June 2002 By Philip Berk
It took Tommy Lee Jones 25 years to become a full fledged star.
For years he languished in bad movies as a leading actor until Oliver Stone gave him a small role in JFK which earned him a surprise Academy Award nomination.
Two years later he won the Oscar for The Fugitive, and quickly became the thinking man’s Action Hero.
I once asked him if he would he’d like to do a comedy.
His prophetic answer was, “A formal comedy is something I haven’t done yet, maybe if I’m lucky, someday.”
And luck came his way when he was cast opposite Will Smith in Men in Black which quickly became top grossing comedy of all time ($600 million worldwide.)
Now there’s a sequel about to open and Jones is in New York for the press junket.
He looks especially good despite his pock marked appearance, but up close you realize why his raw, rugged toughness never appealed to women: he lacks the warmth that leathery John Wayne had.
He may look like a Southern redneck, but in actual fact he’s had an Ivy League education. He attended Harvard University, where he roomed with (former) Vice President Al Gore and played offensive guard with some distinction.
In college, his major was English literature and he graduated cum laude. After college, he did some repertory work in Cambridge, Mass. (the talent pool included John Lithgow, Stockard Channing, and James Woods) and then he quickly established himself in small roles on Broadway (appearing as five different characters in John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me and as Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses in Nighttown (with Zero Mostel.)
Eventually Hollywood beckoned, and his big break came when he was cast as Cissy Spacek’s husband in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
After that, there was Eyes of Laura Mars, Back Roads, River Rats, and other forgettable roles. To his credit he has made two television movies that he’s very proud of — The Executioner’s Song and Lonesome Dove.
But it was The Fugitive that made him a household word.
Today he owns a cattle ranch in the place where he was born — San Saya, Texas, but he lives with his wife and two children forty miles away in San Antonio, Texas.
His father was a real life cowboy turned oil rigger. His mother worked briefly as a police officer before becoming a housewife. Supposedly, he had a tough childhood but he won’t talk about that. We know that he attended an elite prep school before going to Harvard, but that’s all we’ll ever know.
Was it again a challenge playing comedy?
“The challenge was working on another movie just before Men in Black II. The film was two weeks over schedule and two weeks into Barry’s shooting schedule. (MIB’s Barry Sonnenfeld is again the director.) He was shooting scenes I didn’t appear in until he ran out. Meanwhile he had engaged Grand central Station, which you don’t get any day, you have to get it at night. So it came down to the wire. There I was fighting with knives in Washington State, and as soon as we finished that last scene, we jumped on an airplane, flew across country, got off the plane and went straight to Grand Central Station.“
So the process — comedy vs.drama — is the same?
“There is no process, and it]s different on every endeavor.”
Is it more fun?
“As Barry says, if we’re not having any fun, we can’t expect the audience to. So it was important for all of us to have fun every day.”
Isn’t it distracting?
“I don’t find it so.”
Being part of a (movie) franchise, doesn’t that make him feel more secure?
“There’s very little security in being an actor, almost none. It’s not a job for people who require emotional or financial security, and even if it arrives, it’s very hard to live with. Actors are just not secure.”
Why did he get into acting?
“I was an actor in school. It was an extra curricular activity. Later it was a summer job in college, and upon graduation I went to New York to see if I could compete with professionals. I got a job rather quickly, and I’ve been busy ever since.”
Did his family encourage him?
“It was something my family had no way of relating to and no way of understanding.”
As an actor does he take his character home with him at night?
“Younger actors tend to do that. I’m no longer young. I leave that stuff in the trailer.”
What does acting mean to him?
“A job, that’s what it is, but I try to be a good soldier. I’m there to do what the director wants. I’m there to serve him, my fellow actors, and the audience. I try to be a useful member of a company, try to make the process work as well as I can.”
A lot of American actors are doing theatre in London. Would he be interested in doing that?
“I’d love to do a play. Two or three years ago (London theatre director) Trevor Nunn offered me the part of Anthony in Anthony and Cleopatra; the idea was to do it at the National Theatre in England with Glenn Close playing Cleopatra. I was intrigued but I wasn’t willing to take on Shakespeare at the National. I’m an American, I didn’t want to make them mad. But I’d love to go to England do an American classic. I’d love to go to New York, anywhere where there are intelligent audiences. I once asked Larry Olivier how important it was to get back into the theater. ‘Larry I haven’t done a play in five years and I’m getting concerned about it,’and he said, ‘My dear boy, don’t whine, You wont forget how.’ So I guess there’s plenty of time.”
He and Olivier were making The Betsy, one of his forgettable movies, at the time.
Is it true he created his role in The Fugitive?
“It was a collaborative environment. We created the characters as we went along. The screenplay tended to change every day.”
What can he tell us about his personal life?
“I have two children, my son is twenty and my daughter is ten. She’s a young athlete, on the soccer team and she’s also a member of a theatre company. In fact she has a small part in MIBII.”
What kind of father is he?
“My role as a father has been to take pressure off children rather than put it on. Putting pressure on people is the easiest thing in the world. I try to be a good friend to my children. When I’m home, I try to do things we can all enjoy, silly, goofy things, to have as much fun as we can. Because I travel for a living (making movies all over, not just Hollywood) when I’m home, I don’t want to waste a minute of that time.”
Professionally, wouldn’t he be better off living in Los Angeles rather than San Antonio?
“We live in San Antonio because it’s home. We’re not trying to get away from New York or Cleveland, or Los Angeles for that matter. We live at home because it’s home.”
What is there about Hollywood that he doesn’t like?
“I am very comfortable in what you call Hollywood. I have a lot of friends in California, I am very happy with my job and the people I work with there.”
Hot off the presses is news that Al Gore is testing the waters about running again. Has he been in touch with him?
“He’s a good friend of mine but I don’t know what his plans are.”
When they roomed together did he ever express a desire to be president one day?
“Not in any realistic way. I mean,any nineteen year old kid who says,‘I’m going to be president someday,’can’t be taken seriously, can he?”
Does he have an opinion about what’s going on in the country today?
“I don’t have anything to say about politics. It’s a delicate time for the foreign relations of the United States. I have no opinions, I have no causes to espouse. I am going to let the actions of my country speak for themselves.”
Does he believe movies can change the world?
“There was this idea in the fifties that movies were the ring in the great bull’s nose and that the American people were being hoodwinked and led around by motion pictures and that society was being subverted by film makers. But I don’t think life is that simple. I don’t think people are that simple. Americans are not that dumb. So it might be more accurate to say that movies offer a forum for exchange of ideas.”
And what does recognition mean to him?
“When I see a packed audience of people howling with laughter that’s a very gratifying thing for me. It must be what a doctor feels when he sees his patient get well.”
And critical acclaim?
“Critical acclaim is nice. Of course you enjoy that, but it’s more important that the paying audience have fun.”
Sony expects the movie to open big, but already the critics are calling it a major disappointment.