Interview: Toby Jones On KALEIDOSCOPE, Secrets, And The Actor’s Process

And why he's worried about his mum seeing his latest movie.

Rupert Jones’ debut feature Kaleidoscope is out today. Starring the director’s brother, acting luminary Toby Jones, it’s a time-bending, claustrophobic thriller that touches on a number of uncomfortable subjects. It’s also pretty dang effective on an emotional level, even if it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense on first (or even second) viewing. I sat down with my cellphone to chat to the Jones you see on camera - the Jones you undoubtedly know and love from countless films large and small.

BMD: So on Kaleidoscope, you’re being directed by your brother Rupert. Have you and he done creative work together before?

Toby Jones: We did a short film that did very well in festivals called The Sickie, in 2006. In England, you have a phrase, “throwing a sickie,” which means pretending to be sick to get the day off work. It’s a short about a guy who’s trying to throw a sickie, but who has an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. So it’s a comedy about guilt and shame. We did that together very happily in 2006. So this is obviously a very different film. But yeah, I’ve been aware of his work in videos and other short films that he’s done.

The film is so heavily based around a single character - was it something he wrote for you? How much collaboration was there in the genesis of it?

He told me he was writing a very claustrophobic film, heavy on atmosphere. That’s all I knew. He sent me the script, and I had some questions for him - some of which he could answer, some of which he couldn’t. I made some suggestions, some of which he felt he could adapt, and others, he said no, that’s not how it’s going to be. So in that sense, the collaboration really began when I first read the script.

What was your first impression of it?

Over the years, I’ve got used to getting to page 10 of a script, and within Act One, you realise quite quickly whether a director is in charge of the mood they’re creating. And it became clear to me that although I didn’t understand everything that was going on, there was something about the mood that I found really compelling. It was a similar kind of feeling that I got reading Berberian Sound Studio - I knew almost immediately that I wanted to do it, because there was a kind of obsessive, hallucinatory quality to it. Here, I really liked the time loops - I really enjoyed that in the script straight away.

These films a wee bit like the films I grew up watching, and it’s really hard to get these films made nowadays. So regardless of whether it’s my brother or someone like Peter [Strickland], you want to support them. As an actor, you want to work in a very rich, diverse cinematic culture, and it’s very hard to find those scripts when they’re well achieved.

There’s definitely some crossover with Berberian - both films play in an emotional way, even if they don’t entirely make sense conventionally.

Yeah. Exactly. And in this kind of film - as much as you can say there is a “kind of” film like this - there is a strength and quality in the image. The image is just as important as the authentic and genuine emotion of the characters. The image may not be fully understood, other than on an emotional level, but when you’re acting in this stuff, you have to be incredibly clear and naturalistic about what you think is going on.

In a way the film feels like kind of an intimate one-room stage drama. Was that reflected in the process of shooting it?

Obviously there’s not a lot of time to hang around. It’s a film made to a certain price and a certain budget. The schedule was quite tight. I had to be very prepared with what I felt the story to be. And because there are lots of repetitions, lots of rhythmic beats that are repeated, I needed to be clear what happened in what order. In a way, you almost need to have very good charts and maps on the walls, so you know - because you’re shooting out of order, because you’re shooting at a rate of knots - what you have planned before the film starts. So I did that.

And then, the atmosphere was very much helped by the fact that we did a combination of location work at a block of flats in North London, with also a rather beautifully designed and lit set in a very small studio, also up in North London.

It’s a beautiful set and location - the claustrophobia plays so well. It felt like I was watching a film set in my grandmother’s house.

Ha, yeah! Very smart costume design, very smart production design, in terms of the clashing colours, the slightly sickly, jarring elements of it. All of those elements I thought were very successful - and obviously the music, which has kind of a melancholy and insistence to it as well.

Films shoot out of order all the time, but this film in particular has so many overlapping realities and points of view - what kind of challenge did that present?

It’s a nice challenge. You go to the writer - or the director, in this case, who’s also the writer - and you ask them what this or that means, and you know very quickly what they’re prepared to tell you and what’s just, “that’s the way it is.” [laughs] But you then have to go away, and you have the rather pleasurable job of trying to figure out the story that will be most interesting to tell, in a very naturalistic, day-to-day way, as if you were doing an Ibsen play. Where things start, where things end, where things are in his mind’s eye. But even when they’re in the character’s mind, they sort of have to be acted like they’re not, even though they’re not in the same reality. So you have to be very clear on secrets and repetition.

There are a ton of ideas circling your character Carl in the movie - a prison record, parental trauma, isolation - so what did you see as being the core of the character?

I don’t want to limit what deliberately remains oblique about this. For me, I think...a mortal crime has happened. Someone has died. And effectively, their ghost returns. And I also think, obviously, a sexual taboo is invoked between mother and son. And the extent of that, the audience will have to make a decision about. That’s the area that you’re in. But it’s hard to say that without being too prescriptive. That’s my own private reading of what’s going on.

Did you and Rupert have any sense of shared interpretation of what happened in the plot?

To a certain extent. But there came points where I’d go, “What is that? Why don’t we make that clear?” and he’d say, “That’s just how I want it to be. I need it to be like that.” And this is familiar territory for me, with a couple of other films I’ve made, where you hit - a “brick wall” suggests it’s more aggressive than it is. It’s not a brick wall; it’s more that there are certain things the director doesn’t want to articulate, whereas the actor needs to come up with answers to them.

Do you ever feel worried you’ve got it wrong?

My main worry was actually what my mother would think when she saw the film! Obviously it’s come from some room in my brother’s mind, and I’ve got to act it out, and I wonder what she’d make of her sons scooting around in this...particular area of psychosexual inquiry.

I don’t envy having to face that conversation.

[laughs]

So what’s up next? I see you’re playing Mason in the upcoming Journey’s End film - weird coincidence, I played that role in a production in high school.

Ah! How’d it go for you? It turned out to be a much better role than I’d assumed.

Yeah - it reads like a comic relief character at first, but there’s a lot more depth behind it. And you’re about to start work on a stage show?

Yes! A production of The Birthday Party, by Harold Pinter. It’s 60 years on now from the first production, and there’s a 60th anniversary production happening in the West End in January. So I’m about to start rehearsing that a week today.

No way. I did The Birthday Party at school too.

Oh my god. What did you play in that?

The main character, I’m a little fuzzy on the names.

Stanley! That’s who I’m playing.

Jesus.

Someone’s going to approach you with a revival of Kaleidoscope in twenty or thirty years. That’s my prediction.

Well, break a leg anyway!

I hope I live up to your performance.

Kaleidoscope is out today theatrically in New York and Los Angeles, and on all major digital platforms.

Comments