Six Damn Fine Degrees #18: Toby Jones

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

You know how sometimes there are these strange cases of cinema serendipity, where within a year you’d get not just one but two big films about, say, asteroids heading for Earth and teams of astronauts sent on a mission to destroy them. Or CGI comedies about ants. Or biopics about legendary Scottish freedom fighters.

Perhaps the strangest of those pairs of ‘twin films’, as the phenomenon is called on Wikipedia, is the 2005 film Capote and 2006’s Infamous, both of which told the story of Truman Capote’s writing of his 1966 book In Cold Blood. Capote received wide acclaim and won its lead actor Philip Seymour Hoffman an Academy Award. Infamous, though, was barely noticed – beyond the comparisons to the film released earlier. And this extended to the actor who played Infamous‘ version of Truman Capote: Toby Jones.

The Two Capotes

To be honest, I don’t really remember either film all that much. At the time, I did like Hoffman’s performance, but it’s not one of his performances that I think of very often. (There are many others that I do.) Jones’ performance in the same role? I honestly couldn’t say. Many critics found him a bit underwhelming, more of a caricature than a fleshed-out character. But let’s be honest: no one would want to be the other guy playing the same character that Philip Seymour Hoffman had played less than a year before. There’s overshadowing, and there’s that.

Somehow it’s fitting for the kind of persona that Toby Jones often embodies, though. There is more than just a faint hint of the absurd about his characters. The actor is fairly short – shorter than, say, whoever played Maverick in Top Gun – and he looks even shorter. The characters he performs either suffer from anxieties and insecurities or they have a far higher opinion of themselves than is warranted, in ways that are exceedingly clear to everyone else. It’s no surprise that Jones did the voice acting for Harry Potter‘s house elf Dobby.

Dobby the House Elf

Though, more than that, Jones wasn’t just perfect for Dobby because he looks like something of a gnome himself, because he has an unthreatening, even comical air about him. He also lent Dobby a pathos, especially in the character’s later appearances, that is quite typical of many of Toby Jones’ best performances. In early 2020, before the world became the strange, surreal and scary place it is now (or at least it was strange, surreal and scary in ways that were easier to handle), I was lucky to see Jones in a production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, playing the titular character. Vanya is a strange character, less immediately tragic than bordering on the ridiculous. He is laughed at and easily underestimated. He is unhappy in love and has been defeated by life. He is safe to be around, because there’s no one less threatening than him.

The production, while good, was perhaps a bit too conventional to be great. But Jones worked perfectly for the part. Without ever sentimentalising Vanya, he lent the part an effective, poignant pathos that filled out Vanya’s absurdity and changed it into something else. Jones has a knack for taking ridiculous characters in ridiculous situations and making them fully human: take his beleaguered sound engineer Gilderoy – what a perfect name for that most ludicrous of Toby Jones characters! – in Peter Strickland’s strange meta-giallo Berberian Sound Studio.

Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio

Film and TV don’t always know what to do with Toby Jones. He is too singular, and his blend of the comical and the poignant isn’t easily pigeonholed – added to which, like most actors he probably doesn’t have the luxury to pick the highest quality of scripts. But if I see his face pop up in a trailer or a preview, I will be all the more likely to pay attention. Diminuitive stature or not, he should not stand in anyone’s shadow.

P.S.: Also, it has to be said: Jones’ appearances in the Hunger Games films as Claudius Templesmith, announcer extraordinaire, must have been a dream come true for the films’ hair designers.

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