Toby Jones is far from a household name — but he might be a household face. Since the start of last year alone he’s appeared in “Captain America,” “My Week with Marilyn,” ‘The Adventures of Tintin,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “The Hunger Games,” and “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Now, with Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio” — the most acclaimed world premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and an early favorite here at Locarno – he arguably has his most high-profile leading role to date. The film finds him playing Gilderoy, a sound mixer hired to work on an Italian horror film in the ’70s, with no shortage of giallo-inspired oddity and intrigue throughout.
You’ve seen this trajectory before: Paul Giamatti completed his transition from character actor to leading man in “Sideways,” Richard Jenkins made the move in “The Visitor,” and Philip Seymour Hoffman did it with “Capote” (if the P-Hoff similarities weren’t already strong enough, Jones starred in the other Capote biopic, “Infamous”). The latter two received Oscar nods for their respective roles, but one doesn’t expect Jones to receive his own thrust into the spotlight, even in the wake of his exceptional turn in “Berberbian.” There’s something about his gestural approach and the way he disappears into roles that doesn’t quite feel conducive to star-making — which isn’t intended as an insult. Jones comes across as an actor’s actor, a veteran of both screen and stage, who lets his work speak for itself.
Ironic then, or maybe not, that his performance in “Berberian” is so quietly expressive. Explaining his conception of the role at a Locarno press conference, Jones said that “the challenge with this character is this contrast between an English character and the Italian characters” around him, the latter being far more verbal. In one scene, he pushes himself to near-breaking point by screaming at the people around him; he’s so shaken by the act that he’s nearly moved to tears. “This is a character who lives purely by what he hears and what he sees. Speaking is not a top activity for him,” Jones added.
Gilderoy’s unassuming demeanor as eternal observer is exactly what makes Jones so well-suited to play him. Though he didn’t come right out and say it, Jones seemed to agree: “It’s rare to feel certain you want to do something,” he said of his initial read-through of the script. “When I was a student, this world of indie/art-house cinema, as it’s caricatured, is the kind of film I went to see… it’s not a question of choosing to do these; it’s a compulsion to participate when they actually get made.”
Given the variety (and increasingly high number) of his projects, it might be fair to start thinking of Jones as his generation’s Gary Oldman, another great household face of uniquely chameleonic skill. Unlike Oldman, though, Jones rarely plays psychopaths; his bread and butter is the government official or semi-authority figure — suits and squares, more or less — and his humble countenance lends itself to a deceptive calm. There’s always something bubbling beneath the surface with Jones, particularly in “Berberian,” but we’re rarely privy to what that might be, a key reason he’s so compelling to watch. “I spent a lot of time trying to unpack what happens to this character,” Jones said before comparing “Berberian”‘s slow, uncomfortable plotting to a David Lynch film.
One would be hard-pressed to name another actor who’s appeared in more high-profile films since the start of 2011, and yet Jones isn’t a primary selling point in any of them. Talking more about “Berberian,” he offered that “something almost mystical happens through this hearing… he’s a quiet man who doesn’t really have the vocabulary to express himself, so he expresses himself through action.” So does our new favorite household face.
Michael Nordine is part of Indiewire’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. His work has also appeared in Filmmaker Magazine, LA Weekly, and the Village Voice. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.