Q&A: Tommy Lee Jones On Lincoln

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of AwardsLine.

This year’s most anticipated Tommy Lee Jones performance was expected to be in his long-awaited return to the Men in Black franchise, but that actually turned out to be his least interesting part. The reliable veteran star, who won his one and only Oscar nearly two decades ago for chasing Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, has enjoyed a year full of unexpected acting pleasures. After MIB3, he starred in a rare summer adult comedy opposite Meryl Streep and won praise in Hope Springs as a long-married man whose wife wants to add sexual sparks to their relationship. He could earn a Golden Globe nom for best actor in a comedy or musical for that film, plus a second supporting actor nom for his sensationally entertaining turn as Senator Thaddeus Stevens in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. That one has also brought him back as a frontrunner in the Oscar race, too. These are good times for Jones, who as usual is focused on the work and rather blasé about all the awards buzz.

AWARDSLINE: What appealed to you about playing Thaddeus Stevens?

TOMMY LEE JONES: Steven (Spielberg) sent me the screenplay, asked if I would read it and consider the part of Thaddeus Stevens. I read the screenplay, loved it, and was fascinated with Stevens. I called him back and said, “This is a very fine undertaking, and it would be my good luck if I had a chance to work on it.”

AWARDSLINE: Were you aware of Stevens in any way before you started researching the role?

JONES: I knew that there was a radical abolitionist in Congress in 1865 named Thaddeus Stevens—that’s about all I knew. But I was fascinated to learn the details of his life and become more aware of what it took to pass that amendment.

AWARDSLINE: What surprised you about Stevens when you got deeper into the research?

JONES: There were a lot of surprises about Thaddeus Stevens that are not in this movie. I wasn’t so much surprised but very interested to learn that he was to some degree a professional radical. His early years in Congress were dedicated to defeating the Masons. His idea was that they shouldn’t be in government because their loyalty would be divided, that they would be more loyal to their cult. And that leaves George Washington right out, buddy. (Laughs.) But he made a lot of political hay, battling this specter of Masonry. He worked very hard to run a railroad through western Pennsylvania, a place where you wouldn’t put a railroad, unless you owned an iron mill, and thought you could make some money if you no longer had to haul your product out with wagons and mules. So he had some pork-belly campaigns on his own behalf. I learned that he was an inveterate gambler. He loved to bet on horses. He even bet on his own elections! He bet on himself to win his own elections and made money doing it! (Laughs.) And that housekeeper wasn’t the only woman in his life. There are a lot of fascinating things about Stevens that aren’t necessarily relevant to the movie, but help you make decisions when you’re deciding what to do as you play a character. This makes the character fuller.

AWARDSLINE: How did you prepare to play him? The wig was interesting.

JONES: Preposterous wig! We hired a wig maker and told him not to do too good a job. If you look at pictures of Stevens, it is a ridiculous wig.

AWARDSLINE: Was there a rehearsal process?

JONES: The first thing you do is rehearse the blocking. When you know where you’re going to be, then you can go back to a trailer or a dressing room and adjust your prep to the physical reality. The actors I was working with didn’t really require a lot of rehearsal. They were thoroughly prepared and knew what they were going to do and how they were going to do it. All we had to do was just adjust to where we were going to do it. And these kinds of actors are adjustable.

AWARDSLINE: What is it like working opposite Daniel Day-Lewis when he just becomes Lincoln?

JONES: His Lincoln is believable and embodies all the characteristics that we admire about Lincoln. I was relieved—gratified, is the only word—to see Lincoln as a real country boy. Not just a bumpkin, but a guy from the country. He’s not real comfortable in town. A brilliant lawyer, self-educated, (an) insightful poet—a man capable of unthinkable self-sacrifice. To see all that rendered real, as opposed to the Lincoln on the penny or the Lincoln on the monument—none of those Lincolns. We’re talking about a real man here.

AWARDSLINE: What was it like to work with Steven Spielberg?

JONES: He’s been part of movies that I’ve worked on. I’ve never been one of his actors, in a movie that he directed. I was very pleased to see him have so much fun. He was very happy on that set. All of the tasks that arise in the course of making a film were a joy to him. None of it was confusing to him or frustrating. You always worry, but he was always, from where I stood, having fun, and that’s so important.

AWARDSLINE: Do you learn from the directors that you work with, things that you want to do on your own movies?

JONES: Every one of them. You are either learning what to do or what not to do. You’re either learning how to do it or how not to do it. And that’s all good.

AWARDSLINE: You’re directing a new film, aren’t you?

JONES: Homesmen. It’s about events that surround the Homestead Act, the middle of the 19th century, and in the Nebraska Territory. Right now, we are scheduled to start shooting on March 17. That might be adjusted a little bit, one way or the other. I need some partially melted snow, and I need some grass. So you have to pick just the right window and get lucky.

AWARDSLINE: What makes you want to take on a role these days?
What’s the key ingredient?

JONES: You look for a good screenplay, a good director—you’re pretty well assured he’ll be prepared—a good cast. Personally, I look for an exotic, happy, wonderful location that my wife and daughter and son will want to visit, so they’ll want to come see me. And you look for a good business deal. There’s a lot of factors that come into play.

Supporting Actor Category Full Of Scene-Stealers

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of AwardsLine.

In a year when the leading actor race is full of major heavyweight contenders—many going for their second or third Oscars—the supporting actor category is no less competitive and also chockful of major names in the hunt for another Oscar. With certified leading men like Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tommy Lee Jones, Russell Crowe, Ewan McGregor, and Matthew McConaughey in the mix, the supporting contest is easily one of the most fascinating to watch. And it begs the question: What really is a supporting role? Is it playing a major title role in The Master or could it be just one 5-minute scene as a cancer patient in Flight? Is it a collective award for a trio of scene-stealing roles in one year, such as John Goodman’s 2012 résumé indicates, or will it honor a return to critical acclaim for a legend like Robert De Niro who hasn’t been Oscar-nominated since 1991? Whatever the case, this is the starriest group of contenders we have seen jockeying for best supporting actor in many years. Here’s a rundown of the major players.


As Pat Sr., the obsessive-compulsive father and Philadelphia Eagles fan, two-time winner De Niro wowed critics and immediately elicited strong Oscar buzz for the first time in a couple of decades. He hasn’t been nominated since 1991’s Cape Fear and hasn’t won since 1980’s Raging Bull. Now he’s back in the supporting category where he first triumphed in 1974 for The Godfather Part II. Will history repeat itself? He’s a hot contender to do just that.

Tommy Lee Jones plays abolitionist Senator Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln.
Tommy Lee Jones plays abolitionist Senator Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln.


As the spirited and scene-stealing political powerhouse Thaddeus Stevens, Jones livens up the film with a rip-roaring turn that puts this leading actor squarely in the hunt for a second statuette in the supporting category. He won for 1993’s The Fugitive and was last nominated five years for the first time in the best actor category for In the Valley of Elah. His acclaimed turn opposite Meryl Streep in the summer release Hope Springs further enhances his chances of scoring another Oscar for his mantel.

John Goodman, left, and Alan Arkin play Hollywood insiders who collaborate with the CIA in Argo.
John Goodman, left, and Alan Arkin play Hollywood insiders who collaborate with the CIA in Argo.


Playing the veteran Hollywood movie producer called upon to create a fake film in order to help some hostages out of Iran, Arkin drolly nails the role and gets the laughs in Ben Affleck’s otherwise serious thriller set against the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The veteran star finally won an Oscar in this category six years ago for Little Miss Sunshine after being AWOL from the Oscar competition for a record 38 years. But he’s back with a vengeance, and somehow one Oscar just doesn’t seem enough for this beloved actor.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the charismatic leader of a cult in The Master.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the charismatic leader of a cult in The Master.


As Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a cult-like religion in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1950s drama, Hoffman is riveting and every bit the match for Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddy. But in order to avoid Hoffman and Phoenix competing for votes in the same category, the Weinstein Company is campaigning Hoffman in supporting, which gives him a meaty opportunity to swamp the competition. Polarized reaction to the film among some voters could hurt his overall chances, but a nomination seems like a no-brainer.


McGregor is another leading man going for his first dance with Oscar as the real-life father and husband who searches desperately for his wife and oldest son when their family is divided after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. With one highly emotional scene to boost his chances, McGregor strongly delivers in a role to which any father will relate. And there’s a lot of them in the Academy.


Goodman has had an embarrassment of riches this year with scene-stealing roles. He was particularly well-received in Argo as the real-life Hollywood makeup man who helps the CIA pull off a daring plan to rescue six Americans in 1979-Tehran and as alcoholic/addict Denzel Washington’s enabler in Flight. Unfortunately, both roles are being campaigned by their respective studios, and he’s in danger of cancelling himself out. Every actor should have this kind of problem.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays plantation owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays plantation owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained.


DiCaprio, a three-time Oscar nominee and certified superstar could compete for supporting honors as the deliciously villainous slave owner Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s wild ride of a western. The Weinstein Company recently moved costar Christoph Waltz up to lead actor, where he will square off with star Jamie Foxx, leaving the supporting field in the film largely to DiCaprio (though Samuel L. Jackson could also be a small fly in that ointment once the film is more widely seen by voters).


Leaving behind a string of romantic-comedy roles, McConaughey completely reinvented his career with a series of strong, offbeat performances in 2012, including the murderous hitman in Killer Joe, the Texas prosecutor in Bernie,and a pair of well-received performances in movies that debuted in competition at Cannes, The Paperboy and the upcoming 2013 release Mud. But it’s his flashy strip-club veteran Dallas in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike that has put him in the supporting actor conversation.


He already has one supporting Oscar for playing evil in No Country for Old Men, but could Bardem be the first Bond villain ever to win an Oscar nomination? As the sexually ambiguous Silva, a wicked mastermind of all things bad, Bardem brings real dimension to what could have been a comic-book portrayal in lesser hands. In doing so, he lifts everyone’s game in the most successful James Bond film yet.


Oscar-winning leading actor Crowe gets to once again show his dramatic chops as Javert, the singularly focused policeman who hunts down Hugh Jackman’s Valjean in the musical Les Misérables. What might really make voters stand up and take notice is Crowe’s singing ability here, and that can be a real plus for Academy voters, who love to see their Oscar winners stretch.

Also in the mix…


With costars Alan Arkin and John Goodman already standing in line, Cranston’s equally terrific turn as a CIA boss might get lost in the crowd.


A baker in his native Louisiana, Henry is a non-pro who knocks it out of the park as the suffering dad of young Hushpuppy stuck in the middle of a crisis on the bayou. Against stiff marquee competition, he probably has a better shot at success at the Independent Spirit Awards.


After being robbed last year for going evil in Drive, Brooks is back in familiar territory as Paul Rudd’s needy father in this terrific adult comedy. He nails it, as usual.


Holbrook has a couple of strong scenes, including a heartfelt monologue, but he might not have enough screen time, though the same problem didn’t seem to hurt when he was nominated for Into the Wild a few years back. His few moments in Lincoln and veteran statusalso bolster his case.


Playing a good cop on patrol in Southeast L.A., Pena is every bit the equal of costar and partner Jake Gyllenhaal, but the distributor doesn’t want them competing in the lead category. Having Pena in supporting might confuse actors who could want to put him in the upper category with Jake because of the size of the role.


Miller was evil personified in last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin,but he’s truly a revelation here in a complex turn in this fine drama about real teens. In a year with less competition, he would make the cut.


Connolly is vibrant as part of the ensemble of great actors in Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, and voters could single him out, but it’s a longshot.


As the priest confidante of the horny but physically challenged Mark O’Brien, Macy gets the laughs, but the film really belongs to his costars.


As a street-smart kid who helps star Richard Gere out of a jam, Parker gives the role three dimensions, but his chances for a surprise nomination are slim with this killer group of contenders.


As a 1960s Jersey dad trying to discourage his son from musical ambitions, Gandofini is once again working with David Chase and back in the home territory of Tony Soprano but showing a completely different side of his talent. Getting the film seen could be a problem.


As the older Pi telling his story in flashbacks, this acclaimed Indian star is effective and low-key, but most of the emotional stuff is left to his younger self, played by Suraj Sharma.


Hedlund shows off real star power, along with other things, as the mystical Dean Moriarty in the Jack Kerouac adaptation. He’s a breakout, but Oscar will likely have to wait for another year.


With just a single scene as a cancer patient, James Badge Dale makes an indelible impression that has fellow actors singing his praises. But at five minutes’ screen time, it’s the longest of longshots.


Walken’s dog-napper of a con steals the show from his costars, and the Oscar winner is always respected by fellow actors. Don’t discount his ability to break through, but CBS Films will really have to campaign him.


Oliver Stone’s Savages seems to be on the sidelines this awards season, but attention must be paid to Travolta’s corrupt and deliciously slippery DEA agent, his best work in years.


With another performance-capture turn as Gollum, has this actor’s Oscar time finally come? Judging from past Academy voting habits, don’t bet the farm on it.