Who's afraid of Tommy Lee Jones?
Tommy Lee Jones is in a good mood. So I’ve been told, but you can’t tell by looking at him. That hardscrabble central Texas face, lined with every day of his 66 years, perpetually bears only one steady, stoic expression: that of a bone-weary traveler being informed that his flight has been canceled.
The actor is said to be proud of his fearsome turn in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, and understandably so. Jones plays the abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a man so antislavery that he figures the Civil War president to be soft on the subject. Jones’ performance is brimming with grandiloquent put-downs of his political foes, and critics have embraced it en masse, calling it ”gloriously obstreperous,” ”riotously belligerent,” and, in one case, “even richer” than Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of the man in the stovepipe hat.
For all the the congressman’s verbal brutality, Jones has a surprisingly touching and vulnerable scene late in the film, where he manages to lay bare everything the character couldn’t say out loud — that his love for people of color was far more personal than it was philosophical. Lincoln could be the actor’s strongest shot at an Oscar since he won Best Supporting Actor in 1994 for The Fugitive. He has every reason to be happy.
But there is no smiling as Jones walks to the corner booth of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel at 8 a.m. on a cool November morning. His reputation for being one of the most taciturn actors in Hollywood is well earned. We shake hands. There is no small talk. Once you’ve met Jones, you know better than to try to make any.
Josh Brolin, who studied Jones closely to play a younger version of his character in Men in Black 3, says he made that mistake at their table-read of the script. Brolin brought greetings from his wife Diane Lane, who co-starred with Jones in the 1989 Lonesome Dove miniseries, and friend Charlize Theron, who appeared with them both in 2007’s In the Valley of Elah. ”I said, ‘Hey, man, Charlize and Diane send their hellos.’ And there’s a long pause and he goes, ‘Okay.’ And I’m thinking, What kind of f–ing response is that? That’s the weirdest … I don’t know what to say.” Of course, Brolin adds, ”that’s his genius: How can I make this the most uncomfortable moment anybody has ever had in the world?”
The off-putting personality is part of Jones’ stony appeal, both to filmmakers and moviegoers, though it makes for nervous company. We start our conversation talking about Stevens, and whether Jones thinks there’s a contemporary equivalent for this uncompromising abolitionist in contemporary politics.
”No,” he says. ”No, I don’t think so. That was a whole different time, a whole different world.” He rattles off a list of ethical lapses attributed to Stevens. ”He was an inveterate gambler,” Jones says. ”He gambled on his own election. And he won! He won a considerable amount of money betting on himself.” He laughs. A little. It’s almost shocking.
Jones does seem to be in good spirits. I laugh too and say Stevens sounds interesting enough to get his own movie.
The actor purses his lips. ”No,” he says. ”This movie’s called Lincoln.”
Silence. Then more silence.
We start to talk about the research he did to play the role of Stevens, and I ask if there is any unresolved question about the character he wishes he could ask the man himself.
This is preposterous to Jones: “I can’t begin to think about that. He’s dead.”
Well, I say, you’ve played quite a few real-life characters, some you didn’t have access to, and others you did — like Doolittle Lynn. (Jones played the husband of country star Loretta Lynn opposite Sissy Spacek in the 1980 biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter.)
Jones’ eyebrows shoot up, and he nods. That unexpected enthusiasm possesses him again. ”Yeah! He taught me how to drive that bulldozer. In fact, that bulldozer was his.”
So there is a value in speaking to the person you’re playing, I say. I tell Jones that I’m aware it’s not possible to ask a dead man questions, but — hypothetically — isn’t there something you wished you could ask Stevens that you can’t find in a book or in the script?
His brow knits again. “No,” he says. “We’re filmmakers. I’m an actor. I’m separated from the subject matter by a good number of years. So … ” He stares. “That’s just a fact.”
Another blast of silence.
Across the restaurant, Adam Sandler is loudly laughing and joking with a companion at breakfast. At our table, we talk like two men disagreeing about funeral plans.
Despite ethics problems that wouldn’t be tolerated today, is there any political figure like Stevens who has a big mouth and stands for –
“A radical idea?” Jones says. He shrugs. “Uhh, that was an entirely different world. There were people standing on the floor of the Senate and House of Representatives arguing not only that it was acceptable, but essential that some people be the chattel of others, that some people should rightfully belong to others, for their own good and for the good of the economy.”
I agree – we don’t have precisely the same issues facing our country today.
“No. We don’t,” Jones says, cutting off my sentence midway.
But I persist: fights for equality remain – health care, gay rights, the responsibility of the wealthy to the poor … In our era, is there any issue he feels Lincoln speaks to?
Jones frowns. “I never find myself comparing then to now.”
But there are lessons in history that serve us today, aren’t there?
“I hope so,” he says.
That’s what I’m asking – what those lessons might be from this story.
“Oh, ‘lessons’ …” he sighs.
I acknowledge, okay, “lessons” sounds preachy. But he must know what I mean.
Jones takes a deep breath, and gives in – a little. “In the course of American history, great steps are taken by ordinary people and ordinary people are not perfect.”
Not bad. Pretty good, actually.
But there’s no more where that came from. Jones goes quiet again and awaits the next question, like a shooter awaiting skeet.
I bring up the Oscars, telling Jones: You’ve already won an Oscar, and you have a long legacy of films. It’s not like you need to bolster your career. What would an Oscar mean to you now, if it comes to pass?
The actor groans. “I haven’t given it any thought at all,” he says crisply. “And I don’t really want to give it any thought.”
We move on.
I ask Jones why he thinks Stevens may have been such a strident abolitionist in a time when most men of his stature were willing to tolerate — if not benefit from –the institution of slavery. Could it be that Stevens, who was hairless from alopecia and had a clubfoot, grew to abhor racism because he knew what it was like to be judged for his appearance?
Jones considers this — and doesn’t reject it. ”I think so. In part,” he says. ”But he was also a professional radical. The early years in his political career were dedicated to fighting the Masons … ”
A waiter approaches and interrupts his thought. ”Good morning, Mr. Lee, welcome back.”
”Name’s Jones,” the actor says.
The waiter looks like he swallowed something pointy. ‘”Mr. Jones … Something to drink?” he asks in a tentative voice.
“How about a Coca-Cola. On ice.” He points at me. “What about you?”
I order a coffee. The waiter nods and turns back to Jones. “May I offer you any fresh juice?”
“No,” Jones says. ”No. I never mix Coca-Cola with orange juice.” He rolls his eyes as the waiter shrinks out of existence.
Jones folds his hands on the table and returns his attention to me. ”We were talking about Thaddeus Stevens, the anti-Mason …” he says softly.
Samuel L. Jackson, a longtime friend of Jones and a fellow tough customer on screen, describes the actor as ”a real-ass cowboy.” Jackson who starred with Jones in 2000’s Rules of Engagement, and last year’s HBO movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s play The Sunset Limited, which Jones also directed. ”The Tommy Lee Jones you meet in person is intelligent, honest, earnest, and probably a lot funnier than you would imagine him to be,” Jackson says, but he adds, ”I’ve seen people come out of a room with Tommy Lee and their hair’s standing on end, because he just won’t let you ask him a stupid question.”
Even as a young man, the Harvard-educated actor’s intensity made him a favorite for playing tightly wound tough guys in films such as Rolling Thunder (1977), Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and The Executioner’s Song (1982). His curmudgeonly cred only intensified as he got older. Jones’s filmography is a litany of cinematic surliness: JFK (1991), Cobb (1994), Space Cowboys (2000), and No Country for Old Men (2007). Jones, who has two grown children and lives in San Antonio with his third wife, Dawn, has the irascible-cowboy thing in his blood.
”He is eccentric. And it’s a true, real thing. He is who he is. I guess it comes off gruff. It is gruff,” says Lincoln costar Sally Field, who as Mary Todd Lincoln has an extended, feisty exchange with his brusque congressman, a sometimes rival, sometimes ally of her husband’s. ”He’s not looking to be liked, and he’s not looking to be politically correct,” Field says of the actor. “And so he’s just the absolute most honest, funny, direct thing.”
She didn’t always think it was so charming. The two costarred in the 1981 comedy Back Roads, which is mainly remembered for how deeply its two stars hated each other. ”We just fought like cats and dogs,” Field says. ”He subsequently found me somewhere and just apologized. It was the sweetest thing, because I looked in his face and I knew he meant it.” Now, she says, ”I will just adore this man always.” But she relished that scene in Lincoln where she gets to tell him off. ”I think the fact that Tommy and I do have a bit of history together — it almost gave us both a gleam in our eye. I loved looking at him and saying this dialogue,” she says with a laugh. ”I basically couldn’t get enough of it.”
I ask Jones if this formidable quality is something that comes naturally or is something he cultivates. He widens his eyes. ”You’re asking me to talk about myself.”
Yeah, I tell him.
“My work is not about me.”
I know, I say, but this is an interview about you. You’re known as a no-nonsense man, but you work in an industry that practically runs on it. Is this stern demeanor a useful tool for you in that way, cutting through the phoniness.
His face tightens as I speak. When I mention his demeanor, Jones looks like he just swallowed a mouthful of orange juice and Coca-Cola. ”I don’t know what you’re talking about.” There’s a long pause. ”I just don’t.”
But what I’m talking about is what he’s doing now, right here, in this moment.
”I don’t know,” he says, shaking his head and leaning back, looking trapped and unhappy. ”I try to be reasonable. I try to make sense. I don’t know if that’s a ‘useful tool.’ The language seems strange to me.”
I’ve pushed it too far. He’s walling himself off. A soft-ball then: Are you a film lover?
“Sure I am.”
What types of films do you respect or admire?
“Good ones,” he says.
I wait him out for more. It’s a game of conversational chicken: who can drink his coffee or sip his Coke the longest before filling the empty space. It’s an uncomfortable, almost unbearable wait.
“I don’t have a favorite genre,” Jones finally continues. “I think genre is a literary term. I don’t have a favorite kind or type of movie. I like the ones that are good.”
I ask if he wants to direct again following HBO’s The Sunset Limited with Jackson and his 2005 Western drama The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. With that, something unexpected happens. Jones breaks into a wide, sincere smile. ”Thank you for pronouncing the title properly!” he says.
We talk about that film for a moment, and suddenly Jones becomes downright chatty. He lays out his plans to direct an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel Islands in the Stream, and in March he hopes to start filming an adaptation of a 1988 Western book called The Homesman, which he would both star in and direct. The interview time is at an end, so I stand, gather my notepad, and ask offhandedly if he also plans to write the screenplay, since he has dabbled in scriptwork in the past.
Jones, still sitting in the booth before three empty glasses of Coke-washed ice, waves his hand dismissively. “I had some help from a couple of young screenwriters,” he says. “We were in a hurry to get the screenplay done, so I organized a plan of attack so they could do some work.” He squints, locking eyes with me, and adds: “Under my strict and severe supervision.”
It’s a joke. I think. So I smile.
Jones doesn’t smile back.
Follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter @Breznican