TONY Q&A: Berberian Sound Studio’s Toby Jones
A respected character actor gets a leading role—and some weird avant-garde training for it.
Tue Jun 11 2013
A welcome presence on the periphery of huge movies like The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series (he voiced lovable Dobby), Toby Jones has long had more to give. In 2008 alone, he played Karl Rove in Oliver Stone's W and slimy superagent Swifty Lazar in Frost/Nixon, a feat that must have required detoxification afterward. Return to 2007's underrated horror drama The Mist—in which Jones took on the role of a mild-tempered supermarket clerk turned action hero—and you'll know he's been waiting to bust out. That moment is now: The actor takes center stage in the mysterious Berberian Sound Studio, an absorbing psychothriller mostly set in a darkened recording booth, in which a sound engineer goes mad. We caught up with Jones, 46, on the phone from his home in London, where he admitted to "looking out at a bird attacking my bamboo." We're pretty sure that wasn't a euphemism.
Time Out New York: You play a pretty private guy here: a repressed 1970s sound engineer. The appeal for you was…?
Toby Jones: Not talking too much. Telling a story in miniature—film can be great at that—and revealing one’s self through breathing, slight eye movements. I wanted to explore the possibility of the camera reading my mind.
Time Out New York: Meanwhile, that mind sort of cracks. We never see the film your character is working on, but what’s it about?
Toby Jones: The Equestrian Vortex? I don’t know! [Laughs] I thought it was going to be a nature film about horses. When I saw [Berberian] with my partner, she was totally wound up by it, as if she’d been watching a psychological thriller.
Time Out New York: It’s definitely that, and also a loving homage to Italy’s giallo gross-outs. Would you call yourself a horror fan?
Toby Jones: No. But I’ve met fans of horror films, people like comic-book fans. I have to bow to their level of expertise. In the last week alone, I caught up with The Master—magnificent—and Amour. We have young kids, so I never get out.
Time Out New York: Even when your character flips out, he’s very sympathetic.
Toby Jones: I hope so. I don’t think there’s just one reading for the film. Although I had to have a clear understanding of Gilderoy’s throughline, I knew it would never be as clear for the audience. Peter [Strickland, Berberian's writer-director] was really creating a poem about sound.
Time Out New York: How did he approach you about this gig?
Toby Jones: I knew his previous film [2009's Katalin Varga] and I quickly loved his new script. I wanted to met him. So we met. Then I didn’t hear anything. I thought, Oh, that’s a shame. And then he rung me again—would I like to go for a walk? I went for a walk with him. Would I like to meet in a bookshop? We met in a bookshop.
Time Out New York: This actually sounds like a giallo.
Toby Jones: Right? The more meetings you have, the less likely it is you’re going to get the film. But Peter’s so meticulous and anxious to get the details right, this was the nature of it. I guess the climax was when he invited a Foley artist, Adam Bohman, to give me an impromptu concert of avant-garde sound. My character was based on this guy—even though Adam came in a good foot and a half taller than me. Burly man, a big man!
Time Out New York: What did his concert sound like?
Toby Jones: He had a suitcase of strange objects. It was a 45-minute improvisation: a bit of rock, a rubber band, plastic comb, some glass. Found objects. I didn’t know whether it meant I got the job, but I’d gotten a very clear idea of the kind of thing Peter digs.
Time Out New York: Even if you didn’t get the role, that sounds amazing.
Toby Jones: Of course! The only reason to involved in filmmaking is to go on adventures.
Berberian Sound Studio opens June 14 at IFC Center.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf