A couple of days ago, when I was invited to an early screening of No Country for Old Men, the new Coen brothers movie based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, I made sure I was at the theater fifteen minutes early so I could get a good seat.
Although I was certainly curious about how the Coens would interpret the book—(it’s about a down-on-his luck welder and former Vietnam vet who, while hunting in the West Texas desert, stumbles upon several dead bodies and a satchel full of drug money, which he takes back to his sagging trailer in order to start a new life with his wife, only to find himself being chased by a psychopathic assassin)—I was really there for just one reason: I wanted to watch Tommy Lee Jones play the role of a Texas sheriff who tries to keep the peace.
Now, if you happen to remember a story I wrote on Jones for this magazine in February 2006, “ Tommy Lee Jones is Not Acting,” you might wonder why I would want to get anywhere close to him—or ever write about him again. For that story, I spent an afternoon with him riding from Austin to his ranch in the town of San Saba, and before it was over, I was convinced he was going to jump in the back seat and beat the living crap out of me.
It was the single worst experience I’ve ever had during an interview in my twenty-seven years as a journalist, and what made it especially horrifying was that I was convinced we were going to get along famously. I love Jones the actor. To me, his great craggy presence on the screen is the ultimate personification of the old-fashioned American male that we don’t see much of anymore in real life. He’s ornery and irascible, stubborn and stoic, and he’s always, in his own way, gruffly charming, regardless whether he’s cast as the hero or as the villain.
What’s more, no matter what character he plays, you can tell where he comes from: the hardscrabble country of West Texas. Go back and watch The Fugitive. Watch the way Jones says “My, my, my” when he comes across the wrecked prison bus, and watch the way he says “I don’t care” to Harrison Ford when Ford claims he’s innocent of murder. Although Jones is playing a U.S. Marshal in Chicago, is there any question that he’s the classic West Texan: sometimes loquacious, sometimes utterly silent, and always impossible to push around?
And so, I showed up to meet him with a notebook full of questions—many of them aimed at getting him to talk about the various “Texas” characters he has played over the years. I also had come up with lots of questions designed to get him to open up about his past. Let’s face it: he’s lived a doozy of a life: son of a crusty oil rigger, a scholarship boy at the exclusive St. Mark’s prep school in Dallas, and then a graduate of Harvard, where he was a star on the football team. How, I wanted to know, did he go from that life to the life of an an A-list movie star, all without having taken a single acting lesson?
Then I met him at Scholz Beer Garden. He didn’t bother to get up from his table to shake my hand. After I introduced myself, there was a long pause. “Skip?” he finally said. “Skip?” He seemed bothered by my name, as if it represented all the things that had gone wrong with Texas—a state now filled up with people who are called “Skip.”
I sat down and quickly asked him about his latest movie at that time that was about to be released ( The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). My question had something to do with how he felt playing an old man in the movie (an aging Texas ranch foreman named Pete Perkins). Another, longer silence elapsed. “I’ve played old before,” he said curtly, staring at me with those dead, black eyes. I gamely shot off another question, this one about how this cowboy character was different than his famous portrayal of the Texas cowboy Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove. “I don’t know,” he said, his eyes never moving from mine. “How is a pumpkin different than a Volkswagen?”
Switching gears, I tried to ask him something about all the success he was enjoying over Three Burials, which he also had directed. (The movie had just won all sorts of awards at the Cannes Film Festival.) There was another silence. “Do you really think I sit around and ask myself questions like, ‘How does success feel?” he snarled.
And just like that, I felt something give way in my stomach. It was a feeling almost like fear. I realized that all of the questions I had for Jones were not going to work at all—not a single one. He obviously despised talking about the craft of acting and his particular portrayal of characters, and I quickly learned he had no desire at all to talk about his personal life. When we were on the road to the ranch and I asked him a question about how he met his third wife Dawn, he turned around in the front seat and gave me what I can only describe as a murderous look. “What the f—- kind of question is that?” he said. “I’m not discussing that.’”
I wrote as straightforward a story as possible about my afternoon with Jones. The point of my story was that the reason Jones’s tense, wound-up performances were so mesmerizing on screen was because he was exactly that way in person.
Jones was, to put it mildly, livid about the story. When a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune asked him about the Texas Monthly piece, Jones described what I had done as a “hatchet job.” He said, “He (the reporter) didn’t get as much time as he felt he deserved….He took