It’s hard to think of another film actor working today who’s more comfortable in his own skin than Tommy Lee Jones.
Born and bred in Texas, where he currently lives on a 3,000-acre ranch near San Antonio and a million miles from Hollywood, Jones brings his Lone Star upbringing with him for every role, every scene. The vast expanse of the dry plains, the cracks in the Earth as a result of a scorching sun have all become scenery that Jones uses to create a performance which is as much about himself as it is about the character he’s playing.
He pulls it off again this Oscar season — not once but twice. Opening this Friday, Jones stars as a father trying to understand the last hours of his son’s life in the Paul Haggis-directed “In the Valley of Elah.”
As ex-soldier Hank Deerfield, Jones is trying to come to terms with why his son is dead. What’s so frustrating is that the boy didn’t die on the battlefields of Iraq, but was killed after he arrived home back in the States. While simultaneously grieving, Jones teams with small-town cop Charlize Theron and the two uncover how his son’s life tragically ended.
On how the story unfolds, Jones explained: “You’d have to say that it concerns itself with what a war can do to people. I also think it indicates that blind, mindless patriotism is very dangerous.”
In November, Jones finds himself in Texas trying to solve a multiple murder in the Coen brothers’ latest masterpiece, “No Country for Old Men.” No doubt Javier Bardem, a maniacal killer who’ll surely be nominated for a best actor nomination, will get all the press here, but Jones’ understated turn as a cop who can recreate a murder scene by just picking up a handful of dust is as crucial to the film’s success as the spellbinding Bardem.
These two movies are just the latest examples of how Jones has always played a detective in one way or another. After a career that started in television, his signature role came in 1993 as Marshal Samuel Gerard in “The Fugitive.” He won an Oscar for the performance as a cop on the chase for Harrison Ford’s Dr. Richard Kimble, a film that came two years after a nomination in Oliver Stone’s “JFK.”
Stone took a liking to Jones and cast him in two other films: “Heaven and Earth” and “Natural Born Killers.” Another director who was drawn to Jones’ simplistic acting style was Joel Schumacher, who cast him in “The Client” and “Batman Forever.”
Speaking volumes while saying little
Then “Men in Black” came along and Jones found himself in a $250 million franchise and stardom knocking on his door. The bright lights were more of a nuisance than a route to greater exposure and fame.
While co-star Will Smith would meet and greet at the premieres and galas, Jones seemed most comfortable away from the spotlight and the press. To this day, he doesn’t enjoy promoting his films but knows it’s the way business is done.
That desire to play it low-key doesn’t mean Jones comes across as some hillbilly. Cashing in on the success of “Men in Black,” he demanded $20 million for the sequel plus a percentage of the profits — and got it.
Again, “Melquiades” put the 61-year-old actor in his favorite stomping grounds — the desolate Texas landscape. Here, he’s a small-town ranch foreman who fulfills a request of his dead Mexican friend to bury him in his hometown cemetery across the border.
And when he finds out who the killer is — a gun-happy border patrolman — Jones kidnaps and brings him along for the dangerous journey to Mexico.
The film deserved much more acclaim than it received, especially after Jones won the best actor award at Cannes, along with honors for screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (“21 Grams,” “Babel”).
Yet, in a weird way, Jones might’ve been happier not having to promote “Melquiades” to the hilt. He’s quiet in that way, much like his best characters. Proud and principled.
An underrated treasure
Jones, who’s never taken an acting class, is Texas through and through, even if that means taking a horrible role in an awful film for a chance to spread some Longhorn gospel. He played a Texas Ranger assigned to protect a group of cheerleaders in the miserable comedy “Man of the House.”
In college, Jones ventured far from Texas to the Ivy League, where he attended Harvard on a scholarship and roomed with Al Gore. The two, one would think, couldn’t be more different in their personalities but they’ve remained close friends over the years. In fact, Jones introduced Gore at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
Speaking to 20,000 or so to a packed Staples Center and in front of millions of television viewers must’ve been uncomfortable for Jones, but it showed that he’s willing to go against his quiet nature for what he believes.
I, for one, believe in Jones and think he’s one of the most underrated treasures, who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. Here’s hoping that he won’t be intimidated or uninterested in participating in the Oscar grind for “Elah” and/or “No Country.” Either as an advocate for himself or these wildly contextual and thought-provoking films.
Acting as a moral center in both films comes easily to Jones; he’s earned it through actions both on and off the screen, and in is his well-chosen and soft-spoken words.
The less he says, the more we listen.
Stuart Levine is an assistant managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.