Until recent events at the Oscars, Caleb Landry Jones was the most memorable best actor speech of the film season. In July, the Cannes Film Festival awarded the Best Male Thespian award to Jones for his portrayal of a mass shooter in the Australian drama “Nitram” (now in theaters and digital). The 32-year-old actor had been to Cannes twice before and had experienced the nauseating jitters, spurred on by drinking too much, sleeping too little and feeling his face scan to gauge his importance. (“LA, but times 50,” he said.) But this time, all eyeballs were on him as he grabbed the podium like a fainting recliner. “I think I’m going to throw up,” he sputtered. The audience giggled, unsure if his panic was a bit. Then Jones fled the stage, leaving a few exhalations in his wake that lingered like clouds of dust from a cartoon roadrunner: “I’m so sorry — I can’t do this. Thank you very much.”
“I wanted to be invisible,” Jones recalls. “I was barely forming words and I thought, ‘I’ve got to give it up.’” As he reenacts the moment, he roars, “Caleb Landry Jooooones,” the seal claps and pantomime his swinging suckers.
The Texas-born actor who still speaks in a singing twang looked exponentially more relaxed the day we spoke in the backyard of his 101-year-old rickety rental home in Los Angeles. In a corner of town that doesn’t have a gentrified name yet, the people around him (usually) don’t mind if he plays guitar at 2 a.m., or if he and his girlfriend, the artist Katya Zvereva, are putting out papers. plates of tuna for the stray cats. It’s okay here if Jones fights stress by rolling joint after joint in the sun, as he did during our conversation. Later that afternoon, he went to the dentist for four root canals. “That’s why I get loaded as best I can before I go in.”
“Invisible” is not a word often applied to Jones. The red-haired actor has been a definite on-screen presence since he landed his very first screen audition at the age of 16 for a part in one scene in the Coen brothers’ ‘No Country for Old Men’, as the boy who cycled to a bloodied Anton Chigurh. (Javier Bardem) and delivered the memorable line, “Sir, there’s a bone sticking out of your arm.” Jones roared with menace as the racist son in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”; riddled his skin with disease in Brandon Cronenberg’s bio-horror “Antiviral”; and set himself on fire in “Heaven Knows What” by the Safdie brothers. For most of his career, he has favored lively supporting roles for prestigious directors – Jim Jarmusch, Sean Baker, Martin McDonagh, Lone Scherfig, David Lynch – over smaller films that offer more screen time.
Jones is a strange kind of rebel – not a slick James Dean clone, but a cowlick who can’t help but do his own thing. He is meticulous and sloppy at the same time. After a childhood diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder, he became aware of the need to invite entropy into his life. At his house, with his brain buzzing with details – did he put exactly two teaspoons of red pepper in last night’s chimichurri? — he projected disorder: paint smeared on pants, wrinkled sweater, filthy goatee. (He certainly didn’t seem to have picked up a comb for his tousled locks in Cannes.)
Zvereva, who came out during the interview to offer us more coffee, said that when Jones first approached her on the street in New York, she thought he was homeless, even after she invited him to her studio and he in turn let her out. to his movie set, where his director wept happily that Jones had found someone else on his wavelength.
Growing up just outside of Dallas, Jones was encouraged to follow his creativity. His parents, a special education teacher and contractor, had him draw all over the floor of the house until the plywood was replaced with hardwood planks. His mother signed him up for ballet and tap, urging him to audition for the local art magnet, and served Graham tea and crackers alongside hours of British comedies – “Monty Python” and “Wallace and Gromit”, and deeper pieces like “Only Fools and Horses.”
He was a church kid and wasn’t allowed to read X-Men comics, and he didn’t until he played Banshee in “X-Men: First Class.” Though he loves music—and, in fact, just released his second album of muddled psychedelics—as a lanky teenager, Jones waved Nirvana off for the Christian band DC Talk (he once saw them open to Billy Graham). That was until he became fixated on Bob Dylan and imitated his new idol by shrinking his shoulders and wearing tight pants.
“Things have touched me too much,” Jones said. Each new obsession, like Radiohead and Bukowski, has temporarily caught up with his artistic temperament. “That’s why it’s good to find acting,” he added. Exploring a character — especially a cryptic one whose choices defy expectations — gives him the language to grapple with his own desires.
“He’s the most compelling actor I’ve ever worked with,” Nitram director Justin Kurzel said via Zoom. “He’s a real artist.” Even if it’s hard to say that to Jones straight to his face. “If you praise Caleb, I can see that he is not comfortable.” Their film is inspired by the 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania, which motivated the Australian government to adopt the National Firearms Agreement that bans automatic and semi-automatic weapons. It dominated the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in December, earning Jones a second best actor statuette. (This time he was able to pre-record his speech.)
His character—named only Nitram, so as not to glorify the actual shooter, who remains in prison—slogs through the film like an intimidating oversized child. He rages and sulks; he feels rejected for reasons beyond his control. And at the end of the film, he finds one community that welcomes him (and his money): gun shops, who are nice to the visibly unstable man and sell him all the guns he wants.
Jones, who had been asked to languish for the duration of the Australian shoot, chose to eat meat pies in secret so that it would take up more space. “No, we’re going ‘Fat Baby Man!'” he said with a chuckle. Much of the film was improvised. They played a scene loudly and then tried softly. To understand the gap between how Nitram saw himself and how others saw the unspoken, angry young man, Kurzel Jones gave up tasks: film himself with a video camera, scribble in a diary. “I would draw myself with muscles, and I would write ‘sexy’ next to it,” Jones said.
“I’m not sure I ever actually met Caleb,” Judy Davis, his Nitram co-player, said on the phone. “He always used an Australian accent.” During their punishing scenes as mother and son, Davis, himself an award-winning film veteran, admired Jones’s openness and unpretentiousness. “Probably the most responsive actor I’ve ever worked with.” When she wasn’t on set, she accidentally tried to get him to use his real voice. It wasn’t until her last day, before the end of filming, that Jones startled her by breaking her character and running for a goodbye hug.
As the shoot neared its final explosion of violence, which Kurzel chose to stay out of the picture, Jones increasingly withdrew. Painfully familiar with the actual tragedy, the local crew began to distance themselves from Jones, especially after the guns arrived on set. “I didn’t find many friends,” Jones said.
It may sound painful for an artist to feel so alone halfway through the world away from home while dealing with such intense material.
“But it’s great!” Jones insisted. “It was really great for me because I don’t know how to behave.” Maybe he should let his awards have the last word.