Caleb Landry Jones would like you to know he’s not a tortured artist. The confusion is understandable: A decade into his career, the Texas native has been the guy selling viruses for fun and profit (“Antiviral”), the homeless heroin addict (“Heaven Knows What”), a ruined soldier (“Queen and Country”), the even-creepier son in a racist family (“Get Out”), and the dude who gets thrown out a window by Sam Rockwell in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” To be fair, he also made a 2010 appearance on the Nickelodeon show “Victorious,” in which he played “Adorable Guy.”
Those characters, however, are not Jones.
“I think people want to put that on [me], because it’s easier. I don’t know, but maybe there is a bit of it,” Jones told IndieWire when asked about the perception that he’s that kind of dude in real life. “I think it’s easy for people to do that, maybe. I’m thinking it’s probably easier than [thinking] of me catching butterflies on the weekend.”
In his latest film, Jones is, unabashedly, the tortured artist. Debuting last week at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Peter Brunner’s “To the Night” casts Caleb as Norman, a visual artist who has spent years grappling with the emotional fallout of his parents’ death in a house fire when he was a child. While there are many good things in Norman’s life, including a thriving art career, a loving girlfriend (perpetual standout Eleonore Hendricks), and an adorable baby, Norman can’t shake the tragedy.
It’s a grim film that doesn’t gloss over grief or depression, and one that sees Jones going to some very dark places. But Jones isn’t interested in talking about how difficult his job can be, or how much his “process” demands of him. “I don’t want to romanticize the struggle in any way, because I think people do that a lot,” Jones said from the festival last week. “And it’s not romantic. And the process is what it is, and I’m not even sure what the process is really, for myself.”
That doesn’t mean he can shake off his roles. Asked if he finds it easy to step away from his work, Jones hedged a bit. “I couldn’t tell you,” Jones said. “I don’t know if it starts or stops, or if it does start or stop. Later, he did concede, “For me, a job doesn’t end when I go home.”
Ten years into his career, Jones sounds like he’s trying to put up a few barriers between the work part and the going-home part. He’s not a big fan of reviews, though he sometimes can’t help but read them (“Usually it seems like most reviews try and keep me from doing what I’m doing. But in order to keep doing it, I’ve got to not get so hellbent”) and he’s hesitant to talk too much about upcoming roles (“I remember reading this Sidney Lumet interview and he’s just [like], ‘I don’t like to talk about any projects, especially that are still in the middle of happening'”).
When it comes to the directors he’s like to work with, the first two were Czech native sons: the late Milos Forman, and Jan Svankmajer, who has made some of Jones’ favorite films, including “Alice,” “Lunacy,” and “Conspirators of Pleasure.” Mused Jones, “He’s out here somewhere in the Czech Republic.” It was easy to imagine that Jones might just hang up and go looking for him.
For all Jones’ indie film bonafides, he’s not snobbish at all about his early dalliances with big-budget filmmaking. In 2011, he starred in Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” as young superhero Banshee, marking his first — and so far, only — foray into franchises. Jones has zero regrets about the gig.
“It was a wonderful experience. The cast and the crew were incredible,” the actor said. “It’s a movie for entertainment, and it’s for six-year-olds and eight-year-olds, I guess, 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds. Maybe a bit dark for that age. I was so happy to be a part of that, and still so happy to have been a part of it.”
Jones admitted that getting such a high-profile part forced him to reconcile his idealistic sense of Hollywood with the reality of the industry. At least it happened early.
“When I came out to Los Angeles, Lindsay Anderson was one of my favorite directors, and I didn’t meet a single person who knew who Lindsay Anderson was,” he said of the British New Wave filmmaker. “I had a very different idea of what the film industry was going to be like or was like. Six or seven months into living there, I got this excellent movie, and it opened so many doors and people wanted to know who I was. So, this was very good, and at the same time, maybe it made it harder. I don’t know.”
He’s not ruling out those kinds of films, however, even if no one is knocking down his door for those parts right now. “If I had kids, maybe I’d think about it again,” Jones said. “But no one’s going, ‘Caleb, we need you to fly,’ or ‘Would you mind suiting up again?’ No one’s asked me that. I haven’t had to think about it.”
What Jones does think about is how he can find his people. “I’ve always wanted to do a certain kind of work, and work with a certain kind of people, and I’ve been trying to do that ever since I went up to Los Angeles,” Jones said. “I was very fortunate to have worked with a lot of people that are wanting to do the same thing.”
Jones isn’t entirely clear about how he classifies those “certain kind of people,” but he balked at the idea that it related to a shared philosophy. It’s something even more intangible.
“You get the feeling that they’re going for the same thing that you’re going for,” Jones said. “And no matter what, you guys are going to do your best to get it. But I don’t know. I mean, Peter [Brunner]’s philosophy and my philosophy is very different, but this is no reason to not work with each other.”
One project that made Jones feel great: David Lynch’s recent “Twin Peaks” revival, in which he played Steven Burnett, the son-in-law of Laura Palmer’s one-time boyfriend Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook).
“I still can’t believe I was a part of that,” he said. “[Lynch is] someone I’ve been wanting to work with since I fell in love with film, and it was a series that itself had struck a nerve in me and had done something to me that I liked and also didn’t like very much. He’s pushing film in ways that no other filmmaker is really doing in the marketplace, and he does. And with the marketplace as it is, it’s almost impossible to do what he had done. And he achieved the impossible.”
Asked about Steven’s ultimate fate in the series — while his final episode ended with the implication that he killed his wife Becky (Amanda Seyfried), Mark Frost’s official followup novel “Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier” indicated that Becky was alive and Steven was on the run.
“I mean, I think it’s pretty clear,” Jones said. “But apparently I guess it’s not, so I’m not going to say anything. I don’t know, myself. I mean, I know as much as anyone that has watched it knows. Somehow I feel like [I know] even less, just because of the separation. They can separate it more and I can’t.”
Jones is clear on one thing: He always knew that Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” was going to be a huge hit. While he admitted to being a bit shocked by the “recognition” the Academy paid to it (four Oscar nominations, one win), he knew if audiences turned ou, it would become a massive box office hit.
“I was not surprised by what it did,” he said. “I always knew that if enough people could see it, then it would do a lot, and it would go very deep with a lot of people. And they just had to see it. I’m so thrilled that that’s what happened. This is great because now it enables Jordan to do anything and everything, which is fantastic.”
Ahead, Jones has another jam-packed season including punk-rock drama “Viena and the Fantomes” (co-starring Dakota Fanning and Evan Rachel Wood), an untitled Lone Scherfig feature, Rod Lurie’s war drama “The Outpost,” and another film with Brunner. He’s hoping to find a little rest in between, if only because he remembers what things were like just last year.
“I need alone time. I think most people need alone time,” Jones said. “I definitely need alone time. But that was a year where I was getting to work on so many things that I was dying to work on and was so excited to work on, and all at once, and it was daunting and a little too much. At the end, I was more than ready for a day doing nothing. And at the same time, still itching to do something, and always doing something and nothing at the same time. Just not in front of the camera. But yeah, I suppose I need to be working all the time.”
So, no catching butterflies on the weekend? Jones laughed, and then gave the kind of answer one might expect from such a singular talent: sweet and a little strange. “Not in a few years, not since I realized they were alive,” Jones said. “Once you caught them, they wouldn’t live very much longer. I put a kibosh to that pretty quickly.”
“To the Night” premiered at the 2018 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.