Tommy Lee Jones is an actor who really needs no introduction, and 2012 has been such a great year for him, as he reunited with Will Smith for Men in Black 3, which proved to be a huge blockbuster hit despite the time past since their previous outing together.
A few months later, he starred with Meryl Streep and Steve Carell in Hope Springs, a much smaller movie about an older married couple who visit a therapist to rediscover the romance and intimacy in their relationship.
Now, Jones can be seen in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, playing Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican who played a large part in the abolition of slavery with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Jones brings a similar empathy to the role as he did to his character Arnold in Hope Springs, but he also has some of the funniest moments and lines, which he delivers with his trademark wry and witty delivery. It’s one of the film’s many unforgettable characters and one that many who’ve seen the film feel will get Jones his fourth Oscar nomination and his first since 2008’s In the Valley of Elah.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Jones last week, mainly to talk about his role as Thaddeus Stevens in Spielberg’s film, realizing going in that Jones was a notoriously prickly and difficult interview. That proved to be quite true and maybe he had already had a long day doing interviews before we spoke to him, but in some ways, he was a lot like his character K from the “Men in Black” movies. After a couple of questions, he didn’t seem to be too interested in talking about the movie or anything else for that matter, but here’s what we did get out of him.
ComingSoon.net: The first time I saw “Lincoln,” which was at a sneak preview at Lincoln Center, I didn’t even realize you were in the movie so it was a nice surprise to me. How were you approached about this? Were you just sent a script or did you hear Steven Spielberg wanted you to be in the movie.
Tommy Lee Jones: Well, Steven sent me the script and asked me if I would consider the part of Thaddeus Stevens. I read it and called him right back and told him I thought it was a very fine undertaking and I’d be very happy even lucky to be considered for the part of Thaddeus Stevens.
CS: What was your knowledge of the character? Did you have any knowledge of him beforehand?
Jones: I knew what most students of American history had learned in prep school, that there was a radical abolitionist named Thaddeus Stevens who was helpful in the passage of the 13th Amendment. That’s about all I knew.
CS: I felt that in school I learned a lot about the checks and balances of government, but not so much about how hard it was for Lincoln to get slavery abolished. We don’t really hear about it in such detail as we see in the movie.
Jones: Well, there are people who care about it and there are many who learn about it.
CS: The character has actually appeared in movies before. Lionel Barrymore played him even, but it was a very different take on him. Had you seen that…
Jones: Are you talking about D.W. Griffiths’ film?
CS: Well, there was that (“The Birth of a Nation”) but that character was only loosely based on Stevens, but I understand Barrymore actually played him in another movie.
Jones: I wasn’t aware of it.
CS: So did you have to do any research or did you feel that Tony gave you everything you needed to know in the script?
Jones: Well, I began to look around for biographies of Thaddeus Stevens. I found three and then two were worth reading. They had different perspectives on this man. One was written in the 30s, the 1930s and treated him as an abhorrent weirdo, an actual radical, and then the other one had a different perspective. That was written I think in the ’80s, had a different point of view on Stevens. They were both informative, certainly about the facts of his early life and his coming of age.
CS: Having two very different takes on it like that, did you ask Steven which version he wanted you to play? Or was Tony (Kushner, the screenwriter) around to talk about it?
Jones: Oh, yeah, they were both there but the screenplay’s not hard to read easy to read.
CS: You bring an empathy to the character. I haven’t read those biographies, but I only know of him from that previous movie and general history and never really felt he was ever portrayed that way.
Jones: Yeah, yeah well, I was sympathetic to his cause and I became aware that he was not a perfect man. I think you can find that neither Abraham nor Mary Lincoln were perfect people and I was happy to see a film show real and ordinarily imperfect people achieving great things, and to be entertained by that realistic outlook on history in America.
CS: It seems like the perfect time for the movie due to the political climate, but do you think this movie would work just as well ten years ago or ten years from now? Is there a timeless quality to the movie that’s enhanced by what’s going on in the country?
Jones: Well, of course, it’s a timely movie, but I believe it would be a good movie any time.
CS: You don’t seem to have too many scenes with Daniel Day-Lewis, but was there a lot of rehearsal with the other actors?
Jones: We did some rehearsal, not a lot. It’s a company of very fine actors, all of whom were thoroughly prepared and were expected to be prepared, so not a lot of rehearsal was required. They’d been figuring out where you were going to stand and when you were going to be there – blocking is what they call it. The company did not need a lot of rehearsal.
CS: Right, it’s such an amazing cast when you think of even the actors in smaller parts.
CS: Were you there when Daniel was doing some of his scenes? I feel like it’s almost two separate movies, which is the stuff going on in the House politicians and the stuff happening in Lincoln’s home.
Jones: I was in two scenes in which he appeared.
CS: Was there any sort of chronological shooting to maintain the flow of the narrative?
Jones: I don’t think good film actors require chronological order. Good film actors become good by not needing to shoot in chronological order. I don’t know for me that I get to the point where the day’s work fits within the narrative of the screenplay. It really doesn’t matter if we shoot the ending first or beginning last.
CS: When you finally see the movie, are you generally surprised by how things fit together or having read the screenplay do you generally know exactly what to expect and it’s similar to how you picture it?
Jones: Oh, I’m not often surprised.
CS: I also liked “Hope Springs” even though I’m not the demographic for it being a male under 50. I really thought it was a special movie.
Jones: Oh, good.
CS: Do you generally have a preference between doing smaller movies like that or doing some of the bigger things you’ve been in like “Men in Black” or “Captain America” – you seem to go back and forth.
Jones: Yeah, no, I don’t have a preference.
CS: Will you be directing again soon?
Jones: I hope so.
CS: It’s been a couple years since “Three Burials”
CS: So have you been developing anything to direct in that time?
Jones: Oh, yeah. We bought the movie rights to a book or two in my company, and we’ve written the screenplays for them and we’re in the process of financing them, to greater or lesser degrees of success.
CS: When you’re trying to get a project going to direct and you get a really good screenplay like this one, is it hard to stay on course with what you want to direct?
Jones: (silence) No, it’s not hard to stay on course as long as you’re able to stay on course.
CS: And what’s coming up for you after this, acting-wise?
Jones: You know, I really don’t know, I really don’t know, but I will tell you, and I appreciate the interest, but the young lady who brought me this telephone now wants it back. I’ll let you speak to her and I appreciate your time.
And with that, the interview was over. Pretty awesome, huh?
Lincoln is now playing in select cities and opens nationwide on Friday, November 16.