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Interview: Tommy Lee Jones of 'Lincoln'

'Language is life's blood for actors ...'

By James Rocchi Nov 16, 2012 3:25PM

As Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones' rich voice gets to boom out the principles of equality and also utter, with quiet conviction, of the human needs and feelings that make equality necessary. He's a scene-stealer, in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," but he's also portraying a figure of American history whose record of leadership, moral courage and eloquent verbal feuding should be far better remembered than they are. Stevens spoke out publicly as an abolitionist as early as 1832, putting him far ahead of the Emancipation proclamation or the 1865 passage of the 13th Amendment. Speaking with Jones in a cozy booth at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Texas-born actor discussed oratory, physically embodying the long dead and -- in a intriguing side note -- grammar and constitutional law, with his seemingly taciturn manner revealing itself as true contemplative sincerity as we discussed "Lincoln," Stevens' record and Jones' work.


MSN Movies: The one thing I really start by being very curious about is when you're portraying a character with such a huge reservoir of historical knowledge, the congressional record, his life, is that material you look at or do you just primarily go with what was in the script for playing Mr. Stevens?


Tommy Lee Jones: I read the script and I paid pretty close attention to two different biographies. One was written in the early 30s, and the other one was written more recently.


And he's one of those figures in history where there was a distinct shift in how he was perceived, correct? Before the 1950s, he was seen more of a radical and more of an obstructionist.


That was the interesting thing about the two biographies.




BING: Thaddeus Stevens l Alopecia

I can't remember the author's name; I should have looked that up. But there are only three biographies I think, and two of them are worth paying attention to. The older one depicts Stevens as a radical, kind of a weirdo. What was the term you used?




Reactionary, almost a whacko. And the more modern one depicts him as possibly the only sane man on the floor of the House of Representatives.


How do you portray a moral certainty, which we have the benefit, of that was in this case literally a hundred if not more years head of its time? Do you just go with what he said and the way he felt in terms of being a man apart from the politics surrounding him?


Yes, you do that, and you play the screenplay as well as you can, and you perform the screenplay as well as you possibly can and you try to be well-informed about who he was and what he did.


I know that you're playing General MacArthur in the upcoming "Emperor." I'm always, whenever I talk to an actor about playing a real human, wondering about where the desire to pursue a physical reality ends. I mean, Mr. Stevens had a clubfoot, you have the cane, you have the wig. Is it a sense of those things help build the character or is it just this is what the character needs to look right?


Well, those are signature aspects. I bear no resemblance to Douglas MacArthur whatsoever, but a campaign hat with all the fruit salad on it and the aviator glasses and the corncob pipe speak volumes. They really help you be accepted as MacArthur. We paid careful attention to his costume. His khakis were always belted about halfway up his waist, and he had a habit of putting his hands on his hips. And they were indications of his physical aspect that help with the language and the performance. Same thing, I suppose is true Stevens, although not everyone, most people don't know who Thaddeus Stevens was and many of those who do are unaware that he had alopecia and a clubfoot.


This is probably the earliest human being I've heard of having alopecia. I mean it's something people certainly had throughout history but something you don't think about outside of a very modern context.


We didn’t invent that malady.


Right, right. It's not a side effect of the industrial revolution.


(Laughs) That's right.


It was said of Stevens, as a begrudging compliment that if you bashed his skull in you would destroy the brains of the Republican Party.


(Laughs) I like that.

And that really comes out in the oratory, so much of which Mr. Kushner was able to preserve. Is it nice to think into an era when political and public oratory was a bit more florid and exciting?


That was fun. There were no sound bites. There were no commercials on television. People communicated in politics or in the conduct of all civil affairs with language. Oratory was important, and you had to be an orator to succeed. And that was just fun.


That very booming theatrical…


It doesn't always boom, but it's always language.


Right. I'm thinking specifically of some of the more dramatic showdowns you have on the floor.


Yes. So it wasn't the ... I mean, histrionics are always fun, but language is life's blood for actors.


It's really interesting to note what a concise piece of writing the Bill of Rights is and also how much room for literal grammatical interpretation there is in it. We've been arguing for decades about if there should be a comma after the first clause in the Second Amendment ...


A comma in the second amendment.


For the purposes of a well-regulated militia…




Right. Or is there no meaning-changing comma because the actual text has no comma?


That is a fascinating argument. The idea that it would boil down to punctuation is one thing. I was taught in prep school that punctuation, when we were looking for the rules of punctuation, I was taught that it's a mere courtesy.




All you have to do is be nice and you could punctuate properly. It is a conditional phrase. There's the argument. Is it a conditional phrase or not?


There's a book I've been reading by a gentleman named Daniel Lazare called "The Frozen Republic" about how adherence to the strict text of the Constitution may not be the best thing for us right now, especially in terms of things like the electoral college.


Well, we can tell the Supreme Court to take a day off.


Right. Yeah, just tell the Supreme Court to take a day off and straighten a lot of things out?


Straighten all this out.


There is a great story about when Frank Capra put out "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" a lot of people were saying, "Look, we're very probably on the verge of some kind of war. And this film shows so many flaws and failings of American democracy. Maybe we shouldn't be showing it." And his response to that was, "This movie is about how American democracy is better than its flaws."  Does a film like this, which shows backroom dealings, matters of compromise, matters of not compromising ... Is it good to show the strength and endurance of American democracy in action and in principle?


Absolutely, because this perspective that our movie represents is real, and I think it's good for a movie audience to be entertained by a story that is based on the perception that even the greatest steps forward in American social progress have been accomplished by imperfect people. These great steps forward were achieved by, finally, ordinary people.


The whole idea that we are a nation of laws, not men.


That's right.


But that men and women make those laws.


And they're not perfect.


And they just pass up what they can towards a collective good.


Yeah, that's kind of democratic.  And I think that's a healthier perspective than to have knights in shining armor riding through history doing battle with the forces of evil. It's more entertaining to see a movie like "Lincoln" where real people with real problems achieve great things.


There's that whole thing about if you like laws or sausages you shouldn't watch either of them being made ...


(Laughs) That's right.


"Lincoln" expands nationwide today.


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