Redemption song: what’s eating Tommy Lee Jones?
The actor and director has been in fiery form of late. His latest film, a feminist take on the high plains yarn, stars Hilary Swank as a brave frontierswoman. But don’t dare call it a western
Tommy Lee Jones: ‘For as long as people are making movies, they’re going to sometimes make movies about the history of their country.’ Photograph: Andrew Testa/New York Times
Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones in The Homesman
Watch any documentary about John Ford and odds are the film will feature archive footage of an eager young Peter Bogdanovich attempting to get something on the record about the old master’s later, elegiac tone: “Your view of the west has become increasingly sad and melancholy over the years; have you been aware of that change in mood?” asks the fanboy. “No,” shrugs Ford, before turning to the camera with a direct order: “Cut.”
That same sequence might be used as a training video for those seeking to interview Tommy Lee Jones. In the weeks before I speak to him, he walks out on at least one prominent British journalist, glowers at others, cancels his press day in London, cancels a second press day, and travels to Italy unexpectedly. By the time his assistant phones to patch through a call from his San Antonio ranch, I almost collapse in surprise and dread.
Happily, the Texan actor and director addresses me as “ma’am” and refrains from slamming down the phone. This, one suspects, is one of his jollier encounters with the press. That’s not to say he’s doing much in the way of glad-handing. He rarely sounds like he’s speaking from the couch of Sigmund Freud: “I’m not sure I’m qualified to say” and “I don’t do much by way of self-analysis” are recurring phrases.
A straight-shooter of the old (possibly Ford) school, Tommy Lee Jones is reluctant to engage in anything speculative. He’s uneasy to hear The Homesman, a film he co-wrote, directed and stars in, described as a feminist western. Sure, it’s a feminist picture; it’s the western part he has trouble with.
“It’s a label that gets used,” says Jones. “If it’s got horses and big hats, then it’s a western. ‘I saw a horse. I’m going to compare it to all the other movies that have horses.’ I suppose there’s an urge to characterise and give something a name. But that’s a kind of pseudo-intellectualism. The truth is, for as long as people are making movies they’re going to sometimes make movies about the history of their country.”
The homesman of Jones’s new film is, in fact, a homeswoman. Mary Bee Cuddy, a determined spinster, is played by two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank. When three local women are driven mad by the vagaries of life on the Nebraska frontier in the mid-19th century, Mary Bee volunteers to take them back east to Ohio, where a minister’s wife (Meryl Streep) has promised to take care of them. She is accompanied on the perilous journey by a condemned claim jumper named George Briggs (Jones), a man whose life she spares in return for assistance, a man who seems determined to blow his one shot at redemption.
“I like the fact you used the word redemption,” says the 68-year-old. “He’s an interesting character. I like characters that approach redemption but don’t achieve it. Just like real people do. That’s very human. I suppose that’s what I liked about George Briggs. While we were making the film it seemed to me that everybody in it was crazy. But everybody in the film also has moments of greatness.”
George Briggs is just a fraction as contradictory as the man who plays him. More than any other actor born before the 1970s, Jones has retained a presence in contemporary tent-pole cinema, with roles in the Captain America, Batman and Men in Black franchises. Recent Oscar nominations include Lincoln (2013) and In the Valley of Elah (2007).
For all the Hollywood plaudits and box-office hauls, he speaks of himself as a cowboy: “We are in the horse and cattle business,” he says flatly.
His father, Clyde, was a cowboy and oilfield worker; his mother, Lucille, worked as a police officer and teacher. Tommy Lee was born and raised in west Texas until a scholarship brought him to Harvard College, where he roomed across the hall from Al Gore.
An all-rounder, he played on Harvard’s undefeated 1968 varsity football team and graduated with honours in English in 1969. His senior thesis examined the mechanics of Catholicism in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor. Within a year, he was working as an actor on Broadway and had made his screen debut with a minor role in Love Story. (By odd coincidence, Love Story’s author, Erich Segal, had based the lead character on Jones and Gore, both of whom he knew at Harvard.)
“I got into acting at school,” recalls Jones. “I come from a big family. I think it seemed odd to some of them that I went that way. I do. I have a cousin who became a little bit of a country-and-western singer. But I don’t know that there were any other performers in the family. But it was always my decision. Entirely mine.”
He has worked with some incredible actors over the years: Laurence Olivier in The Betsy; Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Jessica Lange in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. He has been directed by Spielberg, by Oliver Stone (JFK, Natural Born Killers), by the Coen Brothers and by Clint Eastwood. He has played Ty Cobb, Howard Hughes, Gary Gilmore and Gen Douglas MacArthur.
And yet he insists that there’s very little difference between these gigs and working in the Marvelverse. “In the last few years, computers are involved more,” he says. “And they have become more significant and widely used than they were. But the essential elements of movie-making are pretty much the same. There’s lighting and there’s sound and there’s a camera. And somebody wants to tell a story.”
The Homesman is on general release