Toby Jones on playing good (‘Agatha Christie’s The Witness for the Prosecution’) and evil (‘Sherlock’)

Toby Jones is on this year’s Emmy ballot twice: for his star turn as the a do-good lawyer in “Agatha Christie’s The Witness for the Prosecution” and his scene-stealing featured role as a man bent on murder in “Sherlock: The Lying Detective.” That this English character actor earned critical raves for each performance is no surprise. After all, he already earned an Emmy nomination for his astonishing transformation into Alfred Hitchcock in the telefilm “The Girl.” And he first came to fame for his portrayal of Truman Capote in “Infamous.”

Jones readily admits to being overwhelmed when told that “Sherlock” co-creator Steven Moffatt had written the part of Culverton Smith with him in mind. This bilious billionaire does battle with the great detective in a fight to near death in the second of three installments in this PBS hit, which is a co-production with the BBC. He readily admitted to saying yes as soon as he was offered the role. As he explained, “All actors want to play evil characters. After all, they are the antagonists who are driving the plot forward in interesting ways. They are the most fun, and often the funniest to play.”

However, Jones revealed that there was little time to rehearse his scenes with “Sherlock” star Benedict Cumberbatch. But he says the pair made the most of this, turning this into a “virtue out of necessity.” As he elaborates, “You want to try and use that to show the spontaneity of the encounter between the two characters. The fact that we hadn’t had a chance to prepare proved to be an impetus.”

This three-time BAFTA nominee was eager to reunite with “The Girl” director Julian Jarrold on a new version of Agatha Christie‘s classic crime story “The Witness for the Prosecution,” being co-produced with the BBC by the streaming service Acorn TV.  The participation of the latter makes this project Emmy eligible. Two years ago Acorn reaped an Emmy bid for Best TV Movie for “Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain, Poirot’s Last Case.”

This new two-hour telefilm is based on the 1925 short story crafted by Christie rather than on her 1953 play. The latter was adapted by Billy Wilder in 1957 with an all-star cast led by Oscar champ Charles Laughton as the defense attorney. In this outing, Jones takes on that part, which is substantially different from the film role. “What I absolutely adored was that Sarah Phelps had created something so compelling about grief, and what war does to people. She mined a short story and turned it into something epic.”

The classically trained Jones credited the acclaim he received for the role to the director. “Julian was brilliant to work with to plot the character’s moral complacence and his delusion. What is bad is good and vice versa. It is a really strange but compelling story.” And the actor offered fascinating insight into his process. “If you are trying to play someone so different from yourself, there is so much I have to remember. So I find it quite useful to not be chatting between scenes.”

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