Toby Jones: dial H for Hitchcock

He's played Truman Capote and Karl Rove – now Toby Jones is donning a fat suit and prosthetic chin to play the Master in new TV drama The Girl. Steve Rose talks to him about Hitchcock's dark side, failure and funky clothes

Little seems to have changed at Simpson's in the Strand since the days when Alfred Hitchcock dined here: the wood panelling, the chandeliers, the white-robed chefs carving hunks of meat on silver trolleys. Hitchcock liked the place so much, he featured it in his 1936 film Sabotage – though back then its star Sylvia Sidney and her kid brother had to dine upstairs, since women weren't admitted to the main room. The clientele doesn't appear to have changed since those days, either. Toby Jones and I are both in our 40s, and still the youngest people in the room by several decades.

We're here because Hitchcock is back on the menu. Jones has recreated the master of suspense at his most corpulently monstrous, for the upcoming TV movie The Girl, which chronicles Hitch's fateful relationship with actor Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller). Jones has never eaten here before, but instantly appreciates why Hitchcock would have approved. "One sees that certain standards are being upheld," he observes.

Hitchcock, the grocer's son and lifelong gourmand, would doubtless have ordered something hearty like the beef Wellington and potatoes (he rarely ate a meal that didn't include them), washed down with a good claret; Jones opts for potted shrimps and a Diet Coke. He isn't exactly a dead ringer for Hitchcock in the flesh. He's about half Hitch's girth, for a start, and there's nothing sinister or imposing about him – quite the opposite.

But in The Girl, as he has done so often, Jones disappears into the impersonation. Partly this is a physical transformation. Approximating Hitch's walrus-like features took four hours in makeup every day: the prosthetic jowls and nose, the balding pate, the trademark underbite, the fat suit. "But all that's external," Jones says. "I was more concerned about inhabiting someone of that age [Hitchcock was then 60], and having that resonance in his voice of a lifetime of cigars and eating and drinking in places like this." He found it easier to continue speaking in Hitch's drawl when the cameras weren't rolling. "There's a certain beauty to his voice," he says, in perfect Hitchcock – a singular mix of cockney, Californian and received pronunciation, delivered as if slightly drunk and sucking a Murray mint.

It's the mark of an accomplished impersonator that they rarely get the recognition they deserve. Among others, Jones has been Truman Capote (in Infamous), super-agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar (in Frost/Nixon), and Karl Rove in Oliver Stone's W. You'd imagine his height (1.6m/5'5") and distinctive features (often described as "gnome-like") would be limiting, but apparently not. Movie impersonation is something of a paradox, he says. "On the one hand, you've got to look and sound the same. But on another level, it's only of interest if it's going to tell you something you don't already know. So, yes, I looked at all that footage of Hitchcock, I studied how his body moves and how his face moves – but there's a huge area of interpretation, which is really about the stuff no one would know. When someone's on their own, when someone's tormented about something, all that other stuff."

Part of Hitchcock's enduring fascination is the way he hid his neuroses and pathologies in plain sight, up on the screen. The Girl, based on Donald Spoto's respected biography, captures him in 1962 – an artistic peak but a physical and sexual trough. He had just made Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho, in succession, but his relationship with his wife Alma (his long-standing script advisor) had become little more than professional.

The bones of the story are well-known: how Hitch plucked Tippi Hedren from a TV advert and announced her as his next leading blonde, styling and coaching her just as James Stewart's character had moulded Kim Novak in Vertigo. In The Girl, the relationship moves from Pygmalion to Beauty and the Beast, before curdling into something more mutually destructive, if not downright abusive. Hitchcock's advances towards Hedren are rebuffed, and he goes on to shoot the scene from The Birds in which she is attacked by real birds, again and again, for five days, until a doctor intervenes. It doesn't take a psychoanalyst to divine a subtext.

Knowing this, those Hitchcock/Hedren films take on a darker complexion. There was also Marnie, in which Sean Connery coerces a flighty Hedren into a loveless marriage. After a private screening of The Girl in the US, Hedren's daughter, Melanie Griffith, reportedly jumped up and said, "Well, now I have to go back into therapy."

Jones, who considers himself a Hitchcock fan, was surprised by the true story. "I just thought she'd had some birds thrown at her one day when she wasn't expecting it, and it wasn't very nice." He was slightly apprehensive, and more than a little starstruck when he subsequently met the real Tippi Hedren. "The first thing to say is, you can't quite believe she's the age she is," he says. "She retains the glamour of a different age." To his relief, she approved of his portrayal. "Obviously there was some difficult stuff for her to mull over in terms of the abuse, but she felt that I'd balanced it – which was my main concern – with the kind of pathos he had about him. There was a wound about him." Hitchcock's attempts to keep Hedren in a gilded cage arguably ruined her career. She was subsequently offered leads in several films, including Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, only for Hitchcock's people to inform them she wasn't available. But his own career fared little better. Marnie was effectively his last significant movie. The next, Torn Curtain, was a relative failure; his health and his output went into decline. Something about Hedren had defeated him.

Jones's own career, by contrast, has been one of steady acceleration. His father, Freddie, is a veteran character actor, who's done everything from David Lynch (The Elephant Man, Wild at Heart) to Emmerdale. He never encouraged Toby to follow him, but studying drama at Manchester University, Jones Jr was irresistibly drawn to the stage, winning an Olivier award in 2001 for his characteristically versatile turn in The Play What I Wrote. Did his father approve? "I wouldn't say he was behind it, exactly. He certainly wasn't putting anything in front of it! But I think the children of actors share a certain pragmatic approach. One is denied some of that 'running away with the circus' element of being an actor. Certainly for my father, there were great times, good times, not-so-good times. He might be shooting a Fellini film for six months, then not working for two months. I'm used to that dynamic."

Not that Jones is short of work. This year alone, we've seen him anchoring Berberian Sound Studio, a fiendishly clever British film that pays tribute to 1970s Italian horror. As a comically meek foley artist adrift in a claustrophobic world of flamboyant Italians, analogue technology and gruesome sound effects, Jones conveyed the horror the audience never actually saw. He has also made regular forays into blockbuster world: as a dwarf in Snow White and the Huntsman, and a pompadoured, futuristic commentator in The Hunger Games. The latter, he says, was as enjoyable as his job gets. He's just been filming the sequel. "It doesn't require the hardest work I've ever been asked to do in my life," he laughs. "With things like Berberian or The Girl, you're there every day, meting out a character gradually through a story. Then this is sitting in a room with Stanley Tucci and improvising for a couple of days, in some of the funkiest clothes I'm ever likely to wear. It's pure pleasure."

There is one aspect, however, in which Jones's career has been cursed: timing. Take his Truman Capote. It was his first starring role, his big break. And Hitchcock was a doddle compared to Capote, with his helium voice, the birdlike mincing, the urbane spikiness. Jones gave it his all: "I was so anxious, so paralysed with panic, that I did everything, total immersion and purdah for about two months beforehand, even down to simulating his handwriting. I don't think I'd ever do that again." The result was a magnificently layered performance, in which Capote's waspish armour of wit came down to reveal an empathetic, vulnerable soul. But Infamous had the misfortune to arrive at the cinemas a year after Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal, in Capote. Jones was easily the more Capote-like, but Hoffman got there first. "There's absolutely no question it killed our film at the box office, and that was very hard," Jones admits, fingering his napkin. "But I don't think awards obsess actors quite as much as people think."

Let's hope not, because the curse has struck again. Jones's Hitchcock isn't the only one currently on the menu. Released last week in the US, just in time for Oscar consideration, is another film called Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins. This covers the preceding chapter of Hitchcock's life, the making of Psycho. And, by contrast, it is a comedy and a success story, in which the director's huge gamble pays off, and he rekindles his relationship with Alma (Helen Mirren). Comparisons will again be inevitable. "Yes, I'm sure," says Jones, with exaggerated weariness. "It's the sort of thing I would do if I was a neutral viewer, I guess. But it's like a quasi-science isn't it, this head-to-head business? I still count myself as a complete dunderhead when it comes to understanding it, and I have some form in that area. There's absolutely nothing you can do about it. It's so totally random." At least he got in there first, I suggest (Hopkins' film is released in the UK in February, and The Girl had already screened in the US). "Yeah, except now they're saying, 'Don't worry: there's a better one coming!'"

His detachment is reassuring. It's often said that actors who immerse themselves in their characters find it hard to be themselves again. Had Hitchcock got to Jones, he might well be clipping a post-prandial cigar by now, or tracking the carver's blade with a gleam in his eye, but instead he's making his apologies, and thanking me for bringing him here. He is currently shooting in east London (a drama about asylum seekers), which is good, he says, because he gets to go home to his wife, a barrister, and two daughters at the end of the day. "I get plenty of time to re-engage with the world I'm trying to depict, so I'm not always living in these parallel worlds," he says. He hasn't forgotten how to impersonate himself.

• The Girl is on BBC2 at 9pm, Boxing Day.


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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