Caleb Landry Jones: “I don’t like gratuitous violence in movies”

The acclaimed actor explains his sensitive approach to playing a mass killer in 'Nitram'

Caleb Landry Jones isn’t an actor who blends into the background. That’s not a tactful way of calling him a scenery-chewer – something he certainly isn’t – just an acknowledgement of the unique, slightly creepy quality he’s brought to a memorable run of supporting roles. “Fucking genius” is how he describes Jordan Peele’s script for Get Out, the zeitgeist-grabbing 2017 horror film in which he radiates menace as an unapologetic racist preying on Daniel Kaluuya‘s ‘Final Boy’. “I could hear the audience while reading the script, I could hear people going ‘woooooo!’,” he says.

Landry Jones, 32, was equally magnetic as the sketchy businessman Red Welby in the same year’s bleak crime movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Given that his co-stars Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell went on to win Oscars, it says a lot about Landry Jones’ screen presence that he registered such a big impression. “I had a great time on that one and I only got thrown out the window at the end of the movie,” he says wryly, speaking to NME on Zoom from a New Jersey hotel room.

Get Out
In Jordan Peele’s horror classic ‘Get Out’. CREDIT: Alamy

Landry Jones only finished shooting Luc Besson’s mysterious new movie DogMan the night before we speak, so it’s understandable that he’s feeling spent. “I’m here and I’m not here, you know, and I apologise for that, man,” he says in his mellow Texan drawl. Landry Jones may not feel as though he’s firing on all cylinders, but he’s alert enough not to drop any spoilers. When NME asks what kind of character he plays in DogMan, he says he “can’t talk about that” and politely directs us to the logline on the film’s IMDb page: “A boy, bruised by life finds his salvation through the love of his dogs.”

Landry Jones is so pleasant and laid-back throughout the interview, sucking on his vape in between sips of coffee, that it’s easy to forget he’s great at playing nasty. He was grimly intense in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival series as the strung-out husband of Amanda Seyfried’s character Becky, but his latest role, in the devastating true-crime biopic Nitram, is on another level entirely. It doesn’t just give Landry Jones a rare opportunity to play the lead, but also asks him to inhabit a character who does something unspeakably evil at the end of the film.

Caleb Landry Jones
Cannes 2021 Best Actor winner Caleb Landry Jones poses at the film festival. CREDIT: Getty

Directed with a very necessary sensitivity by Justin Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed), Nitram explores the events leading up to 1996’s Port Arthur massacre, the deadliest mass shooting in Australian history. Landry Jones plays Martin Bryant, the intellectually disabled and incredibly disturbed murderer who is currently serving 35 life sentences: one for each person he shot dead.

Landry Jones was drawn to Nitram not just because it offered him a “very challenging” role, but also because he felt it “could do something more than the average film”. When he met with Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant, he was struck by the fact there was “something really important they were trying to say”. And their message was unequivocally about gun control. “They wanted to use this part of history to say something about now,” Landry Jones says, “and how gun reform laws are maybe slowly going back to how they were in some parts of the world.”

Twin peaks
In David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’. CREDIT: Alamy

While making Nitram, Landry Jones and Kurzel were acutely aware that films about mass murderers carry the potential to glamourise them. In 2019, this accusation was levelled at Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the Ted Bundy biopic starring Zac Efron. For this reason, Bryant’s name is never mentioned in the movie – “Nitram” is Martin backwards – and it was never uttered on set, either. “There’s this idea of infamy, and this idea of fame, and this idea of recognition, and it’s very dangerous,” Landry Jones said in a previous interview. “We, by not saying his name, by not mentioning him once, don’t want to participate in this.”

Still, it’s difficult not to view Nitram as a brave and, to an extent, risky endeavour. The film never invites us to empathise with Landry Jones’ character, but it does lift the lid on the toxic petri dish that may have created him: one filled with profound isolation, severe mental health problems and untempered rage. Nitram idolises a local surfer (Sean Keenan) whose social skills he will never possess, and has a flatly dysfunctional relationship with his exhausted mother (Judy Davis). In an especially powerful scene, we see Nitram trying to rouse his depressed father (Anthony LaPaglia) by brutally beating him until he gets off the sofa. Is Nitram trying to help in a very misguided way, or just using his dad as a punching bag?

Caleb Landry Jones
‘Nitram’ sees Landry Jones play one of Australia’s most notorious mass killers. CREDIT: Picturehouse Entertainment

Landry Jones’ extraordinary performance has already been recognised with Best Actor trophies at the Cannes Film Festival and the Australian Academy Awards. When NME asks how he approached the role, his halting answer seems to reveal a lot about the ethical minefield of playing a mass murderer. “Justin, at one point, gave me this big freedom to step away from thinking of the real person,” he says. “He allowed me to make it my own, you know, with everything that I had known and read about [Bryant] prior. And so it stopped… it wasn’t so much an imitation. So for me, it was more about… I don’t really know how it works.” Landry Jones laughs a little awkwardly. “I just know that you have to figure it out somehow, but how is kind of a messy thing.”

Inevitably, the conversation has grown pretty heavy, so Landry Jones lightens the mood with a nice bit of self-deprecation. “I’m not very good at talking anyways,” he says with a laugh. “That’s why it’s wonderful to have a script like Shaun’s, where I don’t talk very much. [In this film] I either say what I need to say or don’t say what I’m feeling when I wish I could.”

“‘Nitram’ feels like a breakthrough”

Landry Jones is also funny and self-deprecating when it comes to Nitram‘s impact on his career. Does the fact it’s such a complex lead role – and one he’s winning awards for – feel like a breakthrough of sorts? “Absolutely!” he replies. “Some folks feel like ‘maybe he’s a serious one and he knows what he’s doing’. Maybe there’s some kind of street cred that comes with being recognised in that way. And I mean, I haven’t been the lead too many times.”

At this point, Landry Jones’ natural modesty takes over and he deflects attention from himself to Kurzel. “It was the best experience I’ve ever had as an actor,” he continues. “Just because there was a freedom within the piece to make mistakes, as long as those mistakes pushed us in the right direction.” He also praises co-star Essie Davis, who plays Nitram’s dog-loving friend Helen, for being someone he could really “play” with. “I mean, I remember having my nose in a dog’s butt because I was trying to get her attention,” he says with a laugh. “And it felt like a sincere way of getting her attention because [her character] has all these dogs. And then she stopped me doing that because she didn’t want my nose in the ass of a dog, which was nice, you know.”

NME and Caleb laugh at the surreal detour the conversation has taken. “I don’t think that bit is in the film, but it felt right, you know?” he continues. “Sometimes when you’re working with other actors, you’re worried that you can’t play that way. But with everyone in this film – Essie, Judy, Anthony – you really could.”

‘Nitram’ is directed by acclaimed filmmaker Justin Kurzel. CREDIT: Picturehouse Entertainment

At this stage in his career, Landry Jones has made enough films – 30 and counting – to know what he appreciates in a scene partner. He grew up in Richardson, near Dallas, where his parents Patrick and Cindy run a farm, and was drawn to performing from a young age. He took dance classes and relished the sensation of being on stage. “You didn’t know how many people were in the audience but your mind went wild,” he recalls. “We figured it was a bunch, but it could have just been like 20 people.”

As a kid, Landry Jones was also fascinated by the fantasy world he saw on TV. “You know, the kids there always seemed to be having a much better time,” he says. “There’s this show called Barney [about a friendly talking dinosaur]. He’s always smiling, laughing and singing songs. And I’d have done anything, I’d have chopped my leg off, to go and live in that world where pain didn’t really seem to exist.”

“Growing up, the kids on TV always seemed to be having a much better time”

Given that Landry Jones adored performing and the escapist possibilities of TV and the movies, it makes sense that he gravitated to acting as a teenager. When he was 18, he landed a minor part in 2007’s No Country for Old Men, but he credits low-budget horror flick The Last Exorcism with really kick-starting his career three years later.

With the $5,000 he earned from his sizeable supporting role, he took the plunge and relocated to LA for a serious crack at an acting career. “I knew I couldn’t do film school – it was too expensive and I didn’t get into [prestigious New York school] Juilliard,” he says. “I figured, ‘You just got five grand: it’s now or never.’ So I went to LA and I knew it was either this [career] or come back home and do something else.”

Caleb Landry Jones
See ‘Nitram’ in cinemas from July 1. CREDIT: Picturehouse Entertainment

Though he started getting cast straight away, including a small role as Banshee in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, Landry Jones says he’s only really felt like a proper working actor in the last year or so. “When I was doing Get Out [in 2017], I think I had eight jobs that year,” he recalls. “I’d never worked like that before: you know, an extensive amount of work. And then the next year I had work lined up, and the next year. But it’s probably only now that I feel like, OK, I don’t need to worry. There is another job coming.”

Nitram looks like another jump – from Hollywood’s “Best Supporting oddball“, as he was dubbed in 2017, to award-winning leading man – but Landry Jones balks at the idea of a career plan. “I don’t place too much thought into that kind of thing,” he says with a shake of the head. “I mostly just do, do, do and then take a look at it later and go ‘woah’ or ‘yikes’.” When it comes to picking his next project, he’s led by the script, but “even more so” by his connection with the director. And in between projects, he focuses on making music; he’s already released two albums of quirky psychedelic rock, 2020’s ‘The Mother Stone’, in which he channels Marie Antoinette on the cover, and 2021’s ‘Gadzooks Vol. 1’.

“I couldn’t do a movie where I have to, like, eat the arm off a child”

“I found music first because I didn’t know you could make movies,” he says. “And then when movies became a reality that I could be a part of, they became more and more important to me as an art form. But music was always there, too.” Landry Jones says he’s been making albums for around a decade, but putting them out instead of “keeping them on my hard drive” is a relatively new development.

Interestingly, though Landry Jones has just played a mass murderer, albeit one whose terrible crimes are never shown on screen, ultra-violent roles are out as far as he’s concerned. “I don’t think I could do a movie where I have to, like, eat the arm off a child,” he says. “Like, for what purpose? I don’t wanna be part of putting those images out there for people to digest. I don’t like gratuitous violence, I hate the ‘bam bam bam’ for nothing.” He says he’s always looking for characters that “really grab hold of me” and “scare me half to death”, but modest as ever, admits he sometimes needs a hefty prod in the right direction.

“Sometimes I need my agent to say: ‘Caleb, trust me. Caleb, you gotta do it,'” he says. “And I just need to go: ‘Okay, okay, I’ll do it.” It might not sound like the most tactical approach to climbing Hollywood’s ladder, but it’s definitely working for him so far.

‘Nitram’ is released exclusively in cinemas on July 1

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