Toby Jones - Dial him for Hitchcock

His cameo in Notting Hill was cut. Now a turn as The Master is set to make Toby Jones a star at last. Geoffrey Macnab meets the actor

The ground floor of the old Edinburgh Victorian railway hotel is flooded – apparently something to do with the tram system the city has been struggling to build for so many years. Soggy cardboard sits on top of where the carpeting should be. The hotel rooms have a faded Gothic air. It's an appropriately jarring location for an interview with Toby Jones, the brilliant 45-year-old British character actor who has landed a rare starring role in Peter Strickland's very strange new feature, Berberian Sound Studio.

Jones plays Gilderoy, a sound engineer from Dorking recruited to work on a very lurid Italian horror movie. He's a nervous, repressed, lower middle-class Brit adrift in a world of arm waving Mediterranean types. As Jones puts it, he's a "supremely timid, unconfident man who relies on his ears." His job, listening to and recording curses, screams and incantations, slowly drives him mad.

Gilderoy is certainly a departure for Jones. "One of the key benefits of being an actor is that you have to turn unpredictability into a virtue," Jones declares. "That's requires not bracketing yourself into what you do."

We're more used to seeing Jones portray real-life characters. Like Michael Sheen, he is one of British cinema's kings of the biopics. In the last decade, Jones has been on screen as American writer Truman Capote (Infamous), as Eighteenth-Century British artist William Hogarth (A Harlot's Progress), as Marilyn Monroe's agent Arthur Jacobs (My Week With Marilyn), as George W Bush's svengali/pit-bull Karl Rove (Oliver Stone's W.) and as talent agent Swifty Lazar (Frost/Nixon.) Later this year, he will be on our televisions as Alfred Hitchcock opposite Sienna Miller's Tippi Hedren in The Girl, Julian Jarrold's psycho-drama about creativity and sexual obsession.

Jones was drawn to the "poetry" in Strickland's screenplay for Berberian Sound Studio and relished appearing in a film in which narrative wasn't the be-all and end-all. He felt a "kinship" with the harassed and increasingly neurotic Gilderoy. Jones himself grew up in Surrey, not far from Dorking. His father is the character actor Freddie Jones, who appeared in David Lynch and Federico Fellini films as well as plenty of British horror movies almost as cheesy as the one Gilderoy is working on. Furthermore, Jones knows how it feels to be marginalised and persecuted. Years ago, he won a small role in Working Title's Julia Roberts movie Notting Hill, but ended up on the cutting-room floor (the experience, which still rankles, inspired the experimental play Missing Reel.)

The actor's background isn't quite what you'd expect. He is not Rada and the RSC. He studied at the Lecoq School in Paris. Lecoq, like Marcel Marceau, was a master of mime. Jones is intensely interested in the physical aspects of the characters he plays: how they move, their tics and mannerisms. When he speaks about any given role, he sounds like an anthropologist describing a subject.

Gilderoy is a slight and unobtrusive figure who hovers in the background. By complete contrast, when he was playing Hitchcock roughing up Tippi Hedren, Jones had to pile on the pounds (or, at least, endure four hours of prosthetics every day).

"Hitchcock is a big ask. I am playing someone significantly older than me and someone significantly bigger than me," Jones reflects on the task. The actor studied his subject with typical diligence, delving into Hitch's "fantastically interesting interior life" and trying to penetrate beyond "the carapace" that the celebrated English director created.

"The stuff I find very interesting is why certain physical things have come about. How can he be light on his feet when he is so big? How can his weight vary so much? Where does this rather beautiful voice come from?" Jones falls into an uncanny Hitchcock impersonation, capturing perfectly the "woody, cigar and drink" soaked tones with their hint of LA and remnants of Cockney.

"At the end of the day, I will be inventing stuff that isn't in any public domain – how I get out of a chair, how I offer a drink, how I open a door, how I shake a hand," he says of his Hitch.

One key element to Hitchcock, he adds, is the drooping jowl. "That was crucial because his silhouette is crucial," Jones says. "There is something about his silhouette that became his brand."

It's an impressive performance combining creepiness and pathos in equal measure. At one point, we see him leaping at Sienna Miller's Hedren in the back of a car. He moves lithely for a man of his girth and age. We're also treated to Jones's Hitch reciting endless dirty limericks. He's the boss and the predator, but Jones is also able to convey the character's insecurity. The actor is at pains to point out his Hitch is a performance, not a piece of mimicry. Biopics, he adds, are only worth watching if they "tell you stuff you didn't know."Before he was recruited to play Truman Capote in Infamous (2006), he "had only ever been a day player on movies." Even if he had appeared in a Harry Potter film, he was used to playing blink-and-you'll-miss-them roles. In Infamous, by contrast, he was in almost every scene. The film was well received. All of a sudden, Jones was in demand. "A diminutive actor with a titanic talent," said The New York Observer.

"There is this miraculous thing I heard Hugh Grant talking about – the thing about screen acting is that you can read people's thoughts. You are trying to register something inside and usually the eyes in cinema are where you will register that," says Jones. On Berberian Sound Studio, director Peter Strickland acknowledges that there were details in Jones's performance that he didn't even notice until he started editing.

These days, at least, Jones doesn't have to worry about ending on the cutting-room floor. He has just finished Serena, Susanne Bier's new Depression-era movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. "I play a sheriff, which I never thought I'd get to do." Meanwhile, as an antidote to screen acting, he's preparing a West End show inspired by The Crazy Gang.

The character roles in Hollywood movies remain in plentiful supply. However, Jones laments, films as idiosyncratic Berberian Sound Studio simply don't come along very often. "They seem much rarer now, those auteur films that come out of a director's imagination and are elliptical and hermetic. All those films that got me into independent cinema when I was watching it seem thin on the ground."

'Berberian Sound Studio' is out on 31 August. 'The Girl' will be broadcast on the BBC this year

Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral