Caleb Landry Jones is chainsmoking on a couch in his Los Angeles home. Behind him is a black-and-white woodcut of a contorted nude figure, carved by his girlfriend, the artist Katya Svereva. He’ll be the first to cop to the disheveled, charmingly ragged appearance we expect from this indie film’s consummate weirdo. (“There has been a lot of unmanaged hair.”) We’re on Zoom to discuss his ferocious turn in Justin Kurzel’s “Nitram,” a dramatic retelling (with ample artistic license) of the events that led up to the 1996 Port Arthur shooting in Tasmania. That killing spree took 35 lives and injured 24 more, including shooter Martin Bryant, who’s serving 35 life sentences with no possibility of parole.
But Landry Jones and Aussie director Justin Kurzel — making his first film since plumbing another piece of Australian history with “True Story of the Kelly Gang” — will never refer to Martin Bryant by name. Not in pre-production, not during filming, not in the script, and not in press materials or interviews, for which journalists have been instructed to refrain from using the name themselves. That’s why, in the movie, Landry Jones’ character is simply known as Nitram, the mirror reverse of Martin’s real name and an appropriate title for a movie that attempts to walk backward to account for the chain of events that led to the killings.
“There’s this idea of infamy, and this idea of fame, and this idea of recognition, and it’s very dangerous,” Landry Jones said. “We, by not saying his name, by not mentioning him once, don’t want to participate in this. I think they wanted to not be a part of that aspect of it as best as they could while still trying to express something that maybe we can only really do in places like film, to have a conversation afterwards about something like this, which is probably harder to do after watching the movie.”
The film eschews sensationalism by almost entirely avoiding depictions of the shooting, forming a sobering cry for gun control now — especially in one scene where the mentally ill Nitram buys an arsenal of automatic weapons with the ease of picking up takeout. In a director’s statement, Kurzel said, “I have tried to reach into the darkness to find a truth and to understand the unimaginable. There are no answers, but the legacy of Port Arthur is our albatross, it is part of our history and it warns the future of its perils.”
For this reason, it became imperative for the filmmakers to tread gently. Landry Jones said, “Maybe there are other things to talk about in the stereotypical conversation piece we [could] have. ‘Must be evil! Must be the mother!’ You know what I mean? By not saying his name, it’s something similar to what I can only think of is… what I hate from the news and what that does, and how people have done these things because they know they will get 15 minutes. The higher the number, the bigger the story, and this is terrifying.”
The 32-year-old Texas native has made a singularly weird name for himself playing deranged young men who possess a certain feral quality, often deranged and on the margins of society. (Landry Jones bristled affably at the suggestion his characters are “feral”: “I don’t know about that.”) He has starred as the twitchy Red Welby in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” a wiry, hollowed-out drug addict in the Safdies’ “Heaven Knows What,” murderous racist Jeremy in “Get Out,” and the terrifying Steven Burnett, another wild-eyed and physically abusive drug addict, in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return.” The fates of his characters are often unknown, or awful.
“Nitram” certainly marks Landry Jones’ most demanding role to date, as the actor plays Nitram like a deeply lost soul trapped in a body he can’t control. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich wrote that “the mere prospect of modern cinema’s most fidgety weirdo playing a mass shooter is so vivid that actually seeing it on screen almost feels unnecessary.”
Here, Landry Jones is pure id, flying from rage to childlike confusion in a split second as his detached parents (played by a chainsmoking Judy Davis and manically depressed Anthony LaPaglia, two master Australian actors at the apex of their gifts) try to control his mood swings with a cocktail of prescriptions. A friendship with a Miss Havisham-like, reclusive socialite played by Essie Davis predictably ends in tragedy.
You read about actors going too far off the ledge to embody their characters — like Lady Gaga, who had a psychiatric nurse on the set of “House of Gucci.” As for the psychic toll “Nitram” took on Landry Jones, he said, “I’m always Caleb. I don’t know how to do the Daniel Day-Lewis, separate 100 percent. Andrew Garfield’s pretty good at it too. I like to feel like I’m playing different characters, but for me, it’s more imagination and exploring parts of myself and parts that I don’t have maybe, and parts that I can identify from a small degree, whether it’s loneliness or heartbreak.”
A fixture of American independent movies, Landry Jones was out of his element shooting during the pandemic in sun-blasted Victoria, Australia, while trying to understand the Australian masculine complex that took such a monstrous form.
Landry didn’t go full method, of course, but “because I was so worried about the [Australian] accent, I kept the accent while I was there the whole time. I was allowed this freedom to find what Nitram was for myself, as well as Justin giving me massive amounts of material, whether it was music, films or TV… or activities for myself to do, whether it’s making popsicle-stick dream homes in my room by myself, and drawing myself how I see myself.”
Because Landry Jones is, as he says, always himself, it wasn’t difficult at the end of the day to shed the skin of a mass murderer. “Everything I do is practical. For me, it’s like brushing my teeth. Something that has a lot of weight to it needs to be like brushing the teeth. It’s an action, like, oh my god, he’s loading an automatic weapon. For me, that’s brushing my teeth. Afterward, I just got as fat as I could and watched a lot of television and made as much music as I could, and tried not to work until something bit me.”
Last summer at the Cannes Film Festival, Landry Jones was called onstage to accept the main competition’s Best Actor prize from a jury led by Spike Lee. Watching that clip, the actor is visibly stunned by the win, making his way to the stage in a dazed stupor (“I think I’m going to throw up, I’m sorry,” he said at the podium).
“I knew what we did was great, but I didn’t ever expect to win. I knew what we had was very strong, [it] was something we were all fucking proud of it, but I didn’t expect to hear my name,” Landry Jones said.
As is festival tradition, talent are summoned back to the closing night awards gala under the premise that they’ve won something, but they don’t know which prize it’s going to be. “You’re coming back for something but you don’t know what it is. And I thought it’ll be Justin Kurzel Best Picture, but no, they gave it to the actor,” Landry Jones said.
That win, certainly the biggest of Landry Jones’ life so far, was nine months ago, but it’s hardly in the rearview for the actor, who’s given the performance of his career. “It feels like yesterday. Let me enjoy it a little longer.”
“Nitram” is now playing in select theaters, on VOD, and streaming on AMC+.