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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Interview: Tommy Lee Jones

by Alex Simon

When did you know you were an actor?
Well, I still haven’t decided what to do when I grow up. I’ve always thought acting was a lot of fun, and I haven’t had to quit it yet. I stumbled into it first when I was in prep school and stumbled into the little theater they had there and saw a rehearsal going on, and I’d done school plays and had fun, but that was really the first time it caught my eye. I did play Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in second grade, and having played the lead in Baby Bear’s Birthday Party in the third grade, I was already a seasoned actor by then. But I’d never really seen people moving through light in a communal effort to bring literature to life, until I got to St. Mark’s. When I saw that, I found it very attractive and I haven’t stopped acting since.

From there you studied English Literature at Harvard, and continued to excel at both dramatics and football. Your roommate was Al Gore. You also played in the famous “tie” game between Harvard and Yale in 1968.
Yeah, the 29-29 tie. That’s a very famous football game. We scored 16 points in the last 42 seconds of the game to tie Yale for the Ivy League championship. It was an exciting game. I played offensive guard.

I know you did a lot of theater at Harvard. Is that how you were discovered for Love Story?
No. I did do a lot of theater at Harvard when I wasn’t playing football. It became my summer job. During the summer I would join repertory companies. I’d done a lot of plays and inexpensive movies by the time I graduated and went to New York. I was there for a while, working in theater. I did not have a Screen Actor’s Guild union card, but I had been trying to get parts in movies, by going to open calls and agents. When they asked if I was a member of the union, I would slap my pockets and pretend to have left my wallet at home. I was able to insinuate myself into some interviews with casting directors. I went to see the casting director for Paramount, who casting roles for this upcoming movie called Love Story. It was for the role of a Harvard football player. I thought this might be a chance to do a couple day’s work and get a union card. So I went to the Paramount office and waited for a long time, and was finally admitted to see the casting director. As I opened the door, she glanced up at me and said “You’re not right.” I said ‘Well…,’ she said “No! You might pass for a football player, but these are special football players. Thank you very much.”

So how did you get cast?
I called an old Harvard guy, who was a friend of her boss’, boss’ boss. The next day they called me back and asked if I’d like to read for the director, Arthur Hiller. I did and I got the job and a union card.

The first film I remember seeing you in was The Amazing Howard Hughes. What did you learn about Mr. Hughes during the time you prepared for and played that role?
I did a lot of work on that, because I was very happy to have that part. I read every magazine and newspaper article that had ever been written about him. I had him profiled, a psychological profile, by a company in Connecticut. So I had a complete dossier on him, as well as every frame of film that had been shot of him, and all the recorded interviews. When it came time to shoot his testimony before the senate, we matched it pretty close. I tried to match his breathing patterns. That would be an interesting exercise: to look at the actual footage, shot I think by RKO News, and compare that to what you see in the film. I found a guy who wrote the December, 1946 Time Magazine story about Howard. He was an old guy, worn out, retired, living in one of those little houses at the bottom of Laurel Canyon, on the right side. He was happy to have the company, so I came and talked to him for about an hour, and he said “Come with me. I want to show you something.” We went down to his basement, and he wiped cobwebs out of the way, and moved boxes aside, and finally he found an old filling cabinet and pulled out all the notes that he’d made when he’d interviewed Howard—all of them! And there was the original manuscript of his article, complete with his editors’ red lines, of what they wanted to cut. So I got to read what Time wouldn’t print. That was really invaluable. Howard had a lot of things to say about his father that were not published in his lifetime, but could have been. I’m certain they thought it would have been too dangerous to print at that time.

Do you think a lot of Hughes’ personal psychology was based on his relationship with his father?
Absolutely. In the article he referred to his father as “a plenty tough son of a bitch.” Howard Sr. was a notorious character in the early days of the oil fields. History has changed him from “a plenty tough son of a bitch” to a swashbuckler. He was very hard on that kid. Very hard.

Do you think that horrible plane crash in Beverly Hills that almost killed him aggravated his psychosis?
Absolutely. It broke every bone in his body, damn near, and began his addictions. And it opened up the floodgates with those insecurities. It created a phobia of being invaded: by germs, by people coming through the door, by listening devices in the lamps, snakes under the carpet. Who knows where they are, or what they’re doing? You have to be ever vigilant…

Coal Miner’s Daughter was the film that really put you on the map in the film world. Did you spend a lot of time with your real-life counterpart, Doolittle Lynn?
Sure did. He taught me how to drive a bulldozer, the old kind, which has no real steering. You steer with the brakes. First of all, it has a decelerator instead of an accelerator. If you want it to run at an idle, you step on the pedal, which shuts the throttle down. If you want to go faster and open the throttle, you let the pedal up. It’s the exact opposite of what happens in your car. There’s no way to steer it other than by braking one of the tracks. You know, before that movie was made, the only way audiences had experienced people from those mountains was on The Beverly Hillbillies or Ma and Pa Kettle. It was a very good feeling to take part in something that had a chance of eroding the hillbilly stereotype.

You did three movies with Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers, JFK, Heaven and Earth). Tell us about him.
He’s very bright, very smart and very talented, and very bold, and everybody knows that. He’s a friend. I just happen to like Oliver a great deal. He expects people to be prepared, rehearses a little bit, then shoots. He doesn’t waste time. He’s very unobtrusive.

Arguably Clay Shaw, in terms of the real people you’ve played, was your most mysterious character. What were your impressions of him?
He had an assistant who worked with him, and that assistant happened to be dying. His son interviewed his dying father on the subject of Clay Shaw, and I was able to acquire those interviews, and get really very close, about as close as you could to a dead man. This was a long-time employee who had no reason to lie, or distort. I also interviewed Jim Garrison three or four times specifically on Shaw, and of course the screenplay was pretty good. Shaw was a strange duck, to be sure. A desperate fellow, in some ways.

Andrew Davis is a terrific director, largely unheralded, that you’ve also done three pictures with (The Package, Under Seige, The Fugitive). He guided you to an Oscar on the last one, The Fugitive. What’s his process like?
Andy’s a good pal, also. He’s quite liberal, and very healthy in a sort of Chicago way. He’s a child of the theater, both his parents are actors. He’s also very bold. He’ll start shooting a movie before he’s got a completed script. Often working with Andy is a continual process of coming up with desperate, last minute solutions to impossible problems.

Some of that involves trusting his actors, too. Some of your best lines from all three of those films were improvised by you, right?
I don’t improvise, at all. I have written a few lines here and there, out of necessity. Sometimes that’s a good thing, to come up with your own dialogue, but not always. Ideally, you want a finished, shootable script before you start. That’s the way I prefer to approach thing. I don’t like writing or rewriting the day’s work at 7:00 in the morning, 45 minutes before we turn the damn cameras on.

You got to work with one of my heroes, Tony Richardson, on his last film Blue Sky. Tell us about that.
Oh, he was wonderful. He was a very elegant man of the theater, which is not to say that he wore fancy clothes, but he was very well prepared, very subtle. Totally disinterested in gimmicks or tricks. Or fads, or trends. I remember watching him review a script one time. I was just walking by, and he was in an isolated place but I could see him, and he was just going through the script, page-by-page, completely focused. It impressed me.

You worked with Clint Eastwood on Space Cowboys.
Another great one. He’s a hero. He’s iconic. He’s a hell of a lot of fun to be around. With those three guys: Sutherland, Jim Garner and Clint, I thought I’d heard every old actor joke there was, but they took me to school and kept me laughing every day. I had a hell of a lot of fun with them. It was so much fun to experience Clint’s work ethic. I’d heard about it, and admired what I’d heard. Then with the first movie I directed tried to follow what I’d heard second hand, but then to spend an entire shooting schedule with Clint, to watch him work and be part of the process was gratifying, of course, and educational to some degree. He was teaching me what I already knew.

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