When the screenplay for Lincoln included a character that’s crusty and foul-tempered on the surface yet conceals a vibrant heart beating underneath, who has an eloquent command of language that also translates into scathing insults, it’s no wonder Tommy Lee Jones got a call from director Steven Spielberg.
Taking on the role of the intimidating, sharp-tongued Thaddeus Stevens, a bewigged abolitionist who makes arguments both fiery and flowery in Congress to strike down slavery, Jones plays to his impressive array of strengths on screen – indeed, the actor has already landed on many critics’ short lists as a leading contender to win another Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (his first came for 1993’s The Fugitive). Jones sat down with Fandango at the legendary Polo Lounge within the Beverly Hills Hotel to discuss what compelled him about the 19th century congressman.
Fandango: Your character is a figure that's been debated about for some time – people have dramatically different interpretations of him. What did you key into about him? What about him got its hooks into you?
Tommy Lee Jones: Well, he was a character in a very fine screenplay, and the director has a good reputation. I like Steven [Spielberg], I've known him for quite some time and I was delighted to hear from him. When he asked if I'd read the screenplay, I said I would right away. He asked me to consider this role. I did and called him back immediately and told him I thought it was a very fine undertaking; I'd be happy, consider myself lucky, to be a part of it. That's what made me say yes. And then I began to read the biographies of Stevens. There are three, I think. Two of them are worth reading. One was from the 1930s and has one perspective, and one is, I think, from the '80s and has an entirely different perspective on it. But they both provided a lot of biographical details that you find useful.
Fandango: You've worked with several world-class directors, and you’ve directed yourself. What was fresh, new or exciting about watching Steven Spielberg’s particular technique?
Jones: On this movie, he had fun – all day, every day. All the tasks having to do with shooting a film were clearly enjoyable from his point of view. He just had a lot of fun, and that is so valuable.
Fandango: How much do the external trappings of the character – the wig, the limp, etc. – impact your performance? Are they window dressing, or do they help you get into the character's head a little bit more?
Jones: Oh, well, let's think about that for a minute: How important is it, when you think about Richard III, that he is a physical cripple? Would that skew his point of view? Stevens had alopecia and a club foot, and as the son of a farmer was never able to work in the fields with his brothers and his father – and therefore had to access what they considered to be self-esteem. He's useless when it came to work. Bless his mother for providing him with all those books. You have to admire him for taking them seriously – so seriously, that he was able to go to Dartmouth and then law school and then go west and become an instant success as a lawyer in business. So these physical trappings that you refer to are definitely all connected to his character.
Fandango: The dialogue blends oratory rhetoric and a liberal dose of insult-tossing with the other politicians. Is that a bit of an actor’s holiday for you, delivering that dynamic dialogue?
Jones: There were no sound bites in those days, no television, so people had to speak their mind rather than insinuate it. I wouldn't call it a holiday, but I would certainly call it a joy to have all of that language at your disposal. And then to be responsible for all of that language, it's more fun than being asked to say, "Get those people out of there, ASAP. Okay – Mike, we're going in. Go, go, go!" That's what kind of language you'll hear a lot of in the movies, and the eloquence of these 19th century congressmen and senators were a real joy. Language was a more important part of life in those days than it is now. I think in some ways compared to their use of language, we are a bunch of jabbering monkeys.
Fandango: What was your personal window on Abraham Lincoln? Was it deeper than the basic iconography that the general public knows, and how did your perspective evolve from doing the film?
Jones: I don't think my perspective on Lincoln was changed. I was very grateful to see Daniel Day-Lewis show us a real Abraham Lincoln, a country boy, if you believe that. Uncomfortable in the big city, if you believe that. Brilliant lawyer, however; self-educated. Very fine poet and a man capable of unthinkable sacrifice, personally. The experience on it is real, which Daniel makes it possible for us to do. Daniel makes it impossible for us to ignore – very gratifying for me. The iconography falls away, and these greatest measures of the 19th century in America can be seen as achieved by real and imperfect people, rather than by icons. This iconography you refer to distorts our perspective on this.
Fandango: Some have said that working with Daniel, they felt like they actually met Lincoln to some degree. Is his immersive approach anywhere near your method at all?
Jones: I don't have a method. I'll have a method when I find out what yours is.
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