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 yearReuse content