TORONTO—Oscar-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones, likely to be nominated again for one or both of his fall movies, “In the Valley of Elah” (opening Friday) and “No Country for Old Men” (opening in November), has created a multitude of wry, world-weary, men-of-few-words characters over the years, so sitting across from him at the Toronto International Film Festival, I’m not expecting him to morph into Chatty Cathy.
While some actors go on and on about their Zen philosophies and label everyone they’ve ever worked with “brilliant” and “amazing,” Jones chooses every word carefully and, even after that, seems reluctant to say any of the chosen words out loud.
In the Valley of Elah
Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Jonathan Tucker, Rick Gonzalez, Frances Fisher, Victor Wolf
(Warner Independent Pictures; US theatrical: 14 Sep 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 25 Jan 2008 (General release); 2007)
While younger actors promoting movies are often briefed to the point of over-rehearsal and feel compelled to give answers no matter how meaningless, Jones feels no such obligation.
Asked what he thought the biblical reference, “In the Valley of Elah” referred to and whom he thought was David in the movie and whom Goliath, he simply said, “I don’t really know what (writer-director) Paul (Haggis) was thinking when he came up with that title. If it implies a metaphor, I don’t know what it is.”
Jones is simultaneously old-school polite and cowboy gruff, brusque but not rude. He graduated cum laude with a degree in English literature from Harvard (he played football and was ex-vice president Al Gore’s roommate) but at a “Men In Black” junket a few years back, the press at one roundtable spent 10 minutes discussing his ranch because it was all they could get him to talk about.
He sure is different.
Kelli Garner (“Lars and the Real Girl”), who worked with Jones in one of his more forgettable films, “Man of the House,” said, “He’s a tough man. ... but for me it was like growing up with my dad. I’m kind of used to burly, bears of men, who are super-intimidating, own guns and hunt and fish. He comes across so rough and rugged because he is. But when you penetrate his inside core he’s a teddy bear. He’s a sweetheart. A smart man. It was a rough set for me in more ways than one and he was there for me—big time.”
At the Windsor Arms Hotel last week, we tried to get Jones to open up.
Q. You’ve been off screen for a while. Did you decide it was time to come back to work or did the quality of the scripts decide?
A. Probably the latter.
Q. You fit so perfectly into these roles, were either of them written specifically for you?
A. No, I don’t think so. ... Joel and Ethan (Coen) wrote their screenplay and they sent it Jim Wyatt at William Morris Agency who suggested I have a look at it and I did and I met with Joel and Ethan at Daniel Boulud’s restaurant in Manhattan and then we went across to the Carlyle and up to our rooms and talked a little more and I was certainly impressed and flattered that they offered me the job.
Q. And with “Elah,” how did that come about?
A. Pretty much the same way.
Q. What about the message of “Elah” did you most want to convey?
A. I don’t know anything about messages. I like the movie. I liked the screenplay. I thought it had a chance to be original and touch on subjects that are common to every American.
Q. Do you think it’s more difficult to make a war movie now that the war is on TV and on the Internet 24/7?
(After sneaking a peek at my notes, Jones added, “I noticed you put an exclamation point next to the word `No!’ Is that an honest representation of what I said?”
No. The exclamation point is thus removed.)
Q. Would you agree that the movie is really less about the Iraq war than it is about the culture of war?
A. I would agree, but the war in Iraq is the one that we have now.
Q. Did you do any special preparation for the role?
A. I saw a documentary about a fellow named Lanny who had a son in Iraq that came back to the United States and was murdered by his buddies and it had lots of interviews with him and people surrounding the case. I looked at it two or three times. I actually met Lanny but I didn’t pry into his life.
Q. Did you shoot the two movies back-to-back?
A. They followed pretty closely one on the other. “No Country for Old Men” was last summer and fall and “In the Valley of Elah” was in the winter.
Q. Both have a pretty bleak view of society, were you able to leave your work at work?
A. Oh, yeah. That’s easy. I work all day long every day. I’m working on the script in the truck on the way to work and I’m working on it all day long and I’m working on it on the way back to the house, take a little time off for dinner and go back to work.
Q. So your worldview wasn’t any bleaker?
A. No, not at all. My worldview was pretty bright. I enjoyed making those two movies.
Q. Some of the more experienced actors I’ve spoken with here talked about the tools they rely on as actors. Some of the younger actors said they work more on instinct. Are you a tools guy or an instinct guy?
A. That’s hard language to make yourself comfortable with. I don’t think instinct has anything to do with acting. I think birds fly south and dogs copulate in the street by instinct.
Q. Director Robert Benton (“Feast of Love,” opening next week) believes that if you have a heavyweight actor on screen, you need another heavyweight opposite them. Since you’re a heavyweight ...
A. In a good way, right? (He laughs. Yes, laughs.)
Q. Yes, you command the screen.
A. Oh, thank you.
Q. But is that one of the reasons you needed a heavyweight like Susan Sarandon to be cast as your wife?
A. We got very lucky to have Susan in the movie. Very lucky. There was very little substance to that part at the beginning and that was improved after she came on board.
Q. And what was it like working with Charlize Theron?
A. Oh, it was just wonderful. She’s smart and funny as hell and very beautiful and quite relaxed. It’s a real pleasure to be around her.
Q. Do the Coen brothers (“Blood Simple”) and Paul Haggis (“Crash”) have similar working styles or different?
A. Different. You have to shoot a lot of takes before Paul feels secure, which I take to be a function of inexperience. He’s finding his legs as a director and that’s OK because at the end of the day the desired result is achieved. Things go a little bit more smoothly with the more experienced Coen boys.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I don’t know. I own the motion picture rights to Ernest Hemingway’s last book, “Islands in the Stream,” and Bill Wittliff and I have written a screenplay and we’re polishing the budget for it and we have a schedule and we’re very close to finding a home for it.
Q. A studio home?
A. I don’t want to say.
Q. And after a pair of dramas might you want to return to comedy?
A. I’ll do anything. I’m always looking for a job.
Q. Hard to believe that after all your success you’re still looking for jobs?
A. Everybody is.