Tommy Lee Jones on his latest movie - The Homesman

Tommy Lee Jones, who directed and stars in "The Homesman," based on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout. Picture: Andrew Testa
Tommy Lee Jones, who directed and stars in "The Homesman," based on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout. Picture: Andrew Testa
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I DID a very silly thing right before I interviewed Tommy Lee Jones.

I scared the bejesus out of myself by reading all the interviews in which the famously taciturn actor had answered questions using words of only one syllable, the ones where he had made liberal use of his death stare or, worst of all, made the interviewer cry by continually correcting her grammar. So, who then is this charming, well-mannered and funny man to whom I am speaking? It is true that on more than one occasion he asks, “what is your question?” but he does so beautifully politely and I had on those occasions, omitted to actually ask him anything, assuming that he would just endure my rambling and then offer me his thoughts. No, no, no, this is not how Tommy Lee Jones rolls. He is an old-fashioned sort, a stickler for protocol perhaps, but direct, clear and deliberate in his speech and his intention.

It’s exactly the approach that marks every frame of The Homesman, the new film which Jones co-wrote, produces, directs and in which he stars alongside Hilary Swank. It is a tremendous, gutsy film, an unflinching examination of the pioneer experience in the mid-west from a strikingly unique point of view. Set in 1850 in Nebraska, the film is an exploration of the lives of women on the frontier. Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) is an upstanding and redoubtable settler who ends up paired with the irascible George Briggs (Jones) to undertake the heroic and dangerous task of transporting three women who’ve gone mad back to their families in the east. Ground down by the brutal harshness of their lives, scraping by in a viciously hostile landscape and isolated like specks of dust on vast, open plains, their madness seems eminently understandable. I won’t be the only viewer who thinks had this been my lot, I would’ve crawled under my buffalo skin never to come back out.

Jones has described the film as “the inverse of the conventional western” since it’s about women rather than men, lunatics rather than heroes and the journey is from west to east. Actually, at one point, Jones was reluctant to allow his film to be described as a western, but he’s softened. “It might’ve bothered me some time in the past to hear the movie being called a western but I don’t care any more,” he says magnanimously. “You can call it a western. It’s got horses and big hats, there’s a wagon and it’s the middle of the 19th century, so it’s a western. If the person is comfortable with the label, let them have it.”

They drop some dynamite down the chimney to force the issue

The first time we meet Briggs he’s wearing his underwear and brandishing a gun. He is a claim jumper. He’s moved into someone else’s dirt shack and the locals want him out. They drop some dynamite down the chimney to force the issue. As he emerges, dazed and soot-covered, the wrinkles on that miraculous face of his are picked out like some kind of bizarre chiaroscuro. It is a gloriously craggy visage, weather-beaten, worn, somehow both still and yet extraordinarily expressive. I can’t think of a face more anti-Hollywood. There’s nothing smooth, neat, symmetrical. And yet, there is beauty in it too.

Jones is a puzzle. On the one hand, he can’t really be doing with interviews. But on the other, when you look at his work, it’s so obvious that he is both totally serious about and committed to acting. Think of his world weary cop, Ed Tom Bell, in No Country For Old Men, or his US Marshal Sam Gerard in The Fugitive, which earned him the first of his four Oscar nominations (he’s won twice). Or the distraught, questing father in The Valley of Elah, or as the tub-thumping, grandstanding Thaddeus Stevens, the abolitionist congressman in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. These are men of character, of steely resolve and complex morality. As Spielberg put it: “Tommy is not just a subtle solo instrument. There is an entire symphony orchestra inside that man….” I’d love to know what acting means to Jones, what he finds in it, how it sustains and satisfies him, but there’s just no way of getting him to talk about it like that. It’s just not his style. Meryl Streep, his co-star in Hope Springs, possibly the saddest comedy you’ll ever see in which Streep and Jones play a couple married for 30 years trying to rekindle their relationship and in which Jones delivers a pitch perfect performance as Arnold, the bored, boring husband as zipped up as his ever present windcheater, described him as “very private. I don’t think I ever had a coffee with him, or a lunch. But in the work he’s a completely available person. It’s sort of shocking how open he is.” And that’s the way it is with Jones.

Not every actor can direct, not every actor wants to either

The Homesman is his fourth directorial effort. Twice he’s been at the helm of well received TV projects, the last movie he directed was The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, back in 2005. Not every actor can direct, not every actor wants to either. When it comes to assessing the difference between the two, Jones isn’t really convinced (“They are two entirely different jobs,” he says patiently) but there’s no doubt about how much he enjoys being behind the camera. “I suppose it’s the most satisfying thing I could do now. Sit down, write a scene, put it in a screenplay, present it to the camera, shoot it and work it into the editorial process and then put it before the world, that process is highly gratifying. Certainly is.”

The Homesman is based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout, who wrote The Shootist, which became John Wayne’s final role alongside Lauren Bacall. Swarthout started out as a stringer for local newspapers and wrote not only westerns but historical adventures, tragedies and even romances. These were plot-heavy, page-turners, but the same themes emerged time and time again: the cruelty of which we are capable but also our capacity for courage. Had Jones had read Swarthout’s novels before coming across The Homesman? “No,” he sounds faintly disdainful, but still polite. “I had not read his work. Of course, I’d seen The Shootist, several times, but that’s not the kind of material that I’d read, casually.” Ever the Harvard man, a good friend of Cormac McCarthy, of course he didn’t. It was producer, Michael Fitzgerald, who sent the book to Jones to ask if he thought there was a good movie in it. “Of course, there was a good movie in it,” Jones says, “and the reason for that was that I knew we could make a screenplay with some originality to it. As filmmakers our lives are a constant, never-ending search for originality. I thought we might be able to find it here.”

The most striking aspect of this originality is the focus on women. Hilary Swank has described the movie as feminist and she’s right. It puts women at the centre of the narrative and through Mary Bee Cuddy, allows them equal share in the history. Why should it be surprising that Jones is the one to have done that? Evidently, he can’t think why. “Of course, I’m interested in the story of the lives of those women,” he says. “As it turns out my grandmother, my mother, my wife and my daughter are all women and I like these people. And their story is important.”

Mary Bee Cuddy is a fantastic creation

Jones elicits genuine sympathy for the characters but does so without sliding into sentimentality. Mary Bee Cuddy is a fantastic creation – resourceful, brave, conscientious, kind. She is a woman who has come from New York State to the mid-west. She’s left behind family, culture – the piano she misses is represented by a roll of fabric embroidered with keys which she unfurls on to her scrubbed wooden table when she wants to play. She is godly and good, a skilful farmer, a crack shot. And she is lonely. Her longing is palpable, not just in her clumsy approaches to the men to whom she proposes at the earliest opportunity, but in the way she brushes her hair, the way she keeps her modest home pristine. The film is deeply moving. I couldn’t work out why I was crying at one point, I couldn’t work it out for days. But I know now. It’s because when Mary Bee Cuddy is flatly rejected by a dough-faced farmer for being plain as she sits in her home where she has cooked him a delicious dinner, on her farm created and sustained by her extraordinary achievements – her bravery, her skill, her resourcefulness, her sacrifice – what we are witnessing is the traducing of all of Cuddy’s extraordinariness to her plain face. OK, this demands that you have to get over Hilary Swank being called plain, but once I had – and you will – it was devastating.

Swank’s performance is full of restrained dignity. Jones speaks in only the highest terms of Swank both in terms of her performance and as an actor. “She is impeccable,” he says. “She works very hard, constantly, all day long every day. It was a great relief on the day that she said yes, she wanted to play the part.” I can absolutely believe it; truthfully I can’t think of another actor who could play that part better. “I don’t think there could be anyone better,” Jones says. “No.”

The odd couple aspect of Mary Bee Cuddy and George Briggs is familiar. It’s Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, the uptight woman and the roguish man, apart from Mary Bee Cuddy is easily a match for Briggs and the themes are more complex than the romance of John Huston’s film. In Briggs, there’s something more anarchic too, a hint at something more dangerous. With some whiskey in his veins he’s prone to a song and a bit of foot-stompin’. Cross him and he’ll kill you as quick as look at you. In one scene, having arrived at a hotel after days of trekking, Briggs and the women are refused food and shelter by the rapacious owner (a round-faced James Spader). Briggs leaves only to return after dark and patiently with palpable pleasure, set the place on fire. “I think those guys deserved to have their hotel burned,” Jones says with a laugh. “I enjoyed it.” I absolutely believe him.

“A consideration of American imperialism”

At Cannes, Jones described his film as “a consideration of American imperialism”. What he is offering then is an exploration of what it means to assume that there is a god-given right to expand across vast territories, claiming everything along the way. “I’m interested in the history of my country,” he says. “When I think about my country, I think about the state of Texas or the western part of the United States. I think this story takes a true and original perspective on the experience of those people who lived on the cutting edge, of manifest destiny.

“The movie has its themes,” he says, almost coquettishly. “There are thematic concerns here that interested me. And I’ll admit it, we shot the movie from my point of view.” And with that comes one of those Tommy Lee Jones silences. At moments, these have been provided so that I can reformulate my thoughts or, let’s be honest, just get the words right. But this time it feels like it’s filled with a satisfied smile. Jones has made a film that interests him exploring a period of history and political ideas that expresses his own perspective. I don’t think I’ve heard a more succinct description of what it is to be a director. “There were times when I was shooting this movie that I thought everyone in it is an idiot. And everybody in this movie has heroic moments. And even though it’s a fantastic story, in that regard, it’s just like life.”

Jones has talked about when he creates a character, he is trying literally to realise the vision of the director. But what about when the vision is his own? “Well, they’re two totally different jobs,” he says, repeating his earlier point. OK, I say, but what about the process, is it different when you’re creating the character for yourself? “I suppose the best way to explain that is to say if you’re a writer and an actor and a director and a producer all on the same film, having any three of those jobs makes the fourth one easier.” I laugh, a little nervously. That’s a joke, right? Truth is, I still don’t know and Jones was no help, he remained completely silent.

Maybe it’s this, the fact that Jones doesn’t feel it’s his job to make everyone around him comfortable or to put them at ease that has cemented his reputation for being tricky to interview. Maybe it’s that he just is a bit prickly. Either way, what you can’t ignore is his genuine pleasure in the fact that The Homesman is being received well by both critics and audiences. “When people see the movie, I enjoy hearing them talk about it. Most people seem to enjoy it and that is, of course, gratifying. That’s why we do it.” Does he read the reviews? “I haven’t read all of them, just a few. They send them to me from an office in California. Most of them, I’d say 85-90 per cent positive, same goes for the people. I’m really happy about that, of course I am.”

Jones is a fan of movies, a cinephile

Why am I surprised? Had I really believed that Jones might be so grumpy that even people enjoying the film he’d laboured over would leave him unmoved? How ridiculous. Jones is a fan of movies, a cinephile. The question of genre doesn’t really interest him, but pushed he tells a lovely story which makes me think quite differently about those Men in Black movies. “If I ever really enjoyed a particular genre, I guess it would’ve been science fiction in the 1950s,” he says. “I went to a lot of movies when I was 10 and 11 years old and there were a lot of inexpensive science fiction movies made and I loved every one of them. Usually it involved a spacecraft crashing into the earth and the fuel leaks out and makes the ants the size of boxcars. They run around and terrorise the world. There’s a kindly old doctor who has to be sacrificed in the second or third reel. And there’s a blonde girl who has to rescued by the hero and together they figure out some miraculous way of eliminating this menace. It was usually the most simple thing – I think it was water that killed the Blob.” There is the slightest of pauses and I wonder if he’s as surprised as I am by his sudden sharing of what is, by Jones’ standards, so personal. And then he starts again. “These were formula movies but I really loved them. I never thought about any such thing as a western movie. Really, I couldn’t recognise my family in those movies, but I could imagine my family in a science fiction movie. There were a lot of cowboys in my family but none of them looked like the Lone Ranger.”

Jones’ biography is well known, but the details remain off-limits. An eighth generation Texan, he was born in San Saba, to Clyde C Jones, an oil-field worker, and Lucille Marie, who owned a beauty parlour but had also worked as a policewoman and a school teacher. He was a talented footballer and won a scholarship to a prestigious prep school in Dallas before heading to Harvard to study English Literature, also on scholarship. After he graduated, he moved to New York, began acting on stage and finally made his film debut in Love Story, as Ryan O’Neal’s roommate.

Now 68, Jones has said that he’s always worried about the work drying up but it’s hard to imagine that could ever happen. He’s just shot Criminal with Ryan Reynolds and Gary Oldman and there’s a Jason Statham flick after that. Unsurprisingly, he won’t be drawn on whether there is a tension when, having experienced this freedom and latitude, he returns to being part of someone else’s vision (“They’re just separate jobs. It’s not a personal matter to go from one to the other,” is how he bats that one away. But he is absolutely clear that he’s got more to say. “I certainly want to continue to be a movie director. And I want to continue to write movies and I want to continue to be an actor.” He pauses. “I just like making movies.” I believe him.

• The Homesman (15) is in cinemas now