Mr. Not-So-Nice Guy
Executive editor Skip Hollandsworth on his most difficult interview, actor Tommy Lee Jones.
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texasmonthly.com: I realize that your feature on Tommy Lee Jones is tied to his new movie, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. But he’s regularly in new movies. Why do a feature on him now?
Skip Hollandsworth: I’ll be honest, I’m usually not all that interested in actors. But I love watching Tommy Lee Jones because he’s so hard and unyielding when he’s on the screen. Plus, he has adamantly remained a Texan, and he’s lived so many varieties of the Texas life. He grew up in blue-collar, hardscrabble West Texas. He then went to high school at perhaps the most elite private school in the state, St. Mark’s, and then, after Harvard and some time in New York and Los Angeles, he returned to live out his life in Texas. I’ve always wondered, ‘What’s he really like?’ And suddenly, I hear about him doing his own movie—the first feature film he has directed—and it’s a very small, independent movie about life in a small corner of far West Texas. So, for me, the question was why is this particular story so important to Tommy Lee Jones? And what does it say about Jones himself?
texasmonthly.com: You mention in your piece that Tommy Lee isn’t fond of interviews. How did you get him to agree to talk to you?
SH: Well, it had nothing to do with any personal charm on my part. I got him to talk last fall only because he was willing to talk with several reporters in order to promote his new movie. One evening he even appeared on the Jay Leno show—the very kind of show that I imagine he detests. He walked out in a business suit, his hair slicked back and his sideburns down below his ears. Clearly uncomfortable, he looked at the audience and tried, really tried, to smile. You could not help but look at him as he sat down and think, “This is a major American movie star?” During his few minutes on the set, he predictably said nothing about himself but he did tell a few anecdotes about the making of Three Burials, including one story, which he thought was humorous, about him trying to fire his own teenage daughter, who has a small role in the film, because she didn’t want to get out of bed early one morning to film a scene. Then he talked for a while about his dog Johnny Mack Brown. Tommy Lee told a story about how he went to great lengths to film a scene in which a horse fell off a cliff, and he also told a story about another scene in which he used ants to crawl over a dead man’s face. There was some uncomfortable laughter in the audience. Leno seemed to have no idea what to say. And I kept thinking, “If the very tough, very no-nonsense Tommy Lee Jones is willing to go on Jay Leno to promote his movie, then this movie must be really, really important to him.”
texasmonthly.com: Were you expecting him to be so ‘snappish,’ as you put it in your article? Were you expecting him to dismiss so many of your questions?
SH: I knew he didn’t like reporters and I knew he didn’t like personal questions, but what I wasn’t prepared for was his blunt refusal to “play nice.” Normally, when a journalist comes to interview a movie star, especially for a magazine cover story designed to promote that star’s new movie, there is an unsaid agreement that the star will chat about his or her career in pleasant generalities, reveal an interesting tidbit or two about his or her life away from the camera, and then put on some designer clothes and smile winningly for the camera for the photo shoot. Needless to say, Jones feels no obligation to play by such rules. Just look at our photo of him for the magazine story. He refused any offers of a hair stylist or makeup artist. He didn’t go out of his way to cooperate with the photographer. And, of course, he didn’t hesitate to let me have it if he thought any of my questions were inappropriate or just flat-out stupid.
texasmonthly.com: So how did that make you feel?
SH: I think I was intimidated almost from the first moment I walked into Scholz Garten, the Austin watering hole, to meet him. He didn’t smile, he didn’t stand, he didn’t shake my hand, he just stared at me. After I introduced myself, he said my name out loud—“Skip?”—as if he was astounded that someone would go through life with such a silly first name. As I noted in the story’s opening, I asked him a question about success and he gave me a look that went right through me. I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m in serious trouble here.”
texasmonthly.com: Was Tommy Lee the most difficult interview you’ve ever done? What do you do when you interview a big star like Tommy Lee and he doesn’t want to talk?
SH: He was the most difficult interview I’ve ever done, but I want everyone to understand, that’s precisely why he’s such an interesting character. On the usual pre-arranged interview with a movie star, the actor gives you some obligatory lines about the craft of acting, about putting his or her heart into the role—blah, blah, blah. The story is basically bland and boring. And here’s a guy who is not going to go by any rules other than his own—exactly like the character he plays in his new movie, by the way. I will be honest: It was sort of thrilling to get dressed down by him, time after time.
texasmonthly.com: Obviously, you didn’t have many quotes from Tommy Lee. What do you do in that situation? What’s your approach to writing the story?
SH: The narrative fell right into place for me. He had agreed to let me ride with him from Scholz Garten, where he had been having lunch, to his ranch near San Saba in the Hill Country. So I decided to make the story basically about my ride with Tommy Lee. I wrote about my attempts to get a peek into his inner life during my two or so hours with him. And by confessing at the end of the story that he remained as elusive and enigmatic as ever, in some way I think I did get a really fascinating glimpse of Jones—but only a glimpse.
texasmonthly.com: So what happened at the end of your trip?
SH: He dropped me off at a motel in San Saba, and I spent the night. Then I woke up and had to figure out how to get home. For a few a minutes, I thought about being a vagabond and hitchhiking back to Austin. But then I said, “Please, I’m no Tommy Lee Jones.” I called an Austin taxi company and persuaded them to come get me.
texasmonthly.com: And what was the fare for that taxi driver to drive out to San Saba, pick you up, and then take you back to Austin?
SH: A mere $250. I called Evan Smith, the editor of the magazine, as I was riding back to tell him what I had done. There was a long, long silence. He said, “This story better be worth it.”