I WAS TOLD TO MEET HIM at Scholz Garten, in Austin, the popular restaurant and drinking spot near the University of Texas campus. When I walked in, he was sitting at the table closest to the front door, twiddling a Miller Lite. He was in his cowboy clothes: scuffed boots, Wranglers, a white shirt with snap buttons, and a well-worn white felt cowboy hat tilted back slightly on his head.
He did not stand as he shook my hand. He did not smile. He just stared at me. “Have a seat,” Tommy Lee Jones finally said.
His eyes were dark and deeply set, circled by a tangled web of crow’s-feet. For at least the first minute, his eyelids didn’t seem to blink. Nor did his famous coal-black eyebrows move up or down. “Well,” he said, “what do you want to ask me?” He had agreed to meet me to talk about his new movie, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which opens nationwide this month. He is not only the star of the movie but also its director—the first feature film he has ever directed. Financed for a reported $15 million—a pittance compared with big-budget studio productions like King Kong but more than 2005 critical darling Brokeback Mountain —the film was hardly known in the United States until early last year. Those who did know about it probably assumed it was the sort of vanity project that actors occasionally attempt, an independent “art film” that no doubt would go straight to video.
But when Three Burials premiered in May at the Cannes International Film Festival, Jones was awarded the festival’s prize for best actor, and when the movie was given a limited, one-week release in New York and Los Angeles in December, U.S. film critics hailed him as well. Peter Travers, of Rolling Stone, announced that Jones “fills every frame of his [directing] debut with the ferocity and feeling of his best screen performances.” The Los Angeles Times ’ Kevin Thomas declared that Jones had reached “the pinnacle of his career.” Several critics put Three Burials on their list of the best movies of 2005, and Entertainment Weekly went so far as to proclaim that Jones could receive Academy Award nominations for best actor and best director and that the film itself had a dark-horse chance at being nominated for best picture.
For any actor, no matter how long he’s been in the movie business, such acclaim must be a heady experience, and so I asked Jones the kind of question that reporters ask someone at the top of his game: “How does all this success feel?”
“Haven’t thought about it,” he said.
“Not at all?” I asked.
He continued to stare at me. “No, I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “Do you really think I sit around and ask myself questions like ‘How does success feel?’”
IF YOU THINK THAT ANSWER SEEMS a bit snappish, then you don’t know Tommy Lee Jones. For more than thirty years, he has been one of the most enigmatic of American movie stars—“the anti-star,” one friend has called him. He not only keeps his distance from Hollywood—he doesn’t have a home in Los Angeles and goes there only when he absolutely has to—but he works equally hard at remaining anonymous in his own home state. It is rare to find him signing an autograph, attending a party, or making a public appearance, except at one of his beloved polo matches. It is rarer still to find him talking to a journalist. When he does, he says little about himself, and he doesn’t hesitate to cut off an interview if he finds the questions too personal or particularly inane. Once, during a studio-organized press gathering to promote the sci-fi comedy Men in Black , he was asked if he believed in aliens. Jones got up and walked out of the room.
People in Hollywood circles still talk about the infamous 1993 meeting between Jones and Bernard Weinraub, who at the time was an influential New York Times correspondent covering the film industry. When Weinraub began the interview by asking Jones about his past movie roles in which he played villains and tough guys, Jones bluntly told him that he didn’t “play just villains” and that he found such questions to be “borderline stupid.” A stunned Weinraub switched gears and asked Jones about his days at Harvard, where he majored in English literature. Weinraub wanted to know what particular area of English most interested him.
“The kind we’re using now,” Jones said.
In stories written about him, he is regularly called “difficult,” “ornery,” “curt,” and “contentious.” Yet whenever he appears in a new movie, the journalists start requesting interviews. The reason, of course, is that at the age of 59, Tommy Lee Jones remains one of the most irresistible figures of the American screen. Whatever role he is asked to play—a cop, a killer, a military officer, a prison warden, a U.S. attorney—he acts with an almost scorching intensity, his voice relentlessly craggy and his body wound tight as a strand of barbed wire. Even today, movie lovers rent The Fugitive , which came out thirteen years ago, not because they want to see Harrison Ford jump off the dam but because they must watch Jones, as deputy U.S. marshal Sam Gerard, acidly snap, “I don’t care,” when Ford tells him he’s innocent. And if they happen to notice that the very bad Steven Seagal action movie Under Siege is playing on cable, they watch that too—not so they can chuckle over Seagal’s acting but because they want to study, just one more time, Jones’ strangely mesmerizing performance as a vicious psychopath who hijacks a battleship. “Four minutes ahead of schedule,” he says after shooting a Navy commander and pistol-whipping a sailor. “Damn, I’m good!”
Jones had let me know that he was going to be at Scholz’s to have lunch with his son, Austin, a handsome, quiet young man in his early twenties