Toby Jones is one of my favourite actors. He’s brilliant in everything he appears in (genuinely so), and he stars in the weekend’s The Secret Agent as Mr Verloc, in the BBC’s three-part adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Victorian-set spy novel. Unknown to his loyal wife, Winnie (Vicky McClure), Verloc is also paid by the Russian embassy to spy on an anarchist cell. Furious at Britain’s refusal to confront the anarchist threat sweeping across Europe, Verloc’s Russian handler gives him a mission: Orchestrate a bombing that will be blamed on the anarchists and provoke a crackdown from the British. Verloc must source a bomb, but hide his actions from Winnie and Chief Inspector Heat (Stephen Graham) of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Division. Unable to persuade his anarchist comrades to help, Verloc sets his sights on Winnie’s younger brother Stevie as his accomplice… We managed to get hold of an interview with Toby, which you can read after the jump.
The Killing Times: Had you read The Secret Agent?
Toby Jones: I remember reading it at school as part of some set text. But actually, like a lot of those books, you read them but later realise, “I can’t remember any of this!” It’s kind of extraordinary. I always go on the feel and ambience of a story rather than the plot. That’s how I remember stories – characters don’t stick in my head at first.
TKT: How would you describe the atmosphere?
TJ: Charles [director] was very clear and said ‘we don’t want it to feel like a period drama’ and I think what he meant is that he wanted it to honour the novel – for the characters to be enmeshed in this hellish matrix where they’re all dependent on each other and they’re all compromised. Everyone is tarnished by this political situation. Charles was very clear that he wanted to honour that darkness. There’s not much light-heartedness in the story which is what I really liked about it.
TKT: What challenges did you find with this role?
TJ: This is true of any character; really, I am always trying to find characters who, if they seem really stupid, I’m always trying to find the space where they’re totally the opposite. This guy [Verloc] seems so morally reprehensible, I will try and find where he is a victim, to try and find his vulnerability, to try and show that it’s not evil, it’s just that he doesn’t have moral facilities. That I find very fascinating. There’s a climactic scene where it’s such a shocking thing that he tries to do, tries to square some behaviour, I read it and wondered how on earth I’m going to act this, a fifteen page scene and within it I come in completely contrite and by the end, you’re blaming the other person for what you did. That huge reversal, that’s just so much fun as an actor to try and find the journey where someone can be so deluded that they can believe that is possible.
TKT: How is the drama relevant to today?
TJ: I couldn’t believe it. When I read the book, it seemed extraordinary to me that little cells of foreign nationals were meeting in private in London, free to roam around the city, with limited haphazard knowledge of bomb-making. Some of them are motivated purely by the possibility and potential of just creating chaos. Not even tied to any religious or political ideal other than anarchy. This seemed incredibly relevant. It makes you think about behavioral cycles in society. How much and what kind of control the Government and the police can put on them. That’s dealt with by Conrad – how to infiltrate that group, how to have double-agents, triple agents, how everything gets besmirched, nothing is clear. You see it in TV and film at the moment with the spy genre return – people are aware that all is not what it seems and that is the way it has to be while we have an enemy within, apparently.
TKT: Verloc talks about ‘the simple life’, do you think he really wants that?
TJ: At that point I don’t think he means it as straight away he says, “I think we got away with it…”He’s lying then. It isn’t the only time in the three parts he does say – I want to get away. We all say ‘I want to get away’, it’s something we all say, but we’re so embroiled in our lives it’s very rare that even the people who physically get away don’t ‘get away’. They’re sort of ties to their former lives and I think he [Verloc] knows that.
TKT: Tell us about the rest of the cast…
TJ: I’d worked with Stephen [Graham] on Tinker Tailor but Vicky I had never worked with and I had just seen her in This is England. Weirdly I was making a film earlier this year with Cillian Murphy and Cillian said “I’ve just watched the whole of ‘This is England’” and I thought that sounds like a good idea as I had never got around to watching it and I knew I was going to be working with Vicky so I thought, I’ll watch them all. It was one of the worst things I could possibly have done! It’s so intimidating because Stephen and Vicky are so good and I knew I was going to be working extensively with them. George Costigan and Tom Goodman-Hill, too. The cast is incredible. Ian Hart, to me, when I started out as an actor, he had just played John Lennon, is the kind of actor I’ve always wanted to be.
The Secret Agent: Sunday 17th July, 9pm, BBC1