The late blossoming of Toby Jones is a lovely thing to behold. Ten years ago, you might have struggled to put a name to the face of the actor who had spent the best part of two decades propping up the British acting industry in radio drama, fringe theatre and film which he graced with the odd piquant cameo, "opening doors for people or saying 'he went that way'," as he puts it.

Now, the 51-year-old says he feels incredibly lucky. "I've always worked, and I measured my success by the fact that I could earn a living as an actor, which is all any actor wants," he says. "Then, suddenly, people knew who I was. It's quite odd."

The turning point came when Jones starred as Truman Capote in Douglas McGrath's 2006 film Infamous, giving a fully immersed performance as the American oddball writer. The film was initially overshadowed by Philip Seymour Hoffman's simultaneous turn in the bigger-budget Capote, but it won Jones a London Critics Circle Film Award.

Suddenly people began to hone in on Jones as a sort of well-kept secret, an indie star in the making. He secured a recurring role in St Trinian's before making a surprisingly sympathetic Mr Quilp in an ITV adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop.


Today, many will have heard of him, be it as the villainous Arnim Zola in Captain America, the tender-hearted Lance in the sublime BBC sitcom Detectorists, or the conceited, class-conscious Captain Mainwaring in the rather less rapturously received big-screen version of Dad's Army.

Jones is rehearsing for his latest role in a revival of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. He's a small, compact figure with a voice that's soft, seductive even. He's also very tired, worn out by the rigours of trying to figure out the weird dream logic of Britain's most pugnaciously elliptical playwright.

Theatre is in Jones' blood. He is the son of doughty character actor Freddie Jones and his godmother is Eileen Atkins, who incidentally starred in the last West End revival of The Birthday Party in 2005.

"My dad had a very different background," he says. "He was working class and became an actor at 29. He was of that generation that we are in danger of losing now. Becoming an actor liberated him and gave him an identity that was unthinkable up to that point.

"He was an autodidact who never talked about his work when he came home, and I didn't know all these plays [he was in]. I knew I had to follow my own path, and that's exactly how it should be."

Toby Jones gave a fully immersed performance as the American oddball writer Truman Capote in the movie Infamous.
Toby Jones gave a fully immersed performance as the American oddball writer Truman Capote in the movie Infamous.

Jones says he never set out to be an actor - which perhaps accounts for his slow rise. He studied drama with vague thoughts of directing at Manchester University before a spell at the radical Jacques Lecoq theatre school in Paris instilled a sense of purpose, proved that acting could be more than just a slavish adherence to the text.

So what does he make of the homogenisation of today's young acting talent? I'm thinking Eddie Redmayne or Tom Hiddleston, their skills honed in the state-of-the-art theatres of Eton and Harrow.

"You want to see the world reflected back at you," he says. "If people from different backgrounds are not represented authentically, you are impoverishing the dramatic culture. There are many brilliant working-class actors who don't get to act because they can't afford to go to drama school, and that's wrong by definition.

"Culture needs to be democratic, and its thinning out means that we are left with the same kinds of actors, the same kinds of musicians - all those people who can afford to be unemployed, basically."

Jones is often described as a character actor, a word he tells me that he would never use because he feels rather hemmed in by it. The peculiarly British term seems to be disappearing as casting directors search for physical perfection.

"People seem to like heroes to have symmetrical faces," he says. "But I am not sure that character actors are disappearing. They [the leads] need to be lean but they need the characters around them to be less handsome, less immediately symmetrical."

I suggest that we might be approaching a backlash against beauty and Jones laughs. "Well, that's got to be in my favour!"

The thing is that Jones is attractive, a small bundle of charisma with a certain boyish wonder about him. It's true that his looks are unconventional, but they have also probably contributed to his good fortune - the interesting roles that elude much blander visages. He continues to be very busy. This year, he appears in the film adaptation of RC Sherriff's classic World War I play Journey's End, as well as the next instalment in the Jurassic Park franchise ("All I am saying is that I come into contact with dinosaurs.")

He has been with his wife, Karen, a criminal barrister, since university and they have two daughters.

"We have known each other for so long that I can't imagine us ever leading separate lives. She is engaged in everything I do and I watch and admire her career, seeing her meet far more interesting people than I do."

There is, I suggest, a parallel between acting and the law, a tendency towards the well-articulated proclamation.

"Ha, yes," laughs Jones. "And she gets much better dialogue than I do. It's way more authentic."

He is joking, of course. Jones says that he's even seduced by the glamour of what he does.