Peruse previous interviews with Tommy Lee Jones and the Oscar-winning actor comes across as rude, short-tempered, restless and given to one-word answers.
So one expects the worst entering his expansive Pasadena hotel suite. But Vice President Al Gore's former Harvard roommate seems to be on his best behavior this afternoon. Monosyllabic replies are few and far between. In fact, the lanky Texan offers a strong handshake and even helps his visitor off with her jacket. "Take a seat," he says, pointing to a comfortable antique love seat.
Jones, who made his film debut 25 years ago in "Love Story," has been on a roll since winning the best supporting Oscar for his memorable turn as federal marshal Lt. Sam Gerard in 1993's "The Fugitive." Last year alone, Jones starred in "The Client," "Natural Born Killers," "Blown Away," "Blue Sky" and "Cobb." This summer he turns up on the silver screen as Batman's nemesis Harvey Two-Face in "Batman Returns."
In between those projects, the 48-year-old actor managed to find time to co-write (with J.T. Allen), direct and star in the Western "The Good Old Boys," premiering Sunday on TNT.
Based on Elmore Kelton's acclaimed novel, "Good Old Boys" finds Jones playing an endearing cowboy named Hewey Calloway, who is torn between the life he loves and the shrinking American West of 1906. Sissy Spacek, who won an Oscar starring opposite Jones in 1980's "Coal Miner's Daughter," is spunky Spring Renfro, the woman who nearly gets Calloway to settle down. Sam Shepard, Terry Kinney and Frances McDormand round out the strong cast.
Jones has been writing scripts for years. "Originals," he says, flashing those piercing dark brown eyes. "Nobody's ever read them. I'm scared (to show them)."
Executive producer Edgar J. Scherick brought "Good Old Boys" to Jones' attention. "I knew he was talking about television," Jones says. "I called him back and said, 'You know you can't afford me. Neither can any of the television producers you can go to. If you compete on the open market for my services, forget it! But if you will consider letting me direct it, I will deliver an expensive actor. That's something I can do that no one else can do."
Jones suggested that Turner Network Television would be a great home for "Good Old Boys" because Turner had once offered him a directing assignment. "I was so impressed that I had been taken seriously as a potential director over there, that I hadn't been laughed at."
He shifts in his chair and flashes those eyes one more time. "Really, most people, forget producers or people that work in the motion-picture industry, are more comfortable with the idea of an actor who really can't put one foot in front of the other, much less think," he says. "That's really a lot easier to get your mind around. It just makes it so much easier for you. It is less intimidating. It's empowering somehow if you can objectify it. (Actors) are cattle.
"So there is a huge hump to get over," Jones adds. "There is a stigma. There is prejudice, there is bigotry. I did not meet that at Turner. I said (to Scherick), 'Look, we got to go there,' and we did and they said, 'OK,' and off we went."
Adapting "Good Old Boys" was easy for Jones. "I couldn't help myself," he says. "It's like a bean. You put it in the ground, you give it some water, put the sun on it and it's going to sprout. I felt complete while writing this screenplay."
Were there a lot of changes made from the book?
"Look, the book is like 200 pages long and the screenplay is 110, and I don't use the whole page," Jones says, laughing. "I just write in the middle (of the page). So you got to leave something out. It just depends on what you see. Some people read 'Ulysses' and think, 'How in the world can that be a movie?' And some people can read 'Ulysses' and say, 'How can it not?' So I thought it was screen-worthy and cinematic."
Though the script was finished when he got on the set last May in West Texas, Jones did change aspects of it "every day, not wildly or great." Any revisions made were done in the interest of the schedule. "There are certain adjustments that you can't make until you have shot ... you shoot the first 20 pages before you know if Page 21 belongs in the movie or not."
Frequently, Jones says, he has worked on huge, big-budget movies that lacked a completed shooting script. "I have seen these projects start spending millions and millions of dollars without five cents of screenplay to back them and support them," he says.
Producers, he adds, are too often in a hurry. "Here comes the release date they're looking for. This actor is available. It is now time to go. We will fix it later. All kinds of songs are sung to you. We don't need a screenplay, we are gonig to be spontaneous. This is an industry. It is show business , not show art. We have a product to create. That is the bottom line."
As far as directing is concerned, the bottom line for Jones is that he "loved every minute of it."
Especially since he was surrounded by friends. "I couldn't put one foot in front of another without Sissy," he says with a smile. "I had to have her. I finished the script and sent it to her and asked her if she'd call me back and tell me if she liked it. If she did, would she be in it and who would she want to play? Once she did read it and called me up, I was pretty much OK. Other actors came to work, equally supportive actors who were good pals who didn't make me pay them what they were worth. They loved the story and wanted to all go together out to West Texas and make the movie."
Jones says he learned how to direct by dogging his directors and following them around on sets. "That's the way I act. I'm kind of a pain in the ass. I'm always right there. I like strong directors. I like weak directors. I like all directors. I am going to follow them around and find out what they are doing. I made a study of lenses and light. I know my way around a Panavision camera rather well. I am trained for this job. The conclusion is that my education as a director has been entirely practical on-the-job training."
The director he gleaned the most from was Oliver Stone, who directed Jones in "JFK," "Heaven and Earth" and "Natural Born Killers."
"Oliver is one of my best friends," Jones says with much affection. "I don't think I would be a director today if I hadn't done his last three movies. I love that guy, and he is a very important figure in my education."
Jones especially enjoyed doing the controversial "Natural Born Killers," in which he played an outlandish prison warden who sported a Pepe Le Pew-type hairdo.
"I love that hair and that pencil-thin mustache," he says.
The film, he says, was shot utilizing 18 different formats. "You would do (a scene) 18 times," Jones explains. "You'd do it with 35mm and you'd do it in 16mm and you'd do it in videotape, Super 8 and then finally, you know, (cinematographer) Robert Richardson, he would have a little thing like this ..."
Suddenly, Jones stands up, takes the tape recorder resting on the table and places it in front of his visitor's face. "He'd say, 'We are going to do this one more time,' and that would be his camera," Jones says, pointing to the tape recorder.
"He would have a little lens right here. You would just do the whole scene and he would do it like this" Jones adds, moving the tape recorder in a circular motion. "That was cool. I really loved that."
Jones would love the opportunity to direct again. "I finished work on the eighth sound reel of 'Good Old Boys' yesterday. We did the final mix--the final dub. They pried my cold, dead fingers away from the work print. Today, for the first time in my life, I am an unemployed director, which makes me feel like a human being. It makes me feel tall, big, grown-up with my feet on the ground. It (also) scares me to death. The actor is going to be fine, believe me. The writer-director is looking for something to do."
"The Good Old Boys" airs Sunday at 5 and 8 p.m. on TNT; it repeats Wednesday at 5 p.m.; Friday at 7 p.m. and March 12, 14, 17 and 18.