This year’s most anticipated Tommy Lee Jones performance was expected to be in his long-awaited return to the Men In Black franchise, but that actually turned out to be his least interesting part. The reliable veteran star, who won his one and only Oscar nearly two decades ago for chasing Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, has enjoyed a year full of unexpected acting pleasures. After MIB3, he starred in a rare summer adult comedy opposite Meryl Streep and won praise in Hope Springs as a long-married man whose wife wants to add sexual sparks to their relationship. He could earn a Golden Globe nom for best actor in a comedy or musical for that film, plus a second supporting actor nom for his sensationally entertaining turn as Senator Thaddeus Stevens in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. That one has also brought him back as a frontrunner in the Oscar race, too. These are good times for Jones, who as usual is focused on the work and rather blasé about all the awards buzz.
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AwardsLine: What appealed to you about playing Thaddeus Stevens?
Tommy Lee Jones: Steven (Spielberg) sent me the screenplay, asked if I would read it and consider the part of Thaddeus Stevens. I read the screenplay, loved it, and was fascinated with Stevens. I called him back and said, “This is a very fine undertaking, and it would be my good luck if I had a chance to work on it.”
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AwardsLine: Were you aware of Stevens in any way before you started researching the role?
Jones: I knew that there was a radical abolitionist in Congress in 1865 named Thaddeus Stevens—that’s about all I knew. But I was fascinated to learn the details of his life and become more aware of what it took to pass that amendment.
AwardsLine: What surprised you about Stevens when you got deeper into the research?
Jones: There were a lot of surprises about Thaddeus Stevens that are not in this movie. I wasn’t so much surprised but very interested to learn that he was to some degree a professional radical. His early years in Congress were dedicated to defeating the Masons. His idea was that they shouldn’t be in government because their loyalty would be divided, that they would be more loyal to their cult. And that leaves George Washington right out, buddy. (Laughs.) But he made a lot of political hay, battling this specter of Masonry. He worked very hard to run a railroad through western Pennsylvania, a place where you wouldn’t put a railroad, unless you owned an iron mill, and thought you could make some money if you no longer had to haul your product out with wagons and mules. So he had some pork-belly campaigns on his own behalf. I learned that he was an inveterate gambler. He loved to bet on horses. He even bet on his own elections! He bet on himself to win his own elections and made money doing it! (Laughs.) And that housekeeper wasn’t the only woman in his life. There are a lot of fascinating things about Stevens that aren’t necessarily relevant to the movie, but help you make decisions when you’re deciding what to do as you play a character. This makes the character fuller.
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AwardsLine: How did you prepare to play him? The wig was interesting.
Jones: Preposterous wig! We hired a wig maker and told him not to do too good a job. If you look at pictures of Stevens, it is a ridiculous wig.
AwardsLine: Was there a rehearsal process?
Jones: The first thing you do is rehearse the blocking. When you know where you’re going to be, then you can go back to a trailer or a dressing room and adjust your prep to the physical reality. The actors I was working with didn’t really require a lot of rehearsal. They were thoroughly prepared and knew what they were going to do and how they were going to do it. All we had to do was just adjust to where we were going to do it. And these kinds of actors are adjustable.
AwardsLine: What is it like working opposite Daniel Day-Lewis when he just becomes Lincoln?
Jones: His Lincoln is believable and embodies all the characteristics that we admire about Lincoln. I was relieved—gratified, is the only word—to see Lincoln as a real country boy. Not just a bumpkin, but a guy from the country. He’s not real comfortable in town. A brilliant lawyer, self-educated, (an) insightful poet—a man capable of unthinkable self-sacrifice. To see all that rendered real, as opposed to the Lincoln on the penny or the Lincoln on the monument—none of those Lincolns. We’re talking about a real man here.
AwardsLine: What was it like to work with Steven Spielberg?
Jones: He’s been part of movies that I’ve worked on. I’ve never been one of his actors, in a movie that he directed. I was very pleased to see him have so much fun. He was very happy on that set. All of the tasks that arise in the course of making a film were a joy to him. None of it was confusing to him or frustrating. You always worry, but he was always, from where I stood, having fun, and that’s so important.
AwardsLine: Do you learn from the directors that you work with, things that you want to do on your own movies?
Jones: Every one of them. You are either learning what to do or what not to do. You’re either learning how to do it or how not to do it. And that’s all good.
Awardsline: You’re directing a new film, aren’t you?
Jones: Homesmen. It’s about events that surround the Homestead Act, the middle of the 19th century, and in the Nebraska Territory. Right now, we are scheduled to start shooting on March 17. That might be adjusted a little bit, one way or the other. I need some partially melted snow, and I need some grass. So you have to pick just the right window and get lucky.
AwardsLine: What makes you want to take on a role these days?
What’s the key ingredient?
Jones: You look for a good screenplay, a good director—you’re pretty well assured he’ll be prepared—a good cast. Personally, I look for an exotic, happy, wonderful location that my wife and daughter and son will want to visit, so they’ll want to come see me. And you look for a good business deal. There’s a lot of factors that come into play.