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“I am highly conscious of my public school background at the moment. All of those things that you dislike”: Toby Jones discusses class, character, and the price of being famous.


I am currently waiting on a mezzanine level at a fancy establishment in Shoreditch, located in east London. As I wait, I hear someone approaching with great energy and taking the stairs two at a time. “I wonder who that could be,” I ponder to myself. To my surprise, it is Toby Jones, age 57. He looks quite sophisticated and cultured, with well-tailored earth-toned casual attire. This is a stark contrast to my recent viewing of Mr Bates vs the Post Office, a new ITV drama about a class action lawsuit involving Alan Bates, a former post office operator from Craig-y-Don in Llandudno. Bates, a humble advocate for justice, possesses many admirable qualities, including a strong moral compass that exudes its own charm when portrayed by Jones. However, being chic and urbane is not one of those qualities.

The scandal is one of the most egregious examples of injustice in the history of the British legal system: for more than two decades, the Post Office falsely accused post office operators across the country of fraud and theft, attributing accounting errors to their own software. The story highlights the deceitful actions of the corporation from the very beginning, as Post Office representatives misled operators by claiming they were the only ones experiencing these errors, ultimately resulting in court cases and imprisonment for some. Instead of addressing their significant mistake, the Post Office dismissed each incident as isolated and failed to conduct an investigation. Later, when the truth was uncovered, it was concealed. The process of receiving compensation has been slow and inconsistent, with many still awaiting resolution. Furthermore, no amount of compensation can make up for the time spent in prison, lives lost to suicide, and ongoing struggles with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, not only for the post office operators but also for their families.

However, before delving into that topic, Jones takes note of my current reading material (Lanny, by Max Porter) and has numerous thoughts about the writer. It’s worth noting that Jones narrated the audiobook version of Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, also by Porter (if you haven’t already, I highly recommend pausing this and listening to it immediately), so it’s reasonable to expect him to have some thoughts, but not an excessive amount.

With Julie Hesmondhalgh in Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

The conversation turns to the topic of grief, death, and mourning. The speaker mentions a book that discusses how mourning can shape our lives, but the listener immediately challenges this idea. They point out that not everyone experiences loss until they are older and already established in their identities. The speaker then shares a personal experience of how their own understanding of grief has changed after their wife lost both of her parents at a relatively young age. They reflect on their own attempts to empathize with their wife and her sister, and express regret for not fully understanding the impact of their loss.

Jones is an actor’s actor, so subtle, meticulous, inventive that often it takes a trained eye to pinpoint it, even if the untrained eye can perceive it. He has been the stamp of excellence on a huge number of films and TV shows since the 1990s, though rarely the lead, with a few exceptions – he played Truman Capote in the biopic Infamous (2007); Roger Yount in the BBC adaptation of John Lanchester’s Capital (2015) – arguably, there was no lead in that, but Jones’s hectic, emotional banker was up there; he’s one half of Detectorists (2014-22), the other, Mackenzie Crook. Having discernment and lacking a square jaw, there’s no romantic lunk material, and therefore almost nothing boring on his CV, even if he has sometimes been underused in blockbusters. For people who have worked with him, the top line is always that he’s a genius. But the first thing you notice when you meet him is that he’s incredibly nice.

His portrayal of Bates is outstanding: from the moment he steps behind his post office counter, he exudes a sense of integrity, perseverance, modest bravery, and unwavering determination. Despite having left his post office, Bates continued to sort through his records, determined to uncover the source of the errors. As he gained an understanding of the number of post office operators involved, he organized a public meeting in a remote location, strategically located in the heart of the UK. This move sparked significant changes.

According to Jones, Bates is quite unique. When Jones spoke to him in preparation for the role, he seemed to imply that he lacked emotions. Jones had many questions about Bates’ experiences, but Bates would simply respond that he didn’t have strong feelings about them.

Jones was faced with a challenge when he encountered a character who had self-taught knowledge of software but lacked emotional expression. On one hand, this seemed fitting for a post office operator, as their job requires them to remain invisible. However, on the other hand, Jones struggled with how to portray this character, as he found it hard to believe that anyone could truly lack emotions.

Portrait of Toby Joes on a set with lots of objects covered in brown paper. Styling: Peter Bevan. Set design: Victoria Twyman. Grooming: Nadia Altinbas. Jumper, universalworks.co.uk. Jeans, uniqlo.com. Socks, falke.com. Shoes, grenson.com. Top image: knit, by Jacquemus, from matchesfashion.com.

Next, he conversed with ex-MP James Arbuthnot, who also vigorously advocated for the post office operators’ rights. “He expressed, ‘Spending time with Alan Bates enriched my life greatly. I am fortunate to have known a man like Alan Bates.'”

Jones describes him as embodying the traditional British values of modesty, duty, and humbleness that were instilled in him during his childhood. These values may have been disregarded in the 1980s, but they have greatly influenced his character. Jones admires this quality and believes it is a heroic trait that is praised in the drama. It was this aspect of his character that motivated Jones to take on the role, as he longed for more stories that highlighted these virtues instead of the constant focus on shameless individuals in today’s society.

The controversy remains ongoing: reparation is unacceptably delayed, certain effects will require a lengthy recovery period, and some are irreversible – four individuals involved in the situation have tragically ended their own lives. Therefore, the situation seems like a current intervention, as well as a timeless, archetypal work. Jones explains, “This is how I was taught about drama, the protagonist breaks away from the group: either representing it or opposing it. It felt very instinctual in that aspect.”

However, he wants to emphasize that he simply accepted the job – “Actors are desperate for work” – and is only asked to make one decision – “Yes or no”. He must have some control over his roles since his main goal is to avoid repetition and his resume shows very little of it. Even in big-budget films like Captain America (2011 and 2014), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023), which may seem similar, he always brings something new to the table. “I’m always searching for the uncharted territory, free from anything I’ve done before. Playing the same role, in terms of its purpose in the story, can be demoralizing. The joy of the job is lost. It becomes just another task.”

However, he strongly believes that having any job is better than being unemployed. He recalls his time training as an actor in Paris, where the emphasis was always on avoiding unemployment. He finds it comical and ironic, as he attended the renowned mime school, Jacques Lecoq, and was advised to never be without work. “Did they really say that at Jacques Lecoq?” I inquire. “Yes, they did,” he confirms. “But it’s a mime school,” I point out. “It’s not just a mime school,” he responds. He doesn’t seem bothered, but maybe if I mention “mime” a few more times, he will be.

With Hugo Weaving in Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011.

I had a discussion that taught me more about the basic principles of acting than I have ever learned before. Toby Jones, whose parents were both actors, made a conscious decision not to pursue the same career path. His father, Freddie Jones, was highly respected in theater and was sought after for television roles, eventually retiring after 13 years on Emmerdale. Toby’s mother, Jennie Jones (formerly Heslewood), also had a background in acting before prioritizing raising Toby and his two brothers.

Jones was born in London and raised in Oxford. He attended Abingdon, a private school known for producing seven notable individuals in a short span of time (including Jones, Tom Hollander, and all five members of Radiohead). He then studied at the University of Manchester with the intention of becoming a director, and graduated in 1989. However, he began to question the value of his degree as he noticed the decline of traditional theatre and the rise of other media. It wasn’t until he discovered continental photographs of Polish and French theatre that he realized there was potential for creating something new and unique. Inspired by the medieval concept of using people from different cultures to create new theatre, Jones saw the opportunity for new physical language to emerge through collaboration and improvisation.

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He believed that this form of theatre would withstand the modern world, unlike traditional plays that imitated television. He traveled to Paris, recalling how on the first day, the performers declared, “And now we have acrobatics,” causing him to think, “No, no, no, no, I’m here for theatre.” He mimics his younger self, a confident public school-educated individual who hides insecurities beneath the surface. The experience revealed a different side of his brain that he had neglected since the age of 12 when he prioritized reading and writing. Suddenly, this talent was disregarded as they asked him to stop taking notes, thinking, and just play instead.

Aside from Lecoq, there was another factor that influenced me – Monty Python. As a child, I would listen to their records repeatedly and wonder why it made me laugh. However, this was something more common among young boys. (He pauses to acknowledge the sexism of this statement but then continues.) We would listen to the same records obsessively until we understood why they were funny. This eventually became ingrained in us.

I used to find Python amusing, but that changed when it started being used to promote political wrongdoing with a private school mentality. “I completely understand what you mean,” he says. “It felt like Boris Johnson was someone I knew from school. I thought, ‘Wow, he’s the epitome of so many people I encountered in school and in other schools. I know that guy.’ It affected me even more because of that. It ruined his charm, which appeared to be his greatest asset. His actions are so cynical.” I was ready to start complaining about the government, my usual go-to, but he goes off on a tangent. “I once heard someone say that all comedy is conservative. I argued, ‘No, it’s chaotic.’ They responded, ‘Comedy assumes there’s a correct way to do things, which is then messed up or subverted.’ To understand it, you have to acknowledge that there’s a right way to do things and this isn’t it. Or, ‘They all have it together, except for this one person’ or ‘Listen to her accent, isn’t it funny?’ It relies on a certain understanding of what is considered normal.”


When Jones returned to London in 1991, he was a radical and an idealist. The training he received followed a medieval model where everyone was expected to participate in all aspects of theatre – acting, writing, producing, directing, and designing – with the ultimate goal of starting a company and creating art. Despite the endless possibilities and fun he had, he struggled with the fact that no one knew him and no one needed him in the world. In response, he took a defensive stance, seeing it as “us against the world” and viewing the world as corrupt. He believed that they needed funding for their important work and aimed to overturn the current state of theatre. Instead of seeing themselves as just another part of the ecosystem, they demonized their opposition. Jones spent a significant amount of time at the Battersea Arts Centre in south London, watching plays and analyzing them with others. He refers to this time as their own “little golden age.” He strongly disagrees with dividing his career into wilderness years and box office success and believes that if given the opportunity to create theatre at the Battersea Arts Centre, he would take it. In 1992, he landed a small role in the interesting film Orlando, which starred Tilda Swinton.

As the 21st century began, many iconic British TV shows and movies would have felt lacking without Jones’s presence. Whether it was in Doctor Who or as the voice of Dobby in two Harry Potter films, he played an integral role. Jones appears to have a humble attitude, as he never sought out larger parts just for the sake of it. He has taken on leading roles, such as in Infamous, but even in smaller roles like Norman in last year’s Empire of Light, he always brings his signature Jones-y charm.

Does he have ambitious goals? He approaches the topic in an indirect manner. “Well, my significant other is a lawyer,” he begins (referring to his wife, Karen – they were together for 25 years before marrying in 2015 and have two adult daughters). “There is an expectation of what is considered successful. Once you become a successful lawyer, you have to do this and then that.” Acting is not as straightforward. “There is no set career path, and I appreciate that. There are no luxurious penthouses, no top bosses, no ultimate goals to strive for.” However, there are similarities in that “others may project their own ambitions onto you. They wonder why you don’t have the same drive. I am very ambitious, but my ambitions may not align with someone else’s. As you get older, fame can seem like a childish ambition. I don’t necessarily feel famous, but I am famous enough to answer this question. How many times do you have to be told that it’s not the answer? Our culture constantly reminds us, doesn’t it? But fame does not bring happiness. And guess what? It doesn’t. But if you are someone struggling to make it as an actor, if you feel like giving up and then read my words about fame not being the answer, you might think, ‘Who are you to say that?’ “

With Mackenzie Crook in Detectorists, 2022: ‘No one ever had to change a single word that Mackenzie wrote.’

One of the most surprising performances I came across was Lance in Detectorists. Everything about it, from his delivery to his mannerisms, was incredibly humorous. He acknowledges his privileged background and acknowledges that his behavior may be seen as pretentious, but thanks to the impeccable writing by Mackenzie Crook, it all comes together seamlessly. It’s heartwarming to see Jones and Crook speak of each other with such admiration and support, something we should all strive for in our friendships. And just as I was thinking that, Lance mentions how the characters they portray also have a deep love and respect for each other. Despite their unconventional hobby of metal detecting, they are truly in love with each other and appreciate each other’s quirks.

One could argue that the most surprising roles for Jones are in blockbusters, as those films typically do not require the range of acting he possesses. However, he still finds excitement in larger productions because he sees others who have faced similar struggles in the industry. Even in big-budget Hollywood projects, he can’t help but feel disappointed when the script doesn’t live up to its potential, despite the talented people involved. While he doesn’t explicitly mention Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones (two recent reboots he has starred in), it’s possible that he is referring to them. Jones believes that some people watch movies to be disoriented, while others seek out experiences with dinosaurs or adventurous archaeologists. For him, the story is not the most important aspect, but rather the sensation and thrill of being immersed in a theme park-like experience. He recognizes the roots of cinema in capturing simple sensations, such as a train coming towards the audience. His personal preferences in movies are not relevant in the grand scheme of things.

He is a nice person because he is not easily disappointed. He has a strong curiosity for creativity that cannot be satisfied or stopped. He loves his job and there is always more to it. When speaking with his actor friends who have been in the industry for a long time, he is aware of the aspects of the job that he enjoys and those that he does not. These lists may change over time. For example, he used to hate having his photo taken, but on this particular morning, he did not. I remember seeing the wardrobe options for the shoot when I first arrived, including dress shoes and Birkenstocks in various colors. I personally would not enjoy being forced to wear Birkenstocks in every color, but that was not the aspect he disliked. He explains that when he is playing a character who is not himself, there is something to hide behind.

Source: theguardian.com