Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

Drama student Q & A with Toby Jones - stage, screen, and voice actor

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Toby Jones

Toby Jones, star of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Hunger Games, visited Oxford Brookes to answer questions from the university’s Drama students.

The Q and A was opened by Oxford Brookes lecturer and Head of the Department of English and Modern Languages, Professor Simon Kövesi. Simon had previously met Toby when he played the poet John Clare in the film “By Our Selves”, part of which was filmed at Oxford Brookes.

The session, lasting just over an hour, saw Toby taking a variety of questions, ranging from covering his early career, audition technique, and the acting scene today. A few of the student’s questions are included below.

Q: Could you tell us how you started out as an actor, and was there a moment you decided that’s the thing for me?
A: Those sort of questions are such big questions. When you start out as an actor you have such a clear idea why you are doing this and then you look back and think “well it’s because I did that course, or I saw that film, or because my dad’s an actor”. All of those things are true but I think it probably comes down to these very strong memories as a young child - and I’m not proud of this - of being very struck by how much I wanted to impress adults around the dinner table. There was something almost more fun about making an adult laugh, than making a contemporary laugh.

Q: Was there one performer or actor that you modelled yourself on early on?
A: I think there must have been a succession. The weird thing about actors is that they’re a part of our lives, whether we like it or not. Actors get credited with a lot more skill than they may merit, because writers and directors are incredibly skilled and can help out a performance massively, particularly in film. There are lots of actors who will have affected me without me knowing. The one actor I grew watching more than any other was my father, so his influence, there’s nothing I can do about that; it’s in my DNA. The first time I looked at acting properly was in those 1970’s movies, like De Niro, Pacino - looking at those actors and the films they were in I just went wow, I really want to have a part in a film.

Q: What counts as bad practice in the acting world?
A: Every time I play a character, I have to rediscover the world. There’s a whole spectrum of choice there, so in that way one has to be childlike. You can use the metaphor of the child, relearning the world. What happens in my job is that people can become childish, there’s a childishness that comes up and the needs of the actor become petty.

Q: Once you started acting, did you have a plan b?
A: I always told myself there was a plan B. I loved university and thought, “Oh I could go do an MA and try and become a Drama academic - that’d be great, I’ll do that.” Absurd, you know, because you’re so fearful even now. I know what I’m doing until December 16th, and then I don’t know. So you protect yourself with these scenarios. But there was no plan B.

Q: Do you have any advice for preparing for auditions?
A: It sounds stupid, but really know your lines backwards. I never used to do this because I was convinced I’d go to these auditions and they’d see how brilliant I was, it was so arrogant. But there are hundreds of guys like me - short guys with funny faces who can learn their lines and do the job. You learn your lines so you can listen to what the person auditioning you is saying. He’ll say “good, now do it like this”. Listening is the most important thing in our job, and really understanding what they mean, as they may not be good at communicating.

Q: Is there a piece of theatre or film that has stood out to you in any way?
A: Not one, but lots - lots of them for lots of different reasons. It was kind of unbelievable when I got cast as Truman Capote in Infamous. It was playing an iconic American figure, with incredible actors, in a Warner Brothers movie - and I had no experience in that at all. I couldn’t do the voice or anything, but I did a proper audition and I got that job. I was so terrified I practically lived as the character 24 hours a day. So I think that was a big turning point for me.

Q: How do you think the scene has changed for young actors?
A: When I was at that stage there was the repertory theatre system, which was a great way of trying things out, and failing in important ways. There are obviously still rep theatres here, but there seems to be much less of that. Similarly the scale of production - plays seem to be written for smaller casts, so there are fewer small parts for people to learn in. On the plus side, everyone now has the ability to make their own movie, they can make it any time, wherever they are, and that’s a fantastic tool for young actors.

Q: What advice would you give to students coming from a stage background for on-screen acting?
A: There’s a great quote, “Style is knowing what play you’re in”. In film you have to understand space has shifted, the audience is coming to you, whereas you go to the audience in theatre. You still have the same problems in both formats “what do you want, where have you come from, where are you going”, but the scale of the decision has shifted much more because the audience is coming to you.

To find out more about studying Drama at Oxford Brookes, visit our website.