The headline of a recent article on Indiewire’s Criticwire blog identifying Toby Jones as a “household face” perfectly epitomizes his distinctive presence in contemporary cinema. Jones has played a wide variety of characters, largely in supporting roles, but with his furrowed brow, petite figure and focused gaze, he always stands out. “Berberian Sound Studio,” which premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and recently made a stop at the Locarno Film Festival ahead of its North American premiere in Toronto next month, is unquestionably Jones’ most significant role since he played Truman Capote in “Infamous.” As a sound engineer working on a bizarre Italian giallo and possibly losing his mind, Jones conveys a complex mixture of innocence and emotional instability as the movie veers toward its cryptic climax. It’s a uniquely curious project for a uniquely curious actor.
Sitting down with Indiewire in Locarno this week, Jones elaborated on his experience with the movie, how he chooses his roles, and why he won’t be moving to Hollywood anytime soon. He also drew from his experience on Oliver Stone’s “W.” to discuss the current climate of global politics.
“Berberian Sound Studio” has a very fragmented structure and the sound design is especially cryptic. How much of the look and feel of the production did you understand while acting in it?
I could tell from the script that it had this particular relationship with sound. So I knew that would be crucial. Of course, it’s very hard to imagine that, but I was aware, when it said that [the character] was going to be dubbed into Italian, that there was going to be a lot of sound gags. I remember a big debate about whether there would be voiceover from the letters from his mother. When Peter said they wouldn’t have a voiceover, they were for the viewers to read, I became aware they were going to have all these different relationships with sound, which I think is a fascinating idea.
You don’t often play lead characters in film. Why this one?
I would absolutely like to play more leading roles. There’s no philosophy — well, the only philosophy, I suppose, is to try and do different things. The sad thing is that there aren’t more films like this being made that I can be part of, because it allows me to act and interpret a role differently from what a mainstream American picture requires, where you need very similar skills on each job. Here, I had to make my own map, and it was hugely satisfying to try to a plot a journey through it. I suppose, for what one might call my career, there’s no guiding philosophy other than contrasts.
You mean “one for them, one for me”?
Yes, but often the thing that’s hardest for an actor to come to terms with and even harder for people to understand about actors is that you only have what’s on the table. There’s not a huge pile of scripts at home. It’s what happens to be on the table at that moment with your availability. And then you have no control over when these things come out. There are things that I would avoid, so I have the choice to say no, when I feel I’m repeating myself too much. But then there could be a reason to do that with a good director. So I think actors have to have a loose philosophy.
Which is what allows you to do “The Hunger Games” and “Berberian Sound Studio” back to back.
Well, that’s like a different industry. The middle has fallen out in terms of budget for moviemaking. You have these microfilms and you have these juggernauts. Dealing with “Hunger Games” specifically, when I talked to [director] Gary [Ross], he was talking about how he wanted to make it, and I think everybody was surprised by the different styles he used within the film. It’s not a standard blockbuster. I have a very little thing to do in that film, but when he said, “Do you want to come improvise with Stanley Tucci,” I said, “Yeah, I do want to do that.” Also, my children love those books. So there’s many reasons to do it. And there are economic reasons as well. You’re just lucky when something is as good as “Hunger Games,” because it can also fund you doing something for nothing, doing a short film or something.
At what point did you first hear about “Berberian Sound Studio”?
I’d heard about [director] Peter [Strickland] because of his extraordinary first film he’d made, “Katalan Varga,” but I’d heard the story even before I saw it. It was very intriguing to me and I remember it stuck in my mind. When I was contacted about meeting Peter for his second film, I had a feeling, having seen “Katalan Varga,” that [the second film] would be very interesting, whatever it was. I couldn’t predict what it would be like. It was extraordinary to read the script. It’s no exaggeration to say I almost immediately wanted to play it. I had some questions about the script, but it was so unusual. It’s very hard to get these films made and I was so thrilled that this film was actually going to get made. It’s boring when people lament the state of cinema, but when the opportunity to make something like this pops up, it’s so rare.
Given the technical qualities of the movie, the script must have been a very unique, descriptive read.
One of the things I really loved about it was that he split the film into five reels, so it says “Reel 1” at the beginning. So it’s like we’ve found these five reels of film. When I read the script I thought that was a fantastic idea for a five-act structure. He chose not to do that in the end. Actually, it did help me to know that there was some kind of structure.
The story is increasingly ambiguous as it moves along. Do you have a precise explanation for what actually happens?
Yeah, I do, but I probably won’t ever reveal it because I don’t think it’s really useful. It would be very hard to act the part if I didn’t have a traditional set of aims and an emotional journey, because I knew that he might well chop up the performance and put bits wherever they went. Nevertheless, I felt that I had to have a traditional arc. I could isolate certain facts, and then there was a certain amount decision-making based on that. Every single possibility is still open in the film, even down to the possibility that [the character] never even went to the studio, that it’s all a fantasy. It’s not Kafka, but there’s definitely a nightmarish quality to being trapped in a circuit.
Do you feel sympathy for the character even though his motives are unclear?
I often get sent scripts about little men in big situations. There’s a comic element to it, which is forces stacked against this little guy, and how is he going to defeat them? At the beginning, I remember thinking this was like those, but it’s more original than that. We sense corruption, decadence and rot everywhere in the film. We intuit that he’s going to be the counterpoint to all that because of his sense of disapproval and disgust at the material he’s working with and the general atmosphere of the place. But I think by the end the nightmare is that the business of working on the film has eaten him as well and corrupted him in some way.
Next page: Jones on Hitchcock, Hollywood and politics.
You recently played Alfred Hitchcock. Would you describe this movie as Hitchcockian?
It’s Hitchcockian in the way that David Lynch is Hitchcockian with a general sense of unease. My partner saw the film for the first time last night and she found it very intense and was trying to work out why. I think it’s because you’re inside all the time, and this sense of impending doom that Hitchcock obviously perfected and articulated creates suspense in a very limited space.
Have you seen every Hitchcock film now?
Not every one, but I’ve seen quite a few. I haven’t seen the silents, except for bits of “The Lodger” and the talkie version of “Blackmail.” When you’re researching a part like that, you end up viewing so many clips that you do see films for the first time. I would scan documentaries for footage of how he speaks. The only reason to make a biopic is to look behind the public persona. I didn’t speak to anyone who knew him; it was the script and also stuff I’d seen, but the interpretive element of the biopic is interesting. People may say it’s not like Hitchcock really was, but no one knows.
Not every actor should have to answer questions about politics. But since you played Karl Rove, I’d love to hear your take on the upcoming U.S. election.
I’m not so sure it’s just the Americans. I think there’s a general crisis in politics. From a dramatic perspective, I’ve been struck by how — in terms of the economic meltdown — we’ve exhausted all the hyperbole with massive things happening like Lehman Brothers going down. But when I switch on the news in the morning, it feels like this is D-Day, we have to save the Euro today, etc. From a drama perspective, the electorate as an audience are exhausted by the hyperbole. There is something in the language of political discourse that is valueless. It’s dispiriting that in all of our democracy, which we’ve been trying to export all over the world, the business of being elected seems to preclude the addressing of radical problems. Our whole economic system clearly needs stripping down and rethinking. We celebrated the National Health Service with Danny Boyle’s Olympics opener. Anyone will defend the National Health Service, but the problem is that it wasn’t created at a time when these kind of population issues, with people living longer, were around. It just seems that the system itself is running on empty. Even the jamboree of American politics is slightly underwhelming at the moment. Normally, by this point, there’s a sense of anticipation and it doesn’t feel that way in the States. It’s a shame when one thinks about how jubilant everyone was about Obama and how they’ve forgotten that he never claimed he could solve everything.
You have a keen awareness of American society, act in Hollywood movies, but don’t live there. Why not?
There’s a practical element, as my partner’s a lawyer in London. Also, I feel very European in America. I don’t feel potentially American. I feel a prisoner of my European-ness. Hollywood could be fun for a while but it just hasn’t happened that way yet.