Toby Jones arrives for our interview in a patterned grey jacket, charcoal trousers and a rough-hewn shirt. He is 5ft 5in – and a man of curious proportions. His head, without being rude, is rather bulbous. He has small blue eyes and tufts of sandy hair. All of which led one critic to describe him as looking like “a distressed potato”. Another said he has a “Mekon-sized forehead”. While such comments suggest he’s not been blessed with features to play the romantic hero, Jones couldn’t care less. He has far more interesting propositions to consider. 

At 49, this unlikely English actor is hitting his peak. Constantly in demand in Hollywood – he’s featured recently in both Marvel’s Captain America movie and The Hunger Games franchise, as the bouffant-haired Claudius Templesmith – he’s also a regular on British television and in homegrown films. Recently, he’s been in the BBC drama Capital, making you sympathise with a banker in freefall, and played fork lift truck driver and metal detector enthusiast Lance in Mackenzie Crook’s Bafta-winning sitcom Detectorists.

HeraldScotland: Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones in The DetectoristsMackenzie Crook and Toby Jones in The Detectorists

Jones once said in a Q&A that the late Philip Seymour Hoffman would play him in a movie of his life – doubtless a cheeky answer. It was Hoffman who won an Oscar for playing Truman Capote, the literary genius also played by Jones in 2006’s Infamous. It should have been Jones’ big break – or one of them – but Hoffman’s movie Capote arrived first. The biggest hullabaloo was over Jones’ love scene with 007 star Daniel Craig. “I had no idea, subsequently, that I’d be asked a lot of questions about kissing James Bond,” Jones remarks. “It was not something ever in my career plan.”

If being outshone by Hoffman was rather bad luck, it happened to Jones again when he played Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl, a BBC drama about the director’s time with leading lady Tippi Hedren. Once again he was overshadowed – by Anthony Hopkins playing the filmmaker in the movie Hitchcock, which similarly dealt with his obsessive interest in Janet Leigh as he was making Psycho. Once again, Jones was left quietly ruing how his performance, arguably the better of the two, had been left in the dust. 

HeraldScotland: Toby Jones as Alfred HitchcockToby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock

So one can only hazard a guess at how he felt when he heard about We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story. A one-off dramatisation of how the classic Jimmy Perry-David Croft sitcom came into being, which the BBC showed over Christmas. It featured John Sessions brilliantly made up as Arthur Lowe – famous for playing the pompous Captain Mainwaring, leader of the Home Guard, the Second World War volunteers in the show’s fictional seaside resort of Walmington-on-Sea.

While Sessions plays Lowe in this behind-the-scenes drama more than he does Mainwaring, you can only imagine Jones cursing his luck, given he’s playing the character in the new movie remake of the TV series. Admittedly, he has more to worry about than Sessions. One of the most beloved British shows of all time, Dad’s Army ran for nine seasons and pulled in 18 million viewers at its peak. “We all had massive doubts,” admits Jones. “You’d have to be insane to do Dad’s Army and not be doubtful. We all love those characters.”


It is hallowed ground that Jones is treading on – though you have to tip your hat to the casting. With Bill Nighy as Sergeant Wilson (previously played by John Le Mesurier), Michael Gambon as Private Godfrey (Arnold Ridley) and Sir Tom Courtenay as Corporal Jones (Clive Dunn), the actors are perfect modern-day counterparts to their predecessors. It was one of the things that convinced Jones to take it on. “You look around at the other actors,” he says, “and selfishly, you go, ‘I’d like to be doing that scene with those actors. I’d like to do that.’”

Did he revisit the original TV show? “Well, I watched a lot,” he replies. “I didn’t think I would – I thought, ‘That’s not going to be helpful.’ Then I got sucked into all the black-and-white ones.” Gradually, he fell for the ensemble, all working in perfect harmony. “If it doesn’t sound pretentious, there’s this platoon – and when you’re in scenes with a platoon, what’s so amazing is there’s an answer for everything. They’re a crack comedy platoon. It feels like it’s one person.”


The story will sound familiar to anyone who has watched the show, with the Home Guard rooting out a German spy in their midst. “You’re very aware that the story is of the Home Guard,” says Jones. “If they hadn’t made Dad’s Army, you’d want to make a story of the Home Guard because it’s so absurd, it’s so ridiculous. So it’s inevitable they made Dad’s Army. And when you look at the material, you go, ‘Wow, if only they hadn’t made Dad’s Army, there’d be hundreds of stories about these guys who thought they were defending civilisation.’”

In many ways, Jones is perfect as Mainwaring, and not simply because he delivers the catchphrase “Stupid boy!” with the same disdain as Lowe. “He is brilliant as Captain Mainwaring,” says Nighy. “It’s nothing to do with Arthur Lowe and everything to do with Arthur Lowe. It’s perfectly pitched.”

Oddly, Jones’ career recollects Lowe’s, who frequently popped up in strange movies like If… and O Lucky Man! Similarly, Jones has taken detours – not least as the Surrey sound engineer working in Italy in Berberian Sound Studio. 

Does he feel an affinity with Lowe? “I feel inspired by him,” he nods. “I’m not sure how happy he was. I feel charmed and happy and lucky. The industry is very different now than when he was working.” True, Lowe suffered from alcoholism in his later years, as he was reduced to working in pantomimes and touring theatre productions. Jones, by comparison, has seen his career blossom, benefitting from the access to Hollywood that was denied to many British actors when Lowe was in his prime. 


Largely thanks to his Truman Capote, Oliver Stone cast him as Karl Rove in W and Ron Howard hired him to play agent “Swifty” Lazar in Frost/Nixon. All of a sudden, Jones was on the studio call-sheet. Even now, he’s surprised by the scale of American productions compared to something like Dad’s Army. “It’s extraordinary. It feels like two different jobs,” he marvels. “The basic contract is the same: make the story as if it’s true. But it’s fantastic working in these two different areas. They feel very, very different.”

Born in Hammersmith, the eldest of three boys, Jones’ early life was governed by acting. His father is the well-respected character actor Freddie Jones, whose credits include David Lynch’s Wild at Heart and The Elephant Man, in which he played John Merrick’s cruel keeper. “For him, acting was like going to work,” says Jones, who clearly treats the job in the same down-to-earth manner. Jones’ mother Jennifer, who gave up acting to raise her sons, also had the profession in her family “going back to people shifting things in carts in the 18th century”.

Now aged 88, Jones’ father is still acting and has played Sandy Thomas for more than a decade on ITV soap Emmerdale. Jones himself recently appeared in By Our Selves, a surreal meditation on poet John Clare, previously played by his father in a 1970 BBC Omnibus broadcast. “When your parents are actors, what you get denied is the romance,” he says. “You are aware of the chaos and despair, as well as the joy and camaraderie. My father was always very discreet about his work when we were being raised. It was very much a job.” 

Raised in Surrey and Oxfordshire, Jones was interested in politics in his teens. He marched with CND and sat with the women of Greenham Common, and his own interest in acting didn’t materialise until his late teens, when a book on the subject fired his imagination. His parents advised him to get a degree first – and he went to Manchester University, where he studied American literature and drama. His tutors were radicals who considered Shakespeare bourgeois, far removed from his father’s work-a-day attitude to acting.

When Jones graduated, he further rebelled by enrolling in classes at the Ecole Internationale de Theatre in Paris, an institution founded by Jacques Lecoq, who devised a teaching programme based around movement of the human body. “It was the best decision I’ve made ever. I continue to use that training ever day of my life,” he says, before informing me the school’s “most famous cinematic alumnus” was Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush. “It’s a very physical, theatre-based training.”

Focusing on mime and clowning, it taught Jones two valuable lessons: to physically inhabit the character he’s playing and to expand his notion of what an actor can be – not just performance, but writing or directing. He stuck to this rigorously: in 2000, he took his one-man show Wanted Man to the Edinburgh Fringe. The story of a middle-aged suburban everyman named John Jump, living out his fantasies in his potting shed, it was perfectly tailored to Jones’ talents for transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.

The early years had been difficult, though. A year after he finished his studies, he featured briefly in Sally Potter’s 1992 film Orlando. Then he won the not-so-auspicious role of “man at tea bar” in Mike Leigh’s searing drama Naked (the ever-opinionated Leigh told him he was too down on himself). “I’ve always done bits and bobs,” says Jones, with typical modesty – often blink-and-you’ll-miss roles in high-profile films like Luc Besson’s Joan of Arc tale The Messenger (he was a judge) or the 1998 version of Les Miserables (a doorkeeper). 

His first big break – one line in Richard Curtis’ romantic comedy Notting Hill, as an obsessed fan – ended up on the cutting-room floor. Again Jones picked up his pen, writing the surreal show, Missing Reel, about the experience. Later, he was cast as the voice of Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second of the JK Rowling books. He can still recall walking the red carpet at the premiere behind Daniel Radcliffe, the crowds screaming and the flashbulbs popping, “and then there comes me and there is just this deadly silence”.

Theatre was really where Jones found his feet. Shortly before Harry Potter, Jones starred in the original 2001 production of The Play What I Wrote, directed by Kenneth Branagh. A musical farce tribute to Morecambe and Wise, it was the perfect showcase for his diversity – given he played everything from a dog to Daryl Hannah to a militant member of the M&W appreciation society. It won him an Olivier Award for best actor in a supporting role and, when it transferred to Broadway, a Tony nomination.

It was in New York that he first heard about Infamous and the role of Capote, then being considered by both Johnny Depp and Sean Penn. His agent told him to read Capote’s seminal true-crime account In Cold Blood in preparation. “I was genuinely and fundamentally excited, in the sense of being terrified,” he recalls. “It’s what every actor wants, the promise of transformation. Physically, vocally, spiritually. With a character like this, it’s not like it’s an invention … Well, it is an invention, but there’s so much raw material to process.”

The film’s writer-director Doug McGrath hadn’t seen Jones’ work but had begun to hear his name. “Everybody kept saying the same thing,” he recalls. “They said, ‘He looks a little like Truman Capote but he’s a great actor.’” He was tipped off by his “very blunt” casting director Ellen Lewis, who has worked for the likes of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. “She said, ‘He’s great. You need to meet him. He looks like he could do anything.’ When Ellen said that, I thought, ‘If she’s saying that, that’s real.’”

Indeed, Jones can just about do anything. He was a sheriff in the film Serena with Jennifer Lawrence and a Stoke City fan with learning difficulties in the BBC Two drama Marvellous. Currently shooting Cold War tale The Coldest City with Charlize Theron and James McAvoy, he’ll also be heard voicing a character alongside Johnny Depp in this year’s blockbuster Alice Through the Looking Glass. “If I look for anything, it’s contrast,” he says. “But if you can’t get contrast, then you look for shifting register in the roles.”

Next he can be seen as a king in Italian director Matteo Garrone’s wonderfully inventive fable Tale of Tales, a throwback to the outlandish European movies of the 1970s. Jones marvels at the film’s daring and invention. “It’s amazing when you see those scripts, you think, ‘Wow! Someone is still making these films.’ I’m so relieved that people are. And then they ask me to be in them and I go, ‘Of course, whatever, I’ll do it.’ It’s very thin, the diet now, the cinematic diet. And this is a huge, rich movie from a very confident auteur, someone at the top of his game.”

Co-starring Salma Hayek and John C Reilly, the film was shot all round Italy, including Sicily and Naples. “I’ve got to say, when you make a film in Italy, it’s so different from Hollywood. The style on the set is very instinctive.” Like so much of Jones’ career, it saw him follow in his father’s footsteps, who had worked for the great Italian director Federico Fellini in And the Ship Sails On. Working for Italian productions has its hazards, as Jones learned. “His agent came up to me and said, ‘Did he talk to you about trying to get a fee out of Italy?’”

His role as a besotted father immediately clicked. “I can relate to that. You love your children too much and you don’t want them to leave.” Jones has two teenage daughters of his own, Holly and Madeleine. The family lives in Stockwell, in south London, with Jones’ wife Karen, a criminal defence barrister (after 25 years together, he and Karen married recently). He’s wary of his daughters following him into acting. “I can think of few riskier jobs than becoming an actress,” he says. “It’s such a perilous, psychologically demanding job.” 

While this is true, Jones seems adept at negotiating the difficulties – even the frequent media barbs about his appearance. “I used to get very upset reading descriptions of myself,” he once said. “I’d think, am I really so ‘strange’ and ‘bizarre’ and ‘weird-looking’ and ‘asymmetrical-featured’ that people feel they can use these adjectives?” He never even particularly thought of himself as short until he started making films – a description used to put him in a convenient box. But now with a career like his, Jones is towering above most.

Dad’s Army (PG) is out now. Tale of Tales (TBC) is released on June 17.