LOS ANGELES — Do they make men like Tommy Lee Jones anymore? Men who can rope a calf, direct a movie, and, you want to believe, write a love letter. Men who have no interest in opining about their work but care deeply about what they do. Men who can evoke both a danger and a comfort, depending on how they look at you.
An actor who seems to embody the word “stoic,” Jones, 65, makes occasional forays into rugged sexiness and gruff humanism. Etched with crevices and imperfections, his face conveys a life thoroughly lived, though don’t look too hard for the specifics. It’s that mystery that makes him the perfect hard-charging marshal in “The Fugitive,” the believable straight man in the absurd “Men in Black” series or the anguished father in “In the Valley of Elah.”
But it’s a bit unusual to find Jones cast as the lead of a romantic comedy, even one with somewhat melancholy overtones. Yet he was precisely the guy director David Frankel was looking for to play the resigned husband opposite Meryl Streep’s frustrated wife in “Hope Springs,” which arrives in theaters on Wednesday from Sony Pictures.
“Whenever I brought up his name to men, women, they would say he’s sexy,” recalled Frankel. “Sure he’s weathered and experienced and not a spring chicken, but he still has it. He’s still a guy men want to be and women want to go out with. He’s got that thing.”
To Jones, the opportunity to play the golf-watching, routine-loving Arnold — a man who has become completely complacent in his long-term marriage — was a chance to play opposite an actress he’s admired from afar for the last 40 years. It also helped that the script from the young scribe Vanessa Taylor (“Game of Thrones”) was brimming with originality.
Taylor’s screenplay requires the frigid couple to rediscover their sexual relationship through a series of cringe-worthy intimacy exercises, guided by a therapist played straight by funnyman Steve Carell. Grounded in realism, the scenes can feel like watching your parents have sex. “Hope Springs” is among a spate of recent movies, including the India-set “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and the Streep-starrer “It’s Complicated,” that examine the human condition of the over-60 crowd rather than dismiss it.
“It seemed to be about real people: very common, widespread, with real difficulties: namely complacency, dedication to a day-in, day-out routine, deadened emotions. Just the ordinary, miserable qualities of a normal person. The originality was to discover how preposterous and funny that is,” Jones said in his familiar staccato cadence.
“I thought it might be a chance to make a real movie that would give people the opportunity to laugh at something that made them cry yesterday,” he added.
Though Jones has had a storied life and is constantly adding interesting chapters, drawing him out about what’s making him laugh today — let alone what made him cry yesterday — can be a challenging task.
The busy actor, who won an Oscar for “The Fugitive” and was nominated for “JFK” and “Elah,” has written and directed three of his own projects — two for television, one for the big screen — and is prepping a fourth for spring.
The committed environmentalist lives most of his life away from the Hollywood glare, on his 3,000-acre cattle ranch outside San Antonio, raising horses and playing polo with his third wife, Dawn Laurel Jones, a champion in the sport. His interest in the refined sport seems incongruous with the working-class characters Jones frequently plays, yet this was the activity he picked up in the late ‘70s soon after moving to California and declaring that “golf was a rich man’s game.”
The day after sitting down at the Beverly Hills Hotel for this interview, the onetime Harvard football star and former Al Gore dorm mate was to fly to Japan to film a new round of his cultishly popular ads for a Suntory energy drink. Then he was going to Okinawa for scuba diving, weather permitting.
But while other actors relish the opportunity to tell stories in interviews, it must be Jones’ least favorite part of the job. He’s happy to dole out parenting advice (he has two grown children from his second marriage) or regale you with his Connecticut farmers markets finds, but if the questions get too personal — or in his mind superfluous — he doesn’t answer them. He’s comfortable saying “I don’t know,” and long pauses are part of the routine.
As for “Hope Springs,” Jones struggled to explain how he physically created the buttoned-up Arnold. “There is no change in me. It’s a creation of a character. I don’t know how to answer that question,” said Jones. “You just have to look at the character and know the character and look at me and know me. But you’re not going to know me.”
Streep said he was similarly reserved on set, until the cameras were rolling. Even though playing opposite the much-honored actress was a wish fulfilled for Jones (“At my age, at long last, finally, I got a chance to work with Meryl,” he said), the two did not spend a lot of time together prepping the well-worn feel of their relationship. Part of that was the confines of the 37-day shooting schedule in Connecticut, but part of that was just Jones.
“He’s very private. I don’t think I ever had a coffee with him, or a lunch,” said Streep. “But in the work he’s a completely available person. It’s sort of shocking how open he is. So it was easy. It was easy.”
When Frankel, who directed Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” first went to meet Jones at his Texas ranch, he expected to find a curmudgeon. Instead, he was surprised to find a man at home, a charismatic raconteur.
“I was disarmed by his charm,” said Frankel, who described the actor as a character out of a Hemingway novel. “He was articulate, open-minded, just so vastly experienced. You could sit and listen to him tell stories forever.”
According to Frankel, Jones had many opinions on his empty-nester character: How Arnold should dress, what he should say and how he would treat his wife. Jones didn’t want Arnold to be too cruel to Kay, even though that’s how his character was originally written. Jones wanted Arnold to always wear his jacket to physically illustrate the walls he had built up around him, whether it was a sport coat at a family gathering or a wind breaker during the therapy sessions. And when a line was overstating the obvious, Jones suggested leaving it out.
“He constantly wanted to keep things simple,” Frankel said. “His first thing in every scene was ‘OK, let’s get started, but I don’t think we should say these lines, or these words.’ He was always right.”
He had specific thoughts on the final edit as well. In early 2012, Frankel was trying to lock the film, but not before he showed the movie to Jones. Frankel, who lives in Miami, brought the film to Jones’ 50-acre ranch in Wellington, Fla.
Jones said he saw a rough cut with “some awkwardness in editing,” which according to Frankel centered on a therapy-session scene where Streep’s character is taking some responsibility for the failure in the marriage.
The scene was originally edited so as to focus primarily on Streep’s face, leaving Jones in the foreground. To Jones, it was unbalanced. He mentioned it to Frankel a few times in their post-screening talk and in an email.
“I don’t say anything to him that’s not well thought out,” said Jones. “He takes my comments into due consideration and responds accordingly. I don’t direct him. No director wants to be directed, but no good director ... would shy away from the good ideas of others.”
Frankel listened and reedited the scene. “I really believe it wasn’t his ego as an actor,” said Frankel. “He had on his director’s hat, and he sensed the imbalance ... and he was right. I think I got focused on the wrong thing.”
One particular scene — the one Frankel calls “worth the price of admission itself” — required a high level of trust between the director and his leads. Without giving away too much, let’s just say it involves the acclaimed actors, a sticky-floored old movie theater and a flagrant sex act.
What makes the scene particularly memorable are the range of expressions that register on Jones’ face.
“It’s the enjoyment of embarrassment,” said Jones of his character’s experience in the moment. “The thrill of something original. The enjoyment of danger, mixed with pleasure, amounting to more pleasure. That’s the nice thing about the scene because these characters go through a wide spectrum of feelings, anticipations and disappointments. It’s kind of like having sex,” he concluded with a sly grin.
Next for Jones is a decidedly less sexy role: He just completed Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” playing the club-footed, alopecia-addled congressman Thaddeus Stevens. “A delight for any actor,” said Jones. “You have no hair and you get to limp all the time.”
Soon he’s set to start filming on Luc Besson’s “Malavita,” a dark comedy about a mob family forced to relocate to France under witness protection. Jones will play a stern FBI agent opposite the heads of the family, played by Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. In 2013, he hopes to direct “The Homesman,” a pioneer period piece.
In 2005, Jones’ film “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” which he also wrote, directed, produced and starred in, won him solid reviews. It was his first time behind the camera since the 1995 television movie “The Good Old Boys.” Most recently he directed himself and Samuel L. Jackson in the HBO movie “The Sunset Limited,” based on the play by his friend Cormac McCarthy.
Jones loves to direct — to be in charge of an entire set, including his wife, who serves as the still photographer on his films. “When I’m directing she has to do everything I tell her,” he said with a smile.
Yet besides being everybody’s boss, Jones relishes the opportunity to “see his visual life take action.”
“I want to photograph what I see and put it in a dramatic context. I’m an actor and a writer, and I want to tell these stories and present these shapes, colors and movements as I see them, as I see them serve a narrative. As I see that narrative serve an audience. That’s what I want to do.”