These days, there are several ways to look at Tommy Lee Jones, but only one is essential. Certainly on this day, with a scene to be shot in the muraled and gilded dining room of Memphis’ historic Peabody hotel, it is enough for the assembled fans and film crew to see him in character, costumed down to his buffed fingernails as a self-important prosecutor in the film version of John Grisham’s best-seller The Client . The onlookers might also note that Jones is an actor who has accrued his share of fame, thanks to unforgettable roles in The Executioner’s Song , Coal Miner’s Daughter , Lonesome Dove , and JFK. With Jones’s most recent, electrifying performance in The Fugitive —a film whose domestic grosses projected to reach a very impressive $200 million—it is also possible to see him as a man experiencing a particular rite of passage.
All the signs are there. Flashy upcoming roles: a vengeful prison warden in Quentin Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers and a heartbroken GI in Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth . Blessings from the media: the New York Times (TOMMY LEE JONES SNARLS HIS WAY TO THE PINNACLE), the Los Angeles Times (HOT ON THE TRAIL WITH MR. JONES), and Time (HOT DAMN, HE’S GOOD). The usual plaudits from formidable movie directors: Stone calls his work in Heaven and Earth “a shattering performance”; Andrew Davis, who directed Jones in The Fugitive , christened him the Southwestern Bogart. People and the tabloids are sniffing around his private life (“His dad was a drunk who made his childhood hell,” declares the National Enquirer ). No less a personage than Rosanne Arnold has the hots for Jones; she recently told a reporter that she likes “a guy who looks like he’s been messed up and pushed around.” And so it goes, as the popular culture makes its effort to claim him, as his fabled ragged edges are smoothed, as everyone grows accustomed to viewing him in the most coveted of American roles—that of major motion picture star.
But to see Jones in this way is to miss the point, to miss a truth that is about as well hidden as the pocked and rutted sun-stained skin that easily defeats his pancake makeup today. The truth is that in spite of a long and arduous journey from poverty to privilege to this level of success, in spite of playing such characters as homicidal killers, haunted lawmen, and heartsick husbands—all in a way that gives them their due—Tommy Lee Jones, at 47, is fundamentally unchanged. You hear it in his voice, which is both rich and rough, clipped and drawly in the manner of a good country preacher. You hear it in his choice of words, which are measured and can sometimes verge on the old-fashioned (“unseemly” is a favorite). You see it in his face, where vicious cheekbones defend eyes that express equal parts danger and compassion. You see it in his body, with that chest presented like a gift to the world, like someone who is well accustomed to the attentions of women and the challenged of men. And most of all, you see it in his manner, which can go from a courtly gentleness to the promise of a fistfight: This is a man who belongs to the hard, arid West Texas of his youth and will forever live there, no matter where he goes.
That he happens to be on a Memphis movie set becomes purely incidental after just a few moments. Jones settles into an interview like a ranch hand at a dance: formal, wary, intent on doing his best. Family history becomes a treatise on the JY ranch. Artistic goals are presented elementally (“I like very much for my family and neighbors to see themselves in me—that’s what I’m for”). Pushed to reveal the erudition he is known for among his friends, the Harvard-educated Jones fidgets. And impressive discourse on the ways in which his beloved T. S. Eliot influenced American art is abruptly punctuated with “He’s had an influence on me—and I’m working.” Jones is not a man you are likely to catch jawing with Jay Leno or confessing his sins to Barbara Walters; these talents he lacks. The game will be played, but only on his terms. “At home,” he allows, as he lets the first light escape from his bottomless dark eyes, “we do value our individuality.”
“All I’m gonna do is show up and do what I’m told,” Tommy Lee Jones instructs Client screenwriter Akiva Goldsman as they confer over a few lines in Jones’s trailer. Some of the people on the set are worrying whether the scene to be shot today moves quickly enough, but Jones is not one of them. The troublesome party in this case is an oyster, which prosecutor Roy Foltrigg, played by Jones, wants FBI agent Jason McThune, played by J. T. Walsh, to hurry up and eat. The longer McThune plays with his food, the longer their quarry—a boy who is the key to solving the assassination of a U.S. senator—remains on the run. The problem, presented by Goldsman with the soothing but intent manner of a doctor on rounds, is that the oyster may be slowing down the movie as well. Jones’s lines are: “Just eat the damn thing. I want that kid in court tomorrow. Get it in you and grab that child.” Should they be cut or changed to speed things up? Jones grins at Goldsman and prints “just do it” at the bottom of the page. Goldsman grins back.
“Just eat the damn thing and have it run down your throat,” Jones sneers on his way to the set, as he begins transforming himself into Foltrigg. Dressed in a splendid double-breasted suit and a glorious foulard tie, Jones moves forward with a prosecutor’s cock-of-the-walk stride. He stops to accept greetings from fans and to exchange small talk with the crew, already broader and more loquacious than his normal self,