Eyes are what often first attract your attention in a film star. And the eyes of Tommy Lee Jones--dark, piercing, slightly wounded-looking--may convey as much ambiguous menace as anyone in movies since the young Humphrey Bogart.
Right now, they’re staring at me--across a tape recorder and a hotel breakfast of scrambled eggs, juice and piles of crisp buttery toast--in San Antonio’s four-star Mansion Del Rio. Outside, the San Antonio River--which has been broken up into a delightful network of channels, streams and walkways running along and under many of the city streets--glides by the terrace with a picturesque, near-Venetian placidity. Inside, Jones stretches restlessly in his chair, gobbles some eggs, gives some instructions to his 10-year-old son, Austin or “Bubba,” who’s along for the visit, and tells me cheerfully, “Ask any question you want to. If it’s a violation of privacy, Bubba won’t let me answer it.”
A top-flight Texas actor, polo player, cattle rancher and ruminator, Jones--whose latest movie, “The Fugitive,” opens Friday--may be one of the most intriguing and unsettling American film stars around right now. He mixes you up, scrambles your reactions, crosses over and over again the borderline between sympathy and intimidation--as some other interviewers have sometimes found, in personal encounters. (One of them walked out after four questions.)
That mix is evident also in “The Fugitive,” a new thriller based on the paradigmatic ‘60s TV chase show, the old serial saga of a determined cop pursuing a condemned but innocent prison escapee across America. In it, Jones confirms the reputation for masterly scene-stealing antagonist roles he won in Oliver Stone’s 1991 “JFK,” and last year’s “Under Siege.”
Since 1970, when Jones made his film debut--improbably enough as Ryan O’Neal’s Harvard roommate in “Love Story"--he’s regularly scratched audience nerves, scarred their souls. Those eyes, that fierce gaze, drilling into your consciousness from the pocky face and ferociously prominent cheeks and jaw, sometimes suggest a thunderstorm rising over a bleak desert. They can radiate danger or calm, savagery or torment, bemusement or sympathy.
Andy Davis, his “Fugitive” director--who also worked with him in “The Package” and “Under Siege"--says of Jones: “He’s got incredible presence and great power. And it comes off the screen; it jumps at you. If you have him do a scene nine times, it’ll be different each time, and every take will be usable.
“He’s always exploring, always investigating. He’s also very chameleon-like. He looks sort of raw and rugged and tough, but, at the same time, he’s very comedic, very subtle and sensitive.”
His subtler, sensitive side, of course, began to appear first in his theater work, which commenced officially when he played in Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” at Dallas’ St. Mark’s School. Asked about his happiest times on stage, he ponders.
“I’d say it’s summer repertory in Cambridge, Mass., in the latter part of the ‘60s,” he finally replies, recalling a student talent pool that included John Lithgow (“an inspiration to me: two years older and a foot taller”), Stockard Channing and MIT fireball James Woods. “That was the best experience I had in the theater. The audiences were very bright, very interested. And, when it counts, they were very demanding and discriminating. The themes that we concerned ourselves with (were) the world, its condition and its future. We did everything, anything. Shakespeare, Brecht, the Greeks.”
Suddenly he waxes eloquent, as Tommy Lee Jones is wont to do. “And there was music in the cafes at night! There was revolution in the air! It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Theater really . . . it meant a lot. And I was young. And it was a huge adventure. I had only up until that time dreamed of engaging my imagination in something that seemed so important. So . . . I’d say that was my happiest time in the theater.”
There’s a pregnant pause--or at least a willing one--as we listen to the river flow. And in the movies?
He thinks longer; there are more years to remember. “That’s difficult to categorize. . . . I was delighted when I was hired by Roger Corman to do one of his road films. (In 1976, Jones played the charismatic escaped con in Michael Miller’s critical hit “Jackson County Jail.”) “I’d always . . . I lusted after that situation. It was like doing classical repertory in some way. There’s a classicism to it. There have been other, similar situations. Not landmarks so much as telegraph poles.”
“Yeah. I enjoyed that--because you eat so well in New Orleans. And I love that river. . . . “Listen, (movie) locations become very important. The mountains of Appalachia; the hollers of Kentucky (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”); the plains outside Galisteo, N. M. (“Lonesome Dove”). Those things take on great meaning. . . . Well, I don’t know that they take on great meaning: these little moments of epiphany. But they take on great significance to me.”
With “The Fugitive” out this week, Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth” due in December, and another Stone film, “Natural Born Killers,” currently being shot in Chicago, Jones is obviously on a roll. Sheer unpredictability may be a prime reason why this sometimes contradictory and contrary fellow--who was born in San Sava, Tex., and grew up around the West Texas oil fields, before taking a cum laude Harvard degree in literature and winning all-Ivy League and all-East honors as the football team’s offensive guard--has become, since 1989, one of the American cinema’s premier genre heavies and character leads.
Recently, there’s been a bumper crop of virtuoso villainy in American movies, a trend perhaps spurred by Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning romp as happy cannibal Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1992) Jones’ heavies in both “JFK” and “Under Siege"--where he played, respectively, assassination suspect Clay Shaw and a flamboyant terrorist--are definitely part of a short list that includes Gene Hackman’s sadistic sheriff in “Unforgiven,” John Malkovich’s cold-eyed assassin in “In the Line of Fire,” and Jones’ old Cambridge colleague John Lithgow in “Raising Cain” and “Cliffhanger.” But offbeat villainy is not the only string in his bow. He’s also a master of ambiguous or tormented “heroism” (“Lonesome Dove”), complex reality (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Executioner’s Song,” the current “House of Cards”) and something that lies fascinatingly between them all: like his current role of Lt. Sam Gerard in the movie update of “The Fugitive.”
Jones grabs center stage in “The Fugitive,” just as he did “Under Siege"--where he played a flaky, long-haired, leather-jacketed rock ‘n’ roll battleship hijacker. (According to Davis: “The part was written as Elton John; Tommy wanted to do it as Alice Cooper, and we compromised on Paul Butterfield.”)
“The Fugitive’s” Gerard, of course, is the prototypical indefatigable cop, who, for a generation of mid-'60s TV watchers, became as much a symbol of relentless police pursuit as Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert was for 19th-Century readers who devoured “Les Miserables.” For four seasons, ending in what was then the highest-rated single TV program in history, Gerard hounded the hapless “wrong man,” Dr. Richard Kimble--played on TV by David Janssen, in the film by Harrison Ford--for the murder of Kimble’s wife, while Kimble, in turn, chased the mysterious “one-armed man” who Kimble believed had actually done the killing.
In the TV show (1963-67), Gerard was played by London actor Barry Morse: dour, unsmiling, a thin-haired intellectual who seemed unreachable. Jones’ Gerard seems unreachable too, but in a different way. He’s the man you absolutely do not want on your case, the cop who won’t be fooled or flummoxed, a techno-athlete and numbers wizard, peeling through the false leads of the chase with terrifying focus, zeroing in on the racing Kimble like a rifle’s red laser beam.
In a hellaciously fast movie, it’s Jones who keys the tempo and sets the pace. And it’s Jones, according to Davis, who virtually created much of his own role during the filming, something the two did even more extensively together in “Under Siege.” Jones also gives “The Fugitive” a dark memorable moment. When Ford’s Kimble turns to him desperately and protests that he didn’t kill his wife, Gerard’s tense answer is “I don’t care.” The reply of a relentless killing system? Not quite. When Jones says it, his voice is twisted, anxious, wary--but also, vaguely appealing. What another actor might have built up into a blood-curdling big-shock moment, Jones gentles instead into something more fragile and unsettling: a vulnerability we recall later when Gerard, as in the TV series, turns into something much different from what he first seemed.
When reminded that TV-watching kids in the ‘60s all tended to hate Gerard, Jones grins. “He had that weird funky haircut, didn’t he? And he never smiled-- never. I don’t remember (the TV series’) Gerard havin’ any fun. Or causin’ any fun. . . .
“But Harrison’s the kind of actor. . . . Well, all heroes have to encounter some kind of jeopardy, don’t they? And it takes a lot of jeopardy to be convincing around Harrison, because people have so much confidence in him. Anyway, I think it’s important to distinguish between antagonists and villains. They’re two entirely different things. Our Gerard is an antagonist.”
Jones often gets wounding moments in his films: whether he’s playing sensual, embittered murderer Gary Gilmore in “The Executioner’s Song” (from a Norman Mailer screenplay) or emotionally armored ex-Texas Ranger Woodrow Call taking home his friend’s coffin in “Lonesome Dove.”
Yet ask him about what was going on in those scenes or movies, or what he intended, and he’ll simply reply, with prototypical Texas taciturnity: “I try to be a good soldier. I’m there to do what you want. I’m there to serve the director, my fellow actors and the audience. I try to be a useful member of a company. Just try to make the process work as well as you can.”
It’s not a pose. Jones was born in San Sava, and his father was a real-life cowboy turned oil-rigger. (“You’ve seen ‘Five Easy Pieces’?” he asks. “What Jack (Nicholson) was doin’ is what my dad did.”) Though he excelled early in the classic Texas sport, football--in a position, offensive guard, that’s the sports equivalent of trench warfare--he also developed, early on, his interest in literature and theater.
“West Texas was pretty much life, language, habits of dress and transportation, modes of thought, dictated pretty much by the terrain and the weather,” he explains. “The way they are in most societies where people live close to the land. The country’s flat; it’s hot; it’s dry. The water’s very precious.”
Literary stimulation must have been precious too. Ask him about his favorite authors and books and he’ll rattle off a surprising list: Tolstoy (for “War and Peace”), Shakespeare, James Joyce (for “Ulysses”), T. S. Eliot, Bertolt Brecht and the eloquent Victorian art and social critic John Ruskin--the supreme 19th-Century English prose stylist whose writings inspired both Tolstoy and Gandhi. “I don’t read enough, though,” he says now morosely. “Nobody does. This guy,” he nods at Bubba (who is now busy writing his own sequel to “Jurassic Park”), “reads more than anybody. And he doesn’t read enough.”
What about the contradictions between sports and art? Has he ever reconciled them? Jones smiles. “I noticed when I was an undergraduate . . . I had a lot of friends in different worlds. We did (Shakespeare’s) ‘Coriolanus’ one time (with Jones in the lead) and we needed centurions. I said: ‘Look, this is real kick-ass army here: We need real centurions.’ So all these Italian linebackers from the (football) team showed up. They looked real impressive: 260 pounds. Made pretty good centurions.
“Also, my offensive line coach came to see a play I did one time: (John Arden’s) ‘Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance.’ He didn’t understand it one bit. He was retired from the Army, so he said: ‘Oh, yeah. Sometimes a guy takes all he can take.’ Actually, that’s a pretty good critical assessment!”
Jones did have a roommate at Harvard but it wasn’t anyone like Ryan O’Neal’s lovelorn Oliver Barrett. It was a Tennessee politician’s son named Albert Gore, currently vice president of the United States. Jones doesn’t want to be asked questions about his old roomie--it’s the one subject he’s declared out-of-bounds for the interview, probably out of weariness--but Gore himself, in a Washington Post profile by Cathy Horyn, said of his old schoolmate, “Tommy has an unerring sense for the poetry of life that is not apparent to someone who simply sees (his taciturnity). . . . He went through a lot in his childhood. Childhood is a crucible for a lot of us, but I think his was forged in a pretty hot fire.”
Andy Davis enlarges: “He’s a real American male. . . . He’s got a real Americana to him: this interesting combination of being Texan, a cowboy, intellectually sophisticated and well-read, and all those weird things going on with him. It makes him very mysterious.” And Oliver Stone--who seems to have signed Jones on as a repertory player--has said: “He is definitely the kind of man who would have ridden with Sam Houston to the Alamo. He is very strong in his beliefs, fierce and close to the land.”
Would he have made it to the Alamo (whose ruins are now only a few blocks from Mansion Del Rio)? Reminded of the furor over Stone’s “JFK,” Jones is amused. And, when asked about the commentators and critics--many in the New York Times--who found the movie irresponsible, he says coolly: “I disagree.” Then he chuckles. “It really fanned the P.R. flames, didn’t it? I mean, everybody and his dog wrote an article about that movie. And got paid for doing so. There wasn’t much you could do to hurt it, though. People wanted to see it. . . .
“I like the idea that you could call it a brave movie. I believe you could call (Stone) a brave filmmaker. I know I could call him a brave director.
“He has an understanding of the role of art in general, and cinema in particular, that matches my own. I say this as an audience member: If a book or a movie or a painting is going to engage my imagination, I want it to do more than entertain . . . usually. I don’t have a lot of spare time. So I don’t mind light entertainment. But, if you’re going to live a true life of the mind-- and many Americans have a desire to--you need a variety of fare: things that will challenge conventional thought, stimulate mental and emotional growth. We’ve been guaranteed freedom of speech just so , just because, somebody believed in the human individual’s right to consider alternatives. And it’s a part of every American artist’s life to support that process. Even be that process.”
Pausing, Jones stares, intimidatingly, at the tape recorder. “Did that thing hear me?”
I assure him it did.
He nods and continues. “As for ‘JFK,’ almost nobody . . . I mean, you have to be rather naive to subscribe to the ‘magic bullet’ theory. There are all kinds of arguments . . . but before the movie was made, it was pretty well presented as a settled issue, a fait accompli : This bullet did in fact make seven wounds in two people, and emerge, finally, unscathed. But, you have to stop and remind yourself: No one was ever brought to trial for that murder. And, if they had been, that bullet would have been laughed out of court. . . . And, if that’s a fabrication, that’s the crack that shatters the great wall.
“Oliver’s screenplays just get better and better. By now, you can read any screenplay that he’s writing currently, twice a day, and enjoy it just for its literary value. It’s a lot of fun to read those screenplays. He has a great deal to offer his audiences, especially those who think. He would never describe himself as a public servant. But that’s what he is.”
“Natural Born Killers” started out as an original by the phenom Quentin (“Reservoir Dogs”) Tarantino. Jones calls it “a satire on the subject of modern American violence. The media. Crime and punishment. Ridiculous elements, that are worthy of satire.”
Reminded of a recent Lou Harris poll that states that more than half of American schoolchildren say they know how to get guns and 39% knew someone who had been shot or killed with them, he hits a kind of biblical/apocalyptic vein: “What’s missing ? What’s missing in our lives that allows the devil to be so comfortable on Earth? I don’t know. But, if I were able to participate in an artistic endeavor that would explore that question, I’d jump at the chance. I think I’ve got it, in ‘Natural Born Killers.’ ”
Films written by an Stone, a Tarantino or a William Wittliff (“Lonesome Dove”) have a certain literary/dramatic depth and shine. What about the others, the ones, like the Steven Seagal “Die Hard-on-a-battleship” thriller “Under Siege,” that start seemingly as journeyman projects?
“Well,” frowns Jones, “it’d be better--wiser, more polite--to say that the script of ‘Under Siege’ wasn’t entirely finished when it became necessary to start shooting; that circumstances developed during the shooting schedule that changed the demands that we made on the script, that it became important to be versatile and agile and adaptable.” “It’s not as if we were performing ‘King Lear,’ where all the words and pretty much most of the movements and music cues have been established for hundreds of years. Nothing’s been established, not even for hundreds of seconds.
“And it’s not even important, because you’re dealing with a formula, a commercial movie. Formulas are more important, actually, than the script. Your job is to make the formula new and different. And how do you do that? By giving it real content. Something that people want to watch, something new and different, something that stimulates people.
“Most people who will suggest that the American motion picture audience is dumb are sadly mistaken. Americans are not dumb. We don’t read enough books; we may be watching too much television. But these people are not idiots. So that’s why even if you’re dealing with a formula situation--formula story, formula plot--you have a responsibility to make it new and different and stimulating.”
“Lonesome Dove,” the 1989 TV miniseries from Larry McMurtry’s novel--by director Simon Wincer--may be, even more than “Dances With Wolves” or “Unforgiven,” the key movie in the recent renaissance of the movie Western: a six-hour film novel of harrowing breadth, ribald humor, gentleness, sweep and sorrow. It also has an interesting history: Jones’ part--the taciturn, super-tough, family-denying Capt. Woodrow Call--was probably the one intended for John Wayne, back when McMurtry first conceived the story in the ‘70s. Then, it was a Western film-script called “Streets of Laredo,” written for director Peter Bogdanovich (two other “Laredo” parts were likewise intended for James Stewart and Henry Fonda). In assuming Wayne’s role, Jones gave it a sense of unease and final tragedy that the Duke--who turned the movie down, complaining that his role was a “whiner"--might not have mustered.
“I was sent a script and read it, " Jones says now. “And of course I’d read the book--and I immediately began to whine for the part. I tried to do a good job; it was important to me.
“The main thing that attracted me was just the beauty of the book. And the truth of the language. I liked the way the people talked: what they concerned themselves about. And the humor and the proximity to reality. How people live. And I knew that if we were faithful to the book--and I knew (producer-writer) Bill Wittliff would be--that people all over the world would get a chance to see a real version of the history and literature of my home--as opposed to a phony version.
“We love ‘The Searchers.’ But it’s shot in Arizona (Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border). And nobody ever wore those clothes. And nobody ever talked like that. So I was looking for an opportunity to work on a story in which my relatives could recognize themselves. And in which my children could recognize their grandparents and great-grandparents.”
What about the difficulties of the “Lonesome Dove” shoot, which meticulously re-creates a 19th-Century cattle drive from Texas to Montana?
“Well . . . I was very happy,” Jones recollects. “It was the happiest hundred days in a long time. I love the Rio Grande Valley, so I loved being down on the river. I didn’t consider it tough at all.”
Did the rest of the cast have a good time?
“Not all of them. Some of them did, some of them didn’t. But most of them. . . . The good actors and the honest people all had fun.”
The rush of the river has become more palpable. Jones mentions that he’s starting a new branch of his career--directing a cable TV movie, from Elmer Kelton’s novel “Good Ol’ Boys"--and that his favorite filmmakers include Jean-Luc Godard, John Ford and Orson Welles.
So, what does he think about our culture now?
“I think our culture has developed very positively,” he says, quietly. “I do. I’m very optimistic, hopeful for the future.
“I don’t think 40 years is a very long time. Or 25 years. Twenty-five years ago, I graduated from college; my 25th reunion is coming up). I doubt I’ll make it; I don’t have time. But, when my classmates reunite, those who do, will be as vital and alive as 1993 or ’94 is. The number of the year recedes behind us, but the year itself is not goin’ anywhere.”
His words begin to roll out, like simply eloquent narration over a movie shot of distant mountains, plains, a sunset: “That which is good and evil in 1960 exists today, and the passage of time is slow, and not relevant. The difference is, in my mind, that good is winning the fight.”
He really feels that?
“Yeah.” There’s that little bemused smile again. “I don’t know why. I think it’s because . . . I think I was born with faith. That’s why. . . . Hell, I think that’s why I believe in it. That faith was here and I was born into it.” The smile grows. “That’s the reason. That’s why.”
What about all the hurdles that remain, personal and social? He answers, and, as he does, you get a glimpse of the West Texas cowboy’s son, showing up in the Harvard yard all those years ago, during the Vietnam period, when something bright, dangerous and out of control seemed to have just been loosed on the world. Today and probably back then, Tommy Lee Jones has the right answer, one that John Ruskin or Vince Lombardi couldn’t have bettered.
“A lot of these hurdles will develop a reputation for being unjumpable,” he says. “But there’s not an unjumpable hurdle on this Earth."*