Quiet genius of Toby Jones: From The Hunger Games to Truman Capote, Hollywood can't get enough of British acting's most versatile talent

Now the chameleon actor is returning to the small screen for two new TV shows
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The Independent Online

Toby Jones is used to being offered parts that don't seem tailor-made for him, but this was extreme. "My agent said, 'Oliver Stone wants to do a film about Vietnam. They're sending a script over and he wants to meet you tomorrow.' I read the script. It was full of soldiers. I called my agent and said, 'It's about American GIs at the My Lai massacre – which part did he have in mind for me?' He said, 'Any part, apparently. Oliver just wants to meet you.'

I went along to the casting director's office, and found these huge, hulking, tree-trunk men standing around" – Jones jumps out of his chair to mimic himself peeping around huge legs, like a nervous pixie in a Disney woodland – "and the casting director hugs me, and says, 'Hi Toby, Oliver's longing to meet you. He saw your Truman Capote...'."

He laughs, understandably. The idea of the macho Oliver Stone watching Jones's portrayal of the tiny, flouncy, squeaky-voiced, outrageous, gay Capote and thinking, "I must find a place for this guy in the GI platoon," is piquant indeed. But it's not wholly surprising. Because Jones is in demand all over the place, for Hollywood blockbusters and small-screen dramas, art-house cinema and The Hunger Games. In recent years he's played Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl, TH Huxley in Creation, Karl Rove in W, Swifty Lazar in Frost/Nixon. He's been in Tintin, Captain America and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In the pipeline are half a dozen roles conspicuous by their variety: he can be seen in a sitcom about metal-detecting hobbyists, a Stoke City fan with learning difficulties, a Western sheriff, a mysterious psychiatrist, the poet John Clare and a guy involved in the Boston Mafia.

The reason for his popularity isn't some all-purpose blandness of features that can adapt to several parts. On the contrary, he's very distinctive looking. He's short in stature (five feet five) and boyishly slender, with the face of a squashed cherub. His main features are his vast, Mekon-sized forehead, expressive of huge brainpower, and his melancholy grin. He's popular because he brings to roles an extraordinary intensity of immersion. He seems to disappear inside them, heart and soul and sinew, until the figure on screen is 100-proof character, and no watery trace of actor's ego remains.

Not that Jones is without ego. He's suffered from reviews of his looks rather than his role-playing. "I used to get very upset reading descriptions of myself," he says. "I'd think, am I really so 'strange' and 'bizarre' and 'weird-looking' and 'asymmetrical-featured' that people feel they can use these adjectives? As an actor it's easy to fall prey to self-consciousness and paranoia. But you don't have to join in with the way the industry categorises you. You can just go off and do something new."

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Jones, left, with Neil Baldwin, whose life was the basis for Jones's new film Marvellous (Tiger Aspect/Fifty Fathoms)

His biggest new role is the lead in Marvellous. He plays Neil Baldwin, famous in Midlands football circles, a man who worked as a circus clown, became 'kit man' for Stoke City FC, was befriended by the club's manager, Lou Macari, and became its beloved mascot. In the 90-minute BBC2 drama, we see Baldwin triumph over adversity by a combination of innocence and bare-faced cheek: he invites himself to breakfast with priests, bums rides, hangs around Keele University welcoming students, gets himself on to football teams without being able to play, and makes the world work in his favour. What attracted Jones to the part?

"I'm a massive Stoke City fan, but I had no knowledge of this guy Baldwin at all," said Jones. "I went to Keele University to meet him, with the director, Julian Farino, and the writer, Peter Bowker, and tried to work out the person behind the persona, but it was hard. You can ask him anything and he'll answer you – but because everything is 'marvellous' in his world, you don't get far. I was looking for some grit, some pain in his life – 'Were you ever upset by this? Did you ever experience that?' – and everything was batted back, with faith, optimism, cheerfulness and determination."

How did he work out how to play Baldwin? "You try to organise the personal impressions you're getting, and you're vibrating with panic at the prospect," says Jones. "Then you think, OK, the way Neil's always scavenging food, the belly, the speech defect – I can work on those. But of course, those are just the crutches in building the part." It's an extraordinary performance. Neil is a pathetic figure, out of his depth in most areas of life, but the film generally body-swerves sentimentality. Jones uses the character's defects to emphasise his there-ness, his insistence on having his own way. When, newly bereaved, his carefully built-up defences collapse and he weeps uncontrollably, it's really shocking. "His life was about holding it all together," says Jones, "so his crying comes out of nowhere, like a physical, convulsive thing."

Did Baldwin sit in on the shooting? "Oh yes," says Jones with a touch of weariness. "He was on the set the whole time. I'd come off a long scene, and he'd look at me, and say, 'Marvellous, absolutely marvellous, you're going to win massive awards with this,' as if he was saying, 'I'm going to win...'."

You're in dangerous territory here, I say, dealing with learning difficulties and clowns. Has he seen Ricky Gervais acting his creation Derek, a nursing home care-worker with his head permanently tilted sideways as though expecting to be attacked? "I think he played the character according to the terms in which he'd written it," says Jones cautiously. "There's an element of corrective in his writing, which says, don't assume anything about anyone."

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Toby Jones, left, starred as Truman Capote opposite Daniel Craig as Perry Smith in Infamous (Rex)

Next month, Jones will appear in his first TV sitcom, a BBC4 six-parter called Detectorists, co-starring, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook, the gull-eyed, hyperactive droll who played Gareth in The Office, and Ragetti, the alarming cut-throat in Pirates of the Caribbean. Jones and Crook play Lance and Andy, both keen hunters for buried treasure with their trusty metal detectors.

They bumped into each other last year on The Muppets "and Mackenzie said, 'I've written this thing with you in mind...'." He shudders. "You always get a feeling of dread when somebody whom you like hands you a script. But it made me laugh out loud. It's a very well-observed comedy about men and the way they tolerate each other's bullshit. I loved working with Mackenzie because he's so preoccupied with his hobbies. He's genuinely nuts about metal detecting. After takes, I'd have to say, Mackenzie, you're directing this, you're supposed to be looking at the monitor..."

Also out next month is Serena, a period Western shot in 2012 and directed by Susanne Bier, in which Jones co-stars with the Hollywood royalty of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Jones plays a town sheriff called McDowell – yes, a US marshal, like Gary Cooper in High Noon or John Wayne in El Dorado. "You seem oddly surprised, John," says Jones. "Doesn't it strike you as obvious casting? The point is, in Hollywood, if you can act, you can act. The actor's contract is that, if the audience sees a sheriff, then you are a sheriff."

He and Lawrence worked together on The Hunger Games – Jones played the bouffanted Claudius Templesmith. How had they got on? "When we met in the make-up trailer, we'd chat about things which were nothing to do with the movies. As everyone says, Jennifer is about as unaffected as a person can be in that strange environment."

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Man of many faces: 'I used to think, am I really so 'bizarre' and 'weirdlooking', says Jones (Kalpesh Lathigra)

Toby Jones's career took a leap forward in 2006, when he won the part of Truman Capote, investigating a quadruple murder in Kansas in 1960, writing In Cold Blood and falling in love with one of the murderers. Infamous was Jones's first Hollywood film and first leading role. Before it, his biggest part had been Mr Smee in Finding Neverland. This was a different order of stardom. How had it happened?

"We were in New York doing The Play What I Wrote [the musical farce about Morecambe and Wise, directed by Kenneth Branagh, which won Jones a Best Supporting Actor Olivier Award in London] and on the press night, an agent told Warner Brothers, 'There's a guy in this show who looks just like Capote'. Back in England, my agent said, 'You ought to read In Cold Blood because there's a fantastic script out there about the author. Right now, it's between Sean Penn and Johnny Depp who gets to play him.' I thought, 'Oh right...'. Then I read the script by Doug McGrath and – well – there's a protective melancholy that creeps over you when you read a script that good. You think, I'll never be given this, there's no wayyyyy I'll get this, I'm just going to the audition to make up the numbers. But Sean and Johnny turned it down, and, though I wasn't sure I could do the voice or sustain the role, I gave it the best shot. I probably sounded like Bob Dylan, but I did my best."

Jones is simply amazing as Capote. He doesn't impersonate him (as Philip Seymour Hoffman did in Capote, released a year earlier), he inhabits the part completely. He throws himself into the whole range of the author's camp extravagance, writhing, flouncing, confiding, switching between boyish impetuousness and bitchy fury when confronted by his friend Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) for confusing fact and fiction. His tremulous adoration for the murderer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig, with whom Jones has a full-on screen kiss) is a thing of wonder.

"The total immersion in the role was possible because I was living away from home. Like Capote in Kansas, I was a fish out of water, living in a hotel in Texas. I was the only English person there. When Juliet Stevenson [who played Diana Vreeland] and Daniel Craig came to film their scenes, and spoke English – by then I was spending all day in the Capote voice because I didn't want to slip out of it – I thought, 'I've been here wayyy too long'." Was it Method acting? "No. I knew this was a big opportunity, and I had to concentrate."

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Toby Jones as Neil Baldwin in Marvellous (Tiger Aspect/Fifty Fathoms)

Jones was born in 1966 and grew up in Oxford in a very actorish household. His father is Freddie Jones, the veteran 'character actor', best known as Bytes, the bullying, freak-show 'owner' of John Merrick in The Elephant Man, and still acting, aged 86, in Emmerdale. Toby was the eldest of three brothers, all in the profession – Rupert is a director and Casper an actor ("but it hasn't really happened for him") – and praises their mother, Jennifer, for encouraging a household of four men to keep talking to each other. He's keen to emphasise the normality of his upbringing – "We were never late for school, we always did out homework on time" – and the "romance" of Freddie's flamboyant attitude to acting. "My dad's working-class, and acting saved his life. Drama school was a reinvention, or an awakening, of stuff he hadn't been allowed to show before in his life."

Jones himself studied drama at Manchester and – dismayed by the students' collective conviction that British theatre was either dead or elitist – moved to Paris and spent two years at L'École International de Théâtre under Jacques Lecoq. "I wanted to go somewhere where acting mattered as much as it did to my father."

The Jones family (Karen, a barrister, and two daughters, Holly and Madeleine) now live in Stockwell, south London. The girls haven't yet demanded that parts be found for them in Hunger Games 3. "They're both able to use words, one written, one verbally, and it wouldn't surprise me if they went into a business like Karen's or mine," says Jones warily. "But I can think of few riskier jobs than becoming an actress. It's such a perilous, psychologically demanding job. Because the constant judgement on appearance has become more and more brutal, the pressure on people to be a certain way."

Understandable words from an actor who has spent his career escaping from lists, files, boxes and pigeonholes, happy to pop up in unexpected regions, being Someone Else, brilliantly.

'Marvellous' (BBC2) airs later this month and 'The Detectorists' (BBC4) begins on 30 September at 10pm

Two sides of Toby Jones

REALISM

Real-life figures played by Jones...

Truman Capote: Author and journalist ('Infamous', 2005)

Karl Rove: Political strategist ('W', 2008)

Swifty Lazar: Talent agent ('Frost/Nixon', 2008)

Alfred Hitchcock: Film director ('The Girl', 2012)

NOT-REALISM

… and some of the more fantastical

Dobby the House Elf: House elf ('Harry Potter', 2002/10)

Arnim Zola: Evil Nazi genius, later an antique computer ('Captain America: The First Avenger', 2011 & 'The Winter Soldier', 2014)

Aristides Silk: Pickpocketing, retired civil servant ('The Adventures of Tintin', 2011)

Claudius Templesmith: Commentator on The Hunger Games ('The Hunger Games'/ 'THG: Catching Fire', 2012/13)

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