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 revenge.” Then, in a quote that will live on forever in our company hallways, Jones said about Texas Monthly, “That used to be a good magazine. Now it’s a low-grade advertising whore, a slick-page tabloid.”
I felt horrible because I felt he completely misunderstood the piece. Yes, in retrospect, I should have spent more time in my story noting that Jones can act in a very courtly manner around his fans. (I received numerous letters from people talking about how he took the time to talk to them or sign autographs.) And yes, I should have pointed out that I didn’t always ask the smartest of questions. (At one point, I asked Jones how he learned a particular Navajo dialect for one movie role. “That was an Apache dialect, god damn it,” he said. At another point, I asked him, sort of as a joke, if he had ever thought about getting plastic surgery, like so many other Hollywood stars have done. I could see his fists clench as he said, “F—- no.”)
On the other hand, I could have spent more time regaling readers with all kinds of stories about his temperamental and sometimes bullying nature around other people who were involved in one of his movies. I could have quoted Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed Jones in Men in Black, who said that “Tommy started every damn day (on the set) complaining that the writer didn’t know what he was doing and that Tommy could write better stories in grade school than this writer…He complained about the length of the lines of the other characters…He complained about where his marks were and where he had to stand and for how long.” I also left out a quote from Will Smith, who co-starred in Men in Black. “Tommy Lee carries this certain air and he allows it to affect the people around him,” Smith said. “He makes them very uncomfortable.”
But the whole point of the story was to try to get readers to understand that Tommy Lee wouldn’t be Tommy Lee if he acted any other way. It’s that basic ferocity, which sometimes borders on malevolence, which makes him the great American actor that he is. I love that he doesn’t suffer fools—i.e., me. I love that he doesn’t play the basic Hollywood game, sucking up to the media in order to get better press so that more people will perhaps be tempted to come out to see one of his movies. (One of my favorite Jones stories, which I did not mention in my original story, involves the time he had a writer for The Los Angeles Times thrown off the set of a movie, declaring nobly to the crew, “The media is interfering with the process of American art and has been for some time now.”)
I also love the fact that Jones is driven by the idea of perfection, by getting everything in the movie just right, regardless whose feelings get hurt. I have heard stories that he was battling with the Coen brothers from the moment he signed onto No Country for Old Men, telling them that their plan to save money by shooting much of the movie in New Mexico, instead of the Trans Pecos area of West Texas where the novel was set, was ridiculous—absolutely god damn ridiculous—because the land in the Trans Pecos looks different than the land in New Mexico. (As if anyone other than Jones would be able to tell.)
I mean, is there a more fascinating actor who has ever come out of Texas—someone who can be so brooding, so mysterious, and so extraordinarily volatile?
Which is why I was in my seat early for his latest performance. He’s already had one great performance this year in the movie In the Valley of Elah, playing (yes, once again) a lawman (this one from Tennessee) who sets out to investigate why his son went AWOL in New Mexico. The reviewers loved him, and some wanted to trumpet his performance as Oscar worthy (his only Oscar came fourteen years ago for The Fugitive), but Jones refused to play along. He was predictably irritable during interviews, snidely telling one reporter that he was only granting the interview to fulfill “my contractual obligation to promote the movie.” When one guy from the Philadelphia Daily News asked him what the title of the movie meant, Jones said he had no idea, which, of course, was not true at all. (At one point in the movie, Jones’ character tells a young boy the story of David from the Old Testament, who fought Goliath in the Valley of Elah.)
Apparently, for No Country for Old Men, he decided to do no interviews at all except for thirty or so minutes with Charlie Rose (you can find it on charlierose.com, the October 19th show), where he wiggled his fingers impatiently through the introduction but actually turned out to be rather pleasant, albeit utterly unrevealing. As such, his Oscar chances could be hurt once again, despite the fact that there are plenty of critics who think he should be up for a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Over the years, there are a lot of great actors who have tried their hands at playing Texas lawmen—do your remember, for instance, Kris Kristofferson’s portrayal as a Texas sheriff in John Sayles’ Lone Star?—but I have to say, Jones takes the cake. In this film, it’s simply impossible to take your eyes off of him whenever he’s on the screen. At the age of sixty one, he has more creased-leather lines in his face than ever, some of them seemingly going vertical up and down his face. And then there’s his voice: there is no one else in the movies who talks the way he does. In fact, the movie begins with Jones, unseen, just talking in a voiceover. “I’ve been sheriff of this county since I was twenty-five years old. Hard to believe,” he says, and off he goes for the next three minutes, talking in that parched voice with its off-kilter intonations—“his voice rising when you would expect falling, or just deadpan,” the New Yorker movie critic David Denby once wrote about him. His opening voiceover lasts close to three minutes—an eternity in movie time. But here, it goes by like magic.
In the movie, Jones, as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, is a disillusioned geezer, ready to hang up his holster and retire, stunned by the new wave of mindless violence stemming not only from the drug trade but also the way society’s mores seem to be crumbling. “Any time you quit hearin’ Sir and Ma’am, the end is pretty much in sight,” he says in one of his many memorable lines. In another line that made everyone in the theatre chuckle, he describes the psychopathic assassin (played by Javier Bardem), who does his killings by using a tank of compressed air attached to the kind of bolt gun used to slaughter cattle, this way: “He’s got some hard bark on him.”
The sheriff tries to remove himself from the investigation into the killings and stolen money, but in the end he finds himself trying to help—too late, as it turns out. The movie ends on a tight shot of Jones, finally retired, sitting at the kitchen table in normal clothes, telling his wife about a dream from a previous night that still haunts him. There are no bells and whistles at the end of the movie, no great resolution—just Jones sitting there, a hardened man, and a wounded one. And then the screen goes black.
There is going to be plenty of criticism about No Country for Old Men (which hits theatres November 9th). For one thing, the entire film was set up from the beginning for there to be an old-fashioned showdown between the assassin and the welder who got the money—but the Coen brothers, who love to break traditional storytelling rules, leave out that scene altogether. Too bad. Because there is no climactic showdown, the last fifteen minutes of the movie fizzle out altogether.
But no one—absolutely no one—is complaining about Jones. For a while, I thought about calling his publicist, requesting an interview, just to see if he would talk one more time, so I could gush on and on about his performance in the movie.
But I knew that was pointless. “TL,” as he’s known by his friends, is a proud, proud man. He doesn’t forget, or forgive, a slight.
And, you know, when it comes to him, that’s exactly how it should be.