‘Control is a funny thing,” says Caleb Landry Jones. “It can keep you from finding something inherent that is deeper and better for the film: things inside you. Sometimes there’s a kind of control that can be very stilted and boring. I think there’s some kind of balance between knowing what needs to be done and also getting there.”
The livewire 32-year-old actor walks that tightrope in an extraordinary performance in Nitram, the new film by Snowtown director Justin Kurzel about Martin Bryant, the Tasmanian who murdered 35 people in the 1996 Port Arthur shooting. Face bulging with emotion, hyperventilating through temper tantrums, snorting with glee as he pulls his favourite stunt – lunging at the steering wheel of whoever is driving him – Jones seems to be all feeling.
There is no doubt that kind of display requires great technical skill. But Jones’s often scene-stealing performances since his debut in No Country for Old Men’s penultimate scene, wheeling on screen to tell Javier Bardem a bone is sticking out of his arm, have a red-raw quality that you can’t take your eyes off. He even accepts awards that way: at Cannes last year, looking as if they were dragging him out of bed for his best actor prize for Nitram, he told the audience: “I think I’m going to throw up.”
It is that unfiltered quality – and a freckled, translucent face that shifts easily between Luciferian beauty and something troglodytic – that has meant he has chalked up a gallery of lost boys, douchebags and outsiders over the past decade. Among them were a pedlar of celebrity illnesses in Brandon Cronenberg’s satirical sci-fi Antiviral, a leukaemia-stricken waiter in Neil Jordan’s vampire film Byzantium, the racist brother in Get Out, and – delivering a rapturous pre-suicide scene that built up to something akin to a deathly orgasm – the latest Twin Peaks badboy for David Lynch in the 2017 revival.
Jones was reluctant to tackle yet another misfit in Nitram. “After Get Out, suddenly there was a lot of interest in me doing a particular kind of character people took from that film,” he says. “So I tried to be aware of that and always just tried to be a part of great things instead.” He sounds sleepy down the line from his home in Los Angeles; he has just returned after several months working on Luc Besson’s DogMan – about a “boy who finds salvation through the love of his dogs”. His Zoom video isn’t working, and the only hint of his present circumstances is the frequent chink of a lighter in the background.
Wary of the role and the subject matter of devastating gun violence, he procrastinated over Nitram until his agent badgered him into it. But Kurzel’s strict focus won him over; the director was determined to create a psychological and family portrait of Bryant rather than sensationalise the massacre. The killer’s surname is never mentioned in the film, and its title is “Martin” inverted, his school nickname. Kurzel’s wife, Essie Davis, who is also superb playing Bryant’s heiress friend and quasi-lover, is from Tasmania and understands the shadow the event casts to this day.
As a Texan – the gun capital of the US, now reeling from the Uvalde shooting – Jones had a certain comprehension of the kind of culture that enabled Bryant. “I shot a frog at my friend’s farm when I was a kid,” he admits. “Guns were always around, but I didn’t have a fascination with them like some others did.” He kept a wary distance from the machismo: “I don’t think it’s normal that you can spend all day inside playing a first-person shooter, then outside with a gun that shoots plastic bullets, and then on the weekends go to a shooting range for something a little more realistic.” As the postscript to Nitram points out, Australia quickly enacted a gun amnesty after Port Arthur. Jones’s position on gun control is the commonsense one: “I have a problem with automatic weapons being legal. That amount of bullets that fast and in such a short span shouldn’t be available to anyone.”
Jones grew up in a suburb of Dallas. The son of a building contractor and a teacher, he was encouraged to explore his artistic instincts. He attended the high school where his mother worked in special education, and lapped up the ballet, tap and theatre classes on offer. His mother is from a line of fiddle-players going back several generations, and though he doesn’t play the instrument, he has inherited the music bug (he has released two albums of fantastically addled 70s-style rock that defy what should normally be a strict prohibition on actors making music).
Still, he never felt completely comfortable in front of an audience. “Those lessons forced you to get on stage: either you don’t do it, or you do it,” he says. “And if you do it, you do your best. Sometimes you beat yourself up afterwards because it didn’t go as good as the rehearsal did, or didn’t sound as good as you want it to be in your head.”
These long, ambulatory phrases are how Jones talks, chuckling frequently, as if he is surprised at discovering his thoughts on the way. That inchoateness is what he loves to put directly on screen. Squirrelly unease, seething, stupors, malingering are his jam. It’s not surprising then that, apart from one early role as Banshee in X-Men: First Class, he has not settled in the mainstream. “It wasn’t necessarily deliberate,” he says. “Maybe I didn’t work as well in that system, I don’t know. But I found great comfort in working in films that aren’t that size. Somehow you’ve got a bit more because of those limitations. Solving problems in ways that are hopefully unique to the piece.”
Though he has no formal Method training, Jones harks back to that tradition – especially in this era of actors as bland, gym-pumped corporate ambassadors. He was recommended to intensity merchants the Safdie brothers for the role of Ilya, the blade-hurling junkie in their 2014 heroin memoir Heaven Knows What on the basis that: “He will do what you need him to do in terms of immersing himself.” He hit the New York streets to understand the vagrant’s life. “I was panhandling a little bit and made $150 in a day.” You suspect there may have been the odd Landry Jones fan among the donors. He didn’t, though, as some have speculated online, go as far as shooting up as part of his preparation: “I worked with Malcolm McDowell [on Antiviral] and he told me: ‘You don’t need to do that shit. You can just be an actor.’”
Is acting a sort of dependency for him, in terms of dealing with his inner feelings? “It was kind of a little bit when I first started doing it. Because it was the only place where you were kind of allowed to either scream or cry. A space where I could have feelings that I was bottling up. Then, the more I did it, the more it started to become other things as well. More about a craft.” Another self-conscious laugh. “About interpretation, and what taking on a character meant for me.”
He admits he still gets lost in the moment: “I’m not so good at knowing when to start and to stop. I don’t know what I’m doing; I just know I’m trying to do it. Sometimes actors and directors pull me aside and say: ‘Hey, cut means cut!’”
As an actor, he sounds like how the Joker described himself in The Dark Knight: “I’m a dog chasing cars.”
“I’d like to think I’m a bit more than a dog chasing cars. But my head’s out of the window half the time.”