By Sean Axmaker
Tommy Lee Jones had just arrived from the airport when I was introduced to him. He looked quite elegant in his black suit, which he wore with unforced distinction, and salt-and-pepper beard. I was his the first interview of the day and he politely welcomed me to sit down as he scanned the menu for a belated lunch.
Feeling nervous, I thought to ease the mood by opening with what, in retrospect, was an ill-advised comment: "You have a reputation for being tough on interviewers. Is there a reason for me to be worried?" It was met with a withering silence, and then a slow response. "That'd be up to you.... That's always a strange thing to hear, you know? An interviewer came and set down with me one time, I'd never met the person before, and the person said 'Why are you such a bastard?'" The temperature in the room seemed to suddenly drop a few degrees.
He turned to the studio publicist. "This fellow's heard that I'm very tough on interviewers. That was the first thing he said: 'I understand you're very tough on interviewers.'" Another long pause, then he turned to me with a stone face. "I guess that was to break the ice, huh?"
Well, yes, it was. Instead, I felt my welcome freeze over. His first answers were curt and the silences devastating as he awaited the next question. I got the sense that he doesn't brook bullshit or suffer fools gladly. He seemed to peg me for both. Only slowly did he warm up to my questions. I even caught him smiling at a few. Maybe he decided I wasn't such a fool after all. Maybe I simply asked some questions that he figured were worth his attention. But it took a while to earn back anything resembling respect.
What attracted you to In the Valley of Elah?
I thought the movie had a chance to be about something. It was time to go to work and I really like New Mexico.
When you sign on to a film like this, is it the character's journey that you respond to, or is it he message of the film?
I guess both.
What was it about Deerfield's journey that attracted you to that character?
It seemed to be about something, it seemed to be relevant. The subject matter has to do with things that touch every American.
I find it interesting that Deerfield, a veteran of the Vietnam war, comes back to see what has happened to these young soldiers in a war with experiences similar to his, yet they come back very different than he did.
Yeah, I suppose so.
The characters you play in Elah and No Country For Old Men and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada have bedrock of integrity to them. Is that important to you in a role?
It's meaningless, really. You just look for good parts and good stories and a good company to work with. Characters with no integrity are just as interesting as characters with lots of integrity.
The Three Burials of Mequiades Estrada is one of the most powerful films I've seen in the past few years.
Thank you. I really love to hear that. Thank you.
And now you are starring in No Country For Old Men, from the Cormac McCarthy novel. Both films feel like they come from the same spiritual universe. Do you think McCarthy has influenced your work?
I don't know. You know... I don't know, really. I have the greatest respect for his work and for his imagination. Yeah, there's certain things reminiscent. The narrative form of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is the journey and Cormac's latest book is called The Road. But I hadn't read The Road at that time. It's an ancient narrative form, which is why we used it. We used a classical narrative form so that we could actually have a structure within which we could be quite specific about things that were on our minds. And on the kid's journey in Blood Meridian, he comes across an old anchorite / philosopher / poet / hermit. And we used the same form of character in The Three Burials, a blind oracle. The mechanics of narrative is all that it is.
I read that you optioned the film rights to McCarthy's Blood Meridian.
I was hired to write a screenplay of that book. I never owned it.
Do you have a particular interest in McCarthy's work?
Cormac is our best living prose stylist... and he's also a friend. I've read all of his books and most of his criticism. He wrote a play also. It's very intriguing, very appealing for people who make movies. I think the Coen Brothers did a very fine job of representing Cormac's work in the screen. I think Blood Meridian would make a terrific movie.
Blood Meridian has been called "unfilmable," which don't believe is true, but it would be a very harsh vision to put on the screen.
It's not unfilmable. It's very violent but there have been lots of very violent films made, some of them out of pure prurience. This one has some real value. It's about something.
The sheriff has a line in No Country for Old Men: "My mind wanders." I just don't believe his mind ever wanders.
"My mind wanders." The girl has just asked him why he's told the story about the man who was trying to kill a steer and the bullet ricocheted around and hit him in the arm. He's looking at a girl whose mind wanders, if you know what I mean. It's an ironic statement, is what I think Cormac had in mind. His mind does anything but wander.
When she doesn't get what he's talking about, it also puts her at ease.
Right. There's a kindness to the man.
You graduated from Harvard with a degree in literature. I had read, and I don't know if this is true, so please tell me if it's not, that you had not taken any acting classes.
I've been too busy working.
How did you land a role on Broadway and an acting career so soon after graduation?
I went to a prep school in Dallas that takes theater seriously and did a couple of plays there and really liked it, so I continued to do that as an extracurricular activity in Cambridge. It actually became my summer job, repertory companies. I think by the time I went to New York I had done twenty plays and I just decided to see if I could compete with the professionals. I got a job on Broadway in about ten days time and have been working ever since. I suppose my education in the theater has been practical, or what is called on the job training.
Being on stage and working with other actors in live theater is an acting class of its own.
It's the only acting class of any value.
Do you have a favorite or most rewarding role in your career?
Do you see these roles as a continuum?
Yeah. I'm still looking for the favorite, you know. The flippant answer to that question would be the one that was in the most money. That's the only way to answer the question. Really, I have no favorites. The one I'm doing now, that's always my favorite. The one that's at hand.
Is that because it's the one you are engaged in at the moment?
Actually I'm unemployed at the moment.
Do you plan on directing another film?
Do you have anything in mind, or are you still looking for the right story?
I own the motion picture rights to Ernest Hemingway's last book. It's called Islands in the Stream. It was made into a bad movie. But there's a good movie in that book and that's what I want to do next.
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