This Friday marks the arrival of the brilliant Scottish-set The Vanishing – a thrilling take on the Flannan Isles mystery – but it’s not writer Celyn Jones’ first rodeo in the realm of storytelling. To mark the film’s UK release this weekend, I caught up with actor-turned-writer Jones to discuss the film as well as his colourful career – from nuanced acting roles to accomplished writing and more, all leading to the magnum opus of his impressive filmography yet.
Born in Anglesey in North Wales, Jones took a liking to theatre at a young age – earning himself a scholarship to Oxford School of Drama, where he received a lot of classical training and built himself a stunning career. From roles in a myriad of TV shows – the likes of Catastrophe, Jo, Grange Hill – to a plethora of complex and varied real-life characters such as poet Dylan Thomas (Set Fire to the Stars), serial killer Levi Bellfield (Manhunt) and even Winston Churchill in the upcoming Born a King, Jones’ ability to command a role is unequivocal and makes him perhaps one of the finest character actors working. He said “Acting was the first thing I really felt I could do well. Drama was an essential element for me to understand the world better and strengthen my communication with others within it. I don’t come from an acting family or an acting community, far from it, but the power of story runs through my background like words in a stick of rock.” However, the multi-faceted Jones is more than a performer; back in 2010, he wrote his first short – Penpals – which he also directed, before heading into feature territory for Set Fire to the Stars in 2014 – a dazzling, black-and-white biopic of the great Dylan Thomas (also played by Jones). It’s a stunning first effort, helmed by Any Goddard, that really shows Jones off as a writer. When talking about how that came to be, he noted “I wrote myself a role I felt I should play, could play well and built the film around that. The role was Dylan Thomas and the film was Set Fire to the Stars. It wasn’t my first script, that is yet to be produced but the drive was the same.”
On Set Fire to the Stars: “The process begins with a hook and that could be an idea or image or story. Then we need to develop that and see how it speaks to others and if there are characters that speak to one another. So with Set Fire to the Stars, we knew Dylan and that it would be set over his first week in America where he had this unusual situation with John (Elijah Wood) and that Gruff Rhys would do the soundtrack and that we’d shoot in Black & White. Then we concentrated on our point of view, decided it should be John’s story as he goes on the biggest journey and change and we can take in Dylan more through his eyes. We thought about the notion of celebrity and the price of being an artist on your soul and the people around you. Then through the writing we discovered and created some roles for great actors because that’s where I come from, I think ’that’s a great part’ and instinctively feel the space a good actor will fill on the page. It’s important to write off the page, even though people are risk averse and want to read every turn BUT what’s important is that the performers and storytellers are allowed in.”
Following up Set Fire, Jones tackled the Flannan Isles mystery and threw his own twist on it for director Kristoff Nyholm’s dour, primal thriller The Vanishing – which he co-wrote with Joe Bone; when discussing how the screenplay came to be, he said “The Vanishing came to me when Joe Bone asked if I’d heard of the Flannan Isle Mystery and that then led to thinking of a chamber piece thriller starring three great actors from different ages and backgrounds… like in Jaws. They start with an angle and a hook and you build them from there, like any decent relationship it starts with a strong enough spark and you then must will it to live.” The film stars Gerard Butler, Peter Mullan and Connor Swindells as the trio of keepers. It was storytelling through acting that led to Jones wanting to write: “Yes, my writing career came from acting but in hindsight it was always lying dormant because what I love most of being an actor is the telling of a story, creating a reaction and experience for the audience to have or take home. So yes I’m a writer and producer because I’m an actor, that’s the fire in the crucible that won’t go away.” On the co-writing process, with Bone, Jones said, “Set Fire was co-written too with Andy Goddard and my next film was with Andy and Eddie Izzard so I’m very comfortable with collaboration. It’s like your part of a band, writing an album and I just love the sound we make together. Humour is important, sharing dreams and desires and the different perspective each other bring makes for a richer story. I adore the way they all see the world and express themselves. The conversations between Joe and I had no barriers, they would go from the sublime to the ridiculous. Because Joe and I are performers too, each scene would be acted out and performed with sound effects and full-blown Peter Mullan growls. It’s important you enjoy one another’s company, share similar film and cultural references… ‘it’s like that bit in Jaws… or that moment in blah, blah…’. You get it. The collaborations extend beyond the page too, they have to for a film to exist and I’m blessed with fantastic collaborators from writers, actors, directors, producers, the whole crews and my brothers at Mad as Birds films who are tireless and fearless in equal insane measures.”
He continued, talking about the Flannan Isles mystery and some of the difficulties that embodying a vague true-life mystery presented – as well as the creative license of reimagination it offered up too: “I think its tight perimeters gave it an extra creative license. We knew we couldn’t change the end result, we had to leave the furniture in a certain way to keep the mystery intact. The difficulties were keeping the story moving the way we wanted it to, splitting the POV between characters and tracking the tension and thrills throughout for the audience to follow. We wanted it grounded, the violence authentic, so you feel it could happen to any of us. I love the way the film changes gear audaciously, hell burns then the sun shines and back again…. just like life. But from the beginning Kris, Joe and I wanted it to be about something deep, not just an exciting yarn but about greed, loss, lies and the human instinct to survive. There were times people were anticipating a horror or a straight thriller but I’ve always referred to it as a psychological thriller that breaks your heart. And I’ve got to give credit to the brilliant cast for buying into that in spades… blood-soaked, sin-stained and sea rusted old spades.”
Acting led to writing which led to more acting. It was a constant creative cycle for Jones. After a brief stint behind the camera for the short he wrote 9 years ago, Jones feels his time to direct a feature will also come: “Eventually I will direct a film, it’s inevitable and part of the direction I’m going. It might not be my end point but will be part of the narrative of my career. Because the more I write and develop and perform and produce, the more I fix on the vision of things.” He has worked with a whole slew of acclaimed filmmakers already (learning from each one and observing cautiously every time he is on a set) so the basis is certainly there. Whether it’s Wim Wenders or Gillies McKinnon, Marc Evans, Agneiska Holland or Goddard, Jones has gotten to collaborate with so many of the most ingenious storytellings in the industry today. Not to mention, alongside talent the likes of Alicia Vikander, Elijah Wood, Judi Dench and the aforementioned Butler and Mullan. When talking about how every film shapes his work, he said “Every film, TV, theatre job I’ve done has pushed me forward. There have been directors, writers and performers who have all encouraged and advised. Also, the ones that have poured cold water on things or blocked with negativity… they have motivated me too. But mostly I’ve been blessed with amazing collaborators and guides because the closer you get to OZ the more you realise that there is no wizard, just another bloke behind a curtain making it all up as he goes along. The big lesson is to allow the film to become what it needs to become and don’t stand in its way, facilitate.”
Not only has Celyn Jones cultivated a career out of giving captivating, complex and varied performances across a whole range of genres and characters and archetypes but he has balanced that with ambitious writing credits that have attracted some major talent; he has articulated real-life problems such as doubt and anxiety in Set Fire to the Stars or anguish and grief in The Vanishing into such engrossing, entertaining narratives. Jones’ screenplays are so magnetic because encased within these exciting, punchy stories are very human and distinguishable themes and ideas – indicative of the sharp storytelling that attracted him into writing in the first place. But things aren’t slowing down for Jones yet; with The Vanishing getting the widest UK release any of his films (not to mention all the excellent buzz too), Jones is at the height of his career. It’s perhaps the crowning glory of his impressive career thus far but with Six Minutes to Midnight – Andy Goddard’s WW2 drama, co-written by Jones – on the way, complete with a brilliant cast (Dench, James D’Arcy and Jim Broadbent will join Jones on-screen), as well as supporting roles in Mr. Jones, Born a King and The Last Bus too and a leading performance in Almond and the Seahorse later in the year alongside Guillaume Galliene and a stellar ensemble (which Jones also wrote)… it’s safe to say his career is far from vanishing yet. At this rate, he’s very much a Welsh, spiritual successor to Orson Welles… An Orson Wales, if you will.
The Vanishing opens on March 29th, 2019.