With “Nitram” Caleb Landry Jones takes on another challenging role

Up until the recent events at the Oscars, Caleb Landry Jones owned the most memorable best actor speech of the season. In July, the Cannes Film Festival presented Jones with the Top Male Actor award for his portrayal of a mass shooter in the Australian drama Nitram (now in cinemas and digital). The 32-year-old actor had been to Cannes twice before and had experienced his queasy nervousness fueled by over-drinking, not getting enough sleep and feeling eyeballs scanning his face to gauge its importance. (“LA, but times 50,” he said.) But this time, all eyeballs were on him as he clutched the podium like a swooning chaise. “I think I’m going to throw up,” he stuttered. The audience giggled, unsure if his panic was a bit. Jones then fled the stage, leaving behind a few breaths 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 could hardly find the words and I was like, ‘I have to give up.'” He recreates the moment, yelling “Caleb Landry Jooooones,” clapping and pantomiming his twirling Heebie-Jeebies.

The Texas-born actor, who still speaks in a singsong tone, looked exponentially more relaxed the day we spoke in the backyard of his 101-year-old ramshackle Los Angeles rental home. In a corner of town that still hasn’t got a gentrified name, those around him (mostly) don’t mind when he plays the guitar at 2 a.m. or when he’s laying paper plates of tuna with his girlfriend, artist Katya Zvereva for the stray cats. It’s okay here if Jones steels himself for the stress by rolling joint after joint in the sun, like he was doing during our conversation. Later that afternoon he was taken to the dentist for four root canals. “So I invite myself in as best I can before I go in.”

“Invisible” is not a word often applied to Jones. The red-haired actor has been a distinctive screen presence since he landed his first-ever on-screen audition at age 16 for a role in a scene in the Coen brothers’ ‘No Country for Old Men,’ as the boy who cycled to a bloody Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) and delivered the memorable line, “Mister, you have a bone sticking out of your arm.” Jones was filled with menace as the racist son in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”; covered his skin with disease in Brandon Cronenberg’s bio-horror Antiviral; and set himself on fire in the Safdie brothers’ “Heaven Knows What.” For most of his career he has favored vibrant supporting roles for renowned directors – Jim Jarmusch, Sean Baker, Martin McDonagh, Lone Scherfig, David Lynch – over smaller films that offer more screen time.

Jones is an odd rebel type – not a slick James Dean clone, but a whirlwind who can’t help but do his own thing. He is meticulous and sloppy at the same time. After a childhood diagnosis of OCD, he realized the need to invite entropy into his life. At his house, while his brain buzzed with details – did he put exactly two teaspoons of paprika in last night’s chimichurri? – he projected disorder: paint smeared on pants, rumpled sweater, unkempt goatee. (He certainly didn’t seem to have packed a comb for his shaggy locks at Cannes.)

Zvereva, who came outside during the interview to offer us more coffee, said 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 did in turn, took her for a walk to his film set, where his director happily exclaimed that Jones had found someone else on his wavelength.

Growing up outside of Dallas, Jones was encouraged to follow his creativity. His parents, a special education teacher and a contractor, allowed him to paint all the floors in the house until the plywood was replaced with hardwood planks. His mother signed him up for ballet and tap dancing, urged him to audition for the local arts magnet, and served tea and graham crackers alongside hours of British comedy – “Monty Python” and “Wallace and Gromit” and deeper plays like “Only Fools and Horses.”

As a church kid, he 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 has just released his second album of twangy psychedelics — as a lanky teenager, Jones turned down Nirvana for Christian band DC Talk (he once saw them open for Billy Graham). That was until he became obsessed with Bob Dylan and emulated his new idol by shrinking his shoulders and wearing tight pants.

“That stuff influenced me too much,” Jones said. Each new obsession, like Radiohead and Bukowski, had a way of temporarily overwhelming his artistic temperament. “That’s why it’s good to find acting,” he added. Exploring a character—particularly a cryptic one whose choices defy expectations—gives him the language to grapple with his own desires.

“He’s the most haunting actor I’ve ever worked with,” Nitram director Justin Kurzel said via Zoom. “He’s a real artist.” Although it’s difficult to say that to Jones’s face. “Whenever you praise Caleb, I can see that he’s uncomfortable.” Her film is inspired by the 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur, Tasmania, which prompted the Australian government to pass the National Firearms Agreement, the automatic and semi-automatic weapons banned. It dominated the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards in December and earned Jones a statuette for second best actor. (This time he was able to pre-record his speech.)

His character – dubbed Nitram so as not to glorify the actual shooter who remains in prison – trudges through the film like an intimidatingly oversized child. He rages and sulks; He suffers from feelings of being rejected for reasons he cannot always control. And by the end of the film, he finds a community that welcomes him (and his money): gun shops that are nice to the visibly unstable man and will sell him any guns he wants.

Jones, who had been asked to wither away while filming in Australia, decided to secretly feast on meat pies to take up more space. “No, we’re doing ‘Fat Baby Man!'” he said, giggling. Much of the film was improvised. They played a scene out loud and then tried it out quietly. To understand the discrepancy between Nitram’s self-image and how others perceived the inarticulate, angry young man, Kurzel assigned Jones tasks: filming himself with a video camera, scribbling in a journal. “I drew myself with muscles and wrote ‘sexy’ next to it,” Jones said.

“I’m not sure I’ve actually ever met Caleb,” his “Nitram” co-star Judy Davis said over the phone. “He always used an Australian accent.” During their punishing scenes as mother and son, Davis, an award-winning screen veteran herself, admired Jones’ candor and lack of pretentiousness. “Probably the most responsive actor I’ve ever worked with.” When she wasn’t on set, she tried to get him to accidentally use his real voice. It wasn’t until her last day, before filming ended, that Jones startled her by breaking the reel and running for a goodbye hug.

As filming neared its final eruption of violence, which Kurzel decided to keep out of frame, Jones became increasingly withdrawn. The local crew, painfully familiar with the actual tragedy, began to keep their distance from Jones, especially after the guns arrived on set. “I didn’t make that many friends,” Jones said.

It might sound excruciating for an artist to feel so alone from his home halfway around the world while dealing with such intense material.

“But it’s great!” Jones insisted. “It’s been really wonderful for me because I don’t know how to act.” Maybe he should let his awards have the last word. With “Nitram” Caleb Landry Jones takes on another challenging role

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