of shoes that the character wears that you don’t, and you put them on and feel something different. You put on their costume, and you try to understand the world from their perspective. But the key thing is, you have to understand the game of the script, the script is a play and you’re trying to find the most interesting way to play the game of the script. Unless you’re doing a melodrama, it won’t be that everyone is good and bad, it will be that everyone exists on a spectrum of moral worth. So I don’t have to like them, but I do have to empathise with them.
With a lead role and a director, there has to be this implicit sense of trust them between them – that must come especially easy when working alongside your brother?
Yeah, there’s two things. We live quite close to each other in London, and he’s obviously my kids uncle and they get on really well, so we see a lot of each other. So the big advantage of it is that you have a very strong, shared reference and emotional vocabulary. The danger is, that the relationship can be disrespected and abused, and we both felt that we’re a bit long in the tooth to be abusing our relationship, but also, we’re protected by the conventions of filmmaking. I know where my role begins and ends and he does too, so you’re left with the big advantages of a shorthand, and not having to worry about your relationship.
When you’re on set, does he become the director, and stop being your brother?
I really did feel that, and I felt that more than I would. Beforehand I thought that it would have to be like that in order for this to work, and I was anxious about it because I know what it takes to make a film and I wanted it to work for him. Obviously actors have the luxury of drifting in and out of projects, but a director is living with something for three or four years and I knew a lot of his life was invested in this. But actually it worked incredibly well, we did respect each other and there wasn’t that issue.
On the set, at your role’s apartment block, there’s that incredible, twisted staircase, and it felt like everything in this film had been so meticulously crafted to be very specific and symbolic. Did you get a sense for that aspect, the planning that went into this production?
When you do a small-budget, independent film, often you get signals very early on, regardless of this being my brother or not, you question, no matter how good the script is, whether it’s going to deliver. It’s a tribute to the producers because if an independent film is going to work you have to be on top of every single element, there’s no slack in the budget for when disaster happens. Aesthetically, my brother has very strong opinions on the visual setting and things I don’t even see, and logistically it was just very well organised.
I love visiting the set of an independent movie. There was a pub on the corner where everyone would go to for tea and coffee, and to keep their equipment. There is a sense of camaraderie, people clubbing together to make it work.
Yeah, everybody is there for the right reasons.
Do you actively seek out productions of this nature because of that atmosphere?
I wouldn’t say actively, but I am very aware that a big advantage of my career choices, is contrast. If you get stuck in one particular ghetto of being an actor, it’s not what I’m interested in. What I love about my job is the sheer contrast, and not just of role but also scale of project, the kind of script and genre – that to me is what keeps me interested in being an actor.
Kaleidoscope is released on November 10th, and you can read our review here.