Actor Toby Jones’ recent villainous turn as a megalomaniacal ― and murderous ― entrepreneur in Sherlock’s fourth season stole scenes from series’ leads Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Not an easy task considering the rabidity those artists inspire in Sherlock’s fan base and evidence of just how impactful Jones’ appearance in a film or television series can be.
For U.S. audiences, Jones next takes the lead as lawyer John Mayhew in Agatha Christie’s The Witness for the Prosecution, airing on Acorn TV and a follow-up to screenwriter Sarah Phelps’ hit adaption of the famous 20th century crime novelist’s And Then There Were None last year.
When rich London socialite Emily French (Kim Cattrall) is found bludgeoned to death with a candlestick in her own home, French’s housekeeper, Janet (Monica Dolan), is quick to point police to Emily’s young lover, Leonard (Billy Howle). After Leonard’s arrest, his lawyer Mayhew is the only one who believes his innocence. Tasked with sifting through the murk of lies and deceit, Mayhew uncovers surprising truths over the TV film’s two-hour runtime, and Jones characteristically responds to each with expertly calculated emotional nuance.
Rotten Tomatoes spoke with Jones about tackling Phelps’ latest Agatha Christie outing and showcasing the grays of morality in matters of law and order. Plus, he reveals his favorite part about working on Sherlock and why he’d love to play Donald Trump.
Benjamin Lindsay for Rotten Tomatoes: For starters, how is it that this Agatha Christie adaptation came to you?
Toby Jones: Agatha Christie adaptations — there are many, many, many. And it was very unexpected to receive one that was so unlike my experience with Agatha Christie in the past. They’re normally resolved, the plots are resolved, the story’s sorted, the villains are punished, and everyone can get on with living their life again. “It was unfortunate, but you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet” — that’s normally the feeling at the end of Agatha Christie. When the script arrived, it was such a surprise to realize that absolutely nothing is resolved other than the fact that everyone is morally suspect, and people don’t sort stuff out when they’ve been in so much pain.
That was particularly an interesting take for me, too, especially coming off last year’s And Then There Were None. This is a story that not everyone is familiar with in the same way. It’s kind of dusting it off and bringing it back for us to enjoy.
Jones: Yeah, it’s almost reinventing it in a way because it’s a very short story — 20 pages long. And I think Sarah was looking to explore various themes that are merely hinted at in the story and to open up the whole idea of the First World War having just finished and about the roots of moral corruption being rooted in warfare, really.
With those themes in mind, why were you interested in bringing Mayhew to the screen?
Toby Jones: I’d worked with [director] Julian Jarrold before on a thing called The Girl about Alfred Hitchcock, and I really enjoyed working with him. And he said, “I think you’ll enjoy this one.” It has a moral ambiguity not dissimilar from The Girl that someone is being attracted to something that is beyond them.
There is a flame and they’re being drawn towards it. And in a way, this one is much more mysterious, because we’re aware that everyone seems to be wounded, but the reveal at the end is really about the depth and nature of those wounds. That’s always very interesting to play: people who have to cope, who are trying to put a brave face on. It’s a kind of quintessential British quality in drama, that you hide what you’re really feeling. [As an actor], you get to leech it out little by little in the course of a drama. I’m attracted to parts like that, in a way.
There’s also an interesting area that I was keen to highlight in the script, which was once the plot seems to have been solved towards the end of the film, obviously, his reputation begins to grow and he’s financially better off, and there’s a kind of complacency that sets in and an arrogance. In a way, that has to be punished, too, by the story. She’s put that in, as well. And that was very nice, the idea that somehow this guy isn’t just simply “the good guy” who’s having a hard time. He’s also a guy who’s prone to vanity himself and prone to arrogance.
What were your thoughts on the casting of Kim Cattrall as Emily French?
Jones: I thought it was a very good piece of casting because that kind of character is not the sort of character that you want to associate with depictions of the 1920s: the idea of a single woman who’s at one with her sexuality. I thought Kim dealt with all of that with great elegance. It wasn’t sleazy, it wasn’t gratuitous. I thought she found a way of doing it that was terrific. It may surprise people.
And Billy Howle — you share the screen with him quite a bit, and he definitely seems like a talent on-the-rise. What was working with him like?
Jones: Yes, [he’s] very good. Very psychologically coherent, I thought. It’s a very tricky thing to play someone who’s that imbalanced, and I thought he was terrific. The emotional language that he found for his character was very impressive for someone so young.
In situations like that, do you ever offer advice on set to the younger talent?
Jones: Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I don’t think I do. It’s not really my place to do that. Typically, when you’re filming, there’s enough stuff for you to worry about for your own that you can’t really be going around telling other people how they might do it.
You mention that you were working with Julian again. Was that something you sought out?
Jones: Yeah, [there’s the] whole challenge of being a freelance employee, [but] when you find people who you can collaborate with, it makes the job easier. It’s all about communication and if that in any way can be facilitated, you go, “Oh, I really understand what he means — we understand each other.” I’m not sure it’s consciously you seek out projects, but you’re always likely to want to find something together because we have similar taste in projects.
Rewinding a bit to The Girl, that’s not the first project where you’ve taken on a real-life figure. Are there any real-life figures who are on your bucket list that you’d like to take to the stage or screen?
Jones: I daren’t say that. There’s plenty of people I’d like to play. I’ve always been surprised that people think I look enough like various people that I can play them — clearly with a bit of makeup. There are a lot of parts that actors can play that they don’t think they can play. So I don’t have specific ones, but I enjoy playing real-life characters. There’s a sense that the backstory is looked after for you, and it’s interesting to look at the way people move and to try and imagine what lies behind the public face.
How do you break that down and ensure it’s not a caricature?
Jones: Well, I don’t know that you’re ever really sure. I know that there’s a very comforting thought when people ask me that question, which is the only reason to do a film or a play or a TV show about a real person is because you think you’ve got some new angle, and that will be something that is not in the public domain. So what oftentimes happens paradoxically is people go, “Oh no, they’re nothing like the real person. That’s not what that person was like.” But, of course, the fact of the matter is no one knows what people are like.
The whole point of the dramas is it’s revealing something about their private life, and since people behave very differently in private than they do in public, it’s a very interesting area of detection to try and work out how people relax, how people are when they’re on their own, how people move when they’re not being watched. What relaxes in them or tenses in them?
Would you ever play Donald Trump?
Jones: [Laughs] Someone’s already cornered that role, as far as I understand it! I thought someone has already colonized it — Alec Baldwin is Donald Trump, isn’t he? But I’d love to play Donald Trump. He’s exactly the sort of person I’d like to play.
And your recent stint on Sherlock as Culverton Smith ― he’s a pretty menacing character.
Jones: Yes, fantastic character. Mark Gatiss, who’s one of the cowriters on that show, wrote me up and said that he and [co-creator] Steven [Moffat] had written the part with me in mind, which is obviously very flattering. And then you see the monster they’ve created, and you wonder what it was about you they saw. But I absolutely loved the part. It’s an interesting area because the style of that show is so heightened, you’re having to try and create something that is genuinely menacing — is clearly sort of in the real world, but not in a totally naturalistic world. Sherlock is heightened reality, and that was fun.
Do you ever read reviews of your work?
Jones: Do I read my own reviews? I don’t have a firm rule about it. Sometimes they are unavoidable. The thing about reviews is you’re only really interested in the bad reviews! [Laughs] You don’t believe the good ones.
Agatha Christie’s The Witness for the Prosecution debuts on Acorn TV on January 30