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Don’t Be Afraid of Caleb Landry Jones (At Least Not His Music)

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Discovery, Inc.

When I speak with Caleb Landry Jones about his debut album, The Mother Stone, he’s talking on his flip phone from his family home in Texas. He doesn’t use folksy turns of phrase or an overabundance of y’alls, but the Texas in his voice sneaks up when gerunds cut off at just the ’n’ and you notice the decorous way he frames things. It’s all delightfully — and jarringly — contrary to his onscreen identity as a destabilizing wild-card presence across his roles in film and television.

But The Mother Stone reflects exactly what you’d expect from the elusive performer whom you never know what to expect from at all. While popularly thought of as that actor who looks like he’s going to kill you thanks to haunting turns in Get Out and Antiviral, he’s more often played oddball nice guys (see: Friday Night Lights) who are sometimes overwhelmed by the madness surrounding them (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; The Florida Project). His credit from appearing on one episode of the Nickelodeon show Victorious is just “Adorable Guy.” He has a deeply ingrained reflex to abide by the rules, but has spent his adult life trying to decondition that impulse — less a wily agent of chaos than a polite eccentric just trying to feel his way through everything.

Jones, 30, has been making music in his parents’ barn since he was a teenager, and on his debut album, recorded in Los Angeles, the characters he could be best described as playing this time are … all of them? Jones adopts a high-pitched British dandy’s voice for much of it, but then also switches into a lower register that sounds more like his own and adopts a host of other vocal affects across 15 songs. Its cover art, as well as the first music video, features Jones in a Marie Antoinette–era wig with a white powdered face and red lip. He’s not really trying to tell you something with any of that. His girlfriend, the artist Katya Zvereva, just had a warehouse space for use and they made some things they thought looked cool.

Vulture spoke with Jones shortly before the release of Mother Stone about boys in makeup and fighting his own personal desire to conform.

Since the album is sort of like dream logic as music, how are your dreams?
I don’t dream very often. I smoke a lot of marijuana, so I think that probably stops a bit of the dreams, but I think that was the easiest way for me to explain any kind of logic to find in the songs, because it flips around so much from something that could be happening to something that’s impossible.

In the press notes for the album you touch on how there are a lot of different voices on Mother Stone, and that you’re “in there somewhere” sort of embedded with them. I think people who follow your film work think of that the same way, with the actual you existing as a kind of hidden figure among so many strange characters. Is that elusiveness intentional?
It all feels very normal when I’m doing it. You know, growing up my favorite actors were the ones that could really change from performance to performance. Every actor loves Peter Sellers and I just couldn’t believe he was able to do what he was doing, you know? Then there are people like Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman, who you can see a lot of this presence they have in each role, and at the same time, sometimes you can also see them change completely from what I expected.

I’ve always admired the actors that were able to give themselves to the performance, and to me those are also actors that were kind of breaking the rules. Maybe you couldn’t figure out how they were doing it, but they definitely were, and watching something like Taxi Driver or Raging Bull at 17 or 18, I felt like they were getting away with something. You’re like, Oh my gosh, they’re really doing this! I think there are a lot of musicians that do that as well that I really love, and I probably love without realizing it’s because it feels as if it comes from a similar place.

Considering making music is a much less structured process than making a movie, is it a different kind of creative release?
Sometimes if I don’t do it for periods of time then I’ll start to notice some kind of effect that I’m having, whether it’s anxiety or stress or some form of something that’s no good, and usually that can be put at bay with a few songs or something. It does feel like it works different things and it feels important to get that out in some way. You’re kind of giving everything you got and I don’t want to get crude, but you know, everything’s in the wind!

Everything I recorded in the barn, I can’t deny that whatever I was doing was honest to how I was feeling in that moment or honest to right then. Even if I don’t like the song years later, I’m still proud of that fact. I feel like I’ve accomplished something, and I think we did that with this record, too. We can look at it later and at least not say, Oh, we didn’t do that because we were too afraid, or, We didn’t do that cause we were worried about this. We pretty much embarked on everything we wanted to.

You’re painted up like French nobility on the cover of your album and in the video for “Flag Day/The Mother Stone,” seemingly naked. How did that come together?
The wig was called Marie Antoinette, and it was the cheaper of the versions that they had at the costume shop in Hollywood. My girlfriend makes a lot of monotypes and she wanted to make a monotype of me, and at the same time I needed to make a music video for the album. She had a space in Los Angeles for about a month and was nice enough to let me work with her on the video over the month that she was working on her stuff. We’d kind of dip in and out of making the video, and it pretty much just consisted of whatever we thought of; we just kept going until we had to pull the plug. For the cover, we put I think four or five old phone cameras in different positions in the room and just pressed record on all of them for a good 20-something minutes. I sat in a chair and smoked a cigarette and kinda just saw what happened, then let that be the basis of everything we did. I had the feeling that if we just gave it our best, something would come out of it, like usual. It was a blast.

I think the red lip really works for you. 
That’s not what my mother thought as a kid. [Laughs.] For whatever reason, I was watching a lot of Tiny Tim interviews recently, and there was one where he was talking about how for a long time he had this kind of Venetian white makeup that helped create this idea of a beautiful, clean aesthetic of this 19-year-old angelic virgin he’s got in his head. There was something in him talking about it that I related to, I suppose. But I never dared put on makeup as a teenager.

I would imagine there’s a different relationship with teen boys wearing makeup where you grew up in Texas. 
Well, I did ballet, tap, and jazz. So, I had some rouge on a few times. There was a performance of The Wizard of Oz where one guy was sick, so I had to play two parts, cause there were only two boys in the class. I was just jumping back and forth trying to play the two mayors or whatever of Munchkinland. That was probably the first time that I was allowed to wear a rouge and it was acceptable, and I remember the teacher that put it on said, “Now, I won’t tell anybody. Don’t worry.”

It sounds like you find a comfort in the unpredictability of making something and just following your impulses to whatever is most honest. This album feels like a sort of parade between heaven and hell. Given the intensity that defines your work to a lot of people, I wondered if you are a chaotic person in search of stability, or if you’re a stable person who is in search of chaos.
Like everyone, I grew up always trying to fit in and spending a large amount of time trying to do that. At some point I kind of abandoned that to a degree, which allowed certain things to happen artistically. I’m still working to kind of get rid of that sometimes when it’s creeping up.

That impulse to fit in a box?
Yeah. That impulse to make someone happy or to do what you think is expected of you rather than to do something that comes naturally that might not end well, but might be the only solution.

So you’re actually more of a rules-based person by nature.
Well, I’ve got OCD. I’m pretty heavily based in patterns. [Laughs.] So, I’ve got rules.

You do a very effective job of presenting yourself otherwise.
I think that’s a part of the OCD as well. Like, as a kid, realizing you have to take these steps and move the way you move, because you feel like you have to or the world will end or something terrible will happen. Then at the same time, fighting that and trying to prove to yourself that that’s not the case. It’s something I’ve always been playing with all my life, this balance or lack of a balance, and learning how to find it is like trying to break up these two little two boys from butting heads.

It seems like a fundamental part of growing up and becoming an adult is figuring out what are the real and necessary rules — like, the ones that keep us safe — versus the ones that are basically fake and imposed by authority figures just because it suits them, like boys not wearing lipstick. 
I’ve gone to jail too many times to not be abiding by the law. You know what I mean? There are very important rules so that we can all get together in harmony. Maybe we spoke too much about breaking rules. [Laughs.]

Well, I have read quotes from multiple directors describing you as having a dangerous quality to you.
But I don’t know where that comes from! [Laughs.] I never — well, no, never mind. I was gonna say, “I never dangled my feet off the side of a building,” but that’s just not true.

Don’t Be Afraid of Caleb Landry Jones (His Music, at Least)