If you’ve seen any major, mainstream sci-fi or fantasy movie in the last decade, there are good odds you’ve seen Toby Jones. He’s boasted roles in the Harry Potter, Captain America, and Hunger Games series, not to mention small screen roles on Doctor Who, Wayward Pines, and an upcoming villainous turn on Sherlock. Through all that, he’s also carefully cultivated a sideline in more introspective independent fare, like Peter Strickland’s giallo horror throwback Berberian Sound Studio, or the poetic exploration of By Our Selves.
His latest, Tale of Tales, may boast fantasy trappings and an all-star cast, but it’s no big budget action epic–it’s thoughtful, visually striking, and utterly, unrepentantly weird. Italian director Matteo Garrone brings to life three of the fairy tales collected in the seventeenth century by Giambattista Basile. Jones stars as a monarch who becomes childishly obsessed with a magical flea–to the cost of his young daughter, played by newcomer Bebe Cave. Jones’ performance is expressive, physical performance, even up against a giant flea, and we caught up with him in the Soho Hotel to find out more.
How did you first get involved with Tale of Tales?
I’d been a fan of Garrone, but he’d worked in the Italian language prior to this. The opportunity of working with the guy who directed Reality and Gomorrah was just so fantastic. So when he was trying to make an English-language film and using a British casting director, without knowing what the project was, I said ‘Absolutely!’ Because I’d seen those movies, and I thought they were extraordinary films. It was kind of like, ‘Don’t think twice, of course I’ll do it.’
And then this script arrived, and it was so unlike anything else he’d done, and so unexpected. But thinking about it now, it doesn’t seem so strange in retrospect, because the film is so unafraid of exploring the darker elements of those tales, that it seems to be closer to those earlier films than might first seem obvious.
It’s a side of fairy tales we haven’t seen on film in a while.
Yeah, because it’s normally sanitised. Here, the foibles of the characters, the weaknesses of the characters, are punished so brutally–as much by themselves as by other people. These are the bits you don’t normally see, the bits that are edited out of the Grimms.
How did you first react to the script when it did arrive?
Well, I suppose like most people when they go to university, I learned about Fellini, about Visconti and Bertolucci, but I was having to ingest a lot of film education very quickly. This felt like a retrieval of some of that period, it felt like, ‘Oh wow, I actually get to be in a movie like that.’ It felt very European, and it felt very bold, un-American, and passionate, uncompromising. You hear actors banging on about this, but it is rare that directors get to make those films–certainly on the budget that he was trying to make this.
And the film looks visually stunning despite the budget.
Partly because I think he knew where he wanted to shoot it. There’s so little CGI, it’s all natural landscape, and that’s what’s extraordinary. You get a view of Italy that is unique. I haven’t seen it in one film where you see all of those different terrains, all of those different castles. Bebe [Cave] and I could stand on the top of that castle and look out and not see a car anywhere. We were in medieval Italy.
The film has a really strong visual style. How much did that come through on the page?
It had to depend on that. They’re odd these tales, in many ways, but one of the key things is they are often under-populated. As filmmakers, you have to decide how you’re going to populate the screen. There’s one image in the film that really sticks with me, which is when the ogre heads off into the countryside with her [Bebe Cave’s Violet] on his shoulder, and there’s nothing else there. It’s just the wall of a castle, ogre, princess on shoulder. And it seems to belong to some memory of what that landscape should look like, in my mind’s eye when I read those tales and other tales like that. It looks that stark, that under-populated, it looks like a drawing.
Between Marvel, Hunger Games, and Harry Potter, you’ve been in three of the biggest franchises around. How do those compare to some of the much smaller productions you’ve been involved in?
They’re very, very different. The acting challenge is pretty much always the same. At the end of the day what an actor has to do is know why they’re there, what they want, where they came from. Very basic, concrete questions. They’re the same whether you’re on stage, whether you’re on film, whether you’re in a big film or a small film. What’s different I suppose is the amount of time spent on them. A scene may take months to shoot, you may return to it, re-dub it, all of that. It’s very different on a film like Tale of Tales, where there’s money to shoot it once, we’ve got to get this today, and get it done. Or Berberian [Sound Studio], we’ve got to get it done yesterday. That kind of pressure, and the other kind where there’s no pressure of time at all, makes it feel like you’re in different kinds of job almost. In a small budget film you are being employed partly to be a filmmaker, to come up with time-saving, economical ways of doing things. And if you’re good at that, you become a filmmaker as well.
Of your lesser-known films, are there any that you particularly wish more people had seen?
Well, I thought that no-one would see Berberian, so that was great, that that became a thing. But I sensed that if we got it right it might have a chance.
There’s a film called Leave to Remain, about people seeking leave to remain, teenagers coming over here and living in London, trying to find a way to stay in the country, that has become moot. More people, I hope, will see that now that immigration and refugee status is so much a part of the European debate. And that is a brilliant, brilliant film by a brilliant filmmaker called Bruce Goodison. That deserves to be seen by everyone.
Then I have high hopes for Kaleidoscope, when that comes out. That’s a very low budget film, but it’s got the great Anne Reid in it, and Sinead Matthews, and I hope that that can ride a similar wave that Berberian rode.
Tale of Tales is out in UK cinemas from June 17th, and you can read the Candid review here.
Words by Dominic Preston