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Tommy Lee Jones: Good at acting bad

LOS ANGELES--Winning an Oscar, it is said, means an actor gets a pass for a year or two. For a brief moment he seems to be the master of his destiny. Tommy Lee Jones won the Oscar in March, for his work in "The Fugitive," but by then his Oscar surge was already well under way, as if Hollywood had anticipated the award. He is one of the busiest actors of 1994.

Consider. He plays a mad Irish bomber in "Blown Away," which is now in theaters. He will open soon as a publicity-seeking states attorney in "The Client," based on the John Grisham best-seller. Then he stars as a serial killer in Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers," opening in August. Then comes his work in the title role of a biopic about the complex and unhappy baseball legend Ty Cobb. After that comes "Good Old Boys," the movie he is currently starring in and directing, for a Turner cable network.

At one point while we were talking recently, I asked Jones where he lived, and he replied, without the shadow of a smile, "most of the time, I live on location." He is a busy actor, and success has so surrounded him that he even agrees to do the occasional press interview. Yet I sense he does not enjoy it, not at all. It's not that he's rude or hostile or impatient. It's that he's so controlled and polite you sense he's acutely uncomfortable, talking about acting and about himself. Nor is he exactly wordy.

Maybe, I found myself wondering, that's why he plays such great villains, such flamboyant and bitterly self-mocking bad guys in movies in "Under Siege" or "Blown Away," or good guys with an edge, like his federal marshal in "The Fugitive." Maybe he's so controlled in real life that he likes to go over the top in the movies. It's a release.

I tested my theory cautiously.

A lot of actors say it's more fun to play the bad guy, I said.

"I don't say that," he said.

You often play the bad guy, I said.

"Yeah," he said, "but it's not for fun."

O...kay.

Uh, in "Blown Away" and "The Client," and also in "Under Siege," there are various levels of flamboyance in the characters that you play. Yet as an individual, you seem rather quiet and self-contained...

"Yes."

...and I imagine in your private life, you're pretty much on that same level. These characters allow you to strut, to give speeches and depart on wild flights of fancy. Is that a release for you, a recreation? Is it a reach?

Jones considered. "Well," he said, "it's a profession. I play characters and I try to play them in a manner that's appropriate to the script. Physical movement and vitality of language is part of character. I don't need much of a character in my life. I've already got one; my family knows who I am and I don't have a reason to make an impression on the world around me unless it's in a professional context. Acting is not a personal experience; it's a job."

That struck me as an imminently sane statement for an actor to make, considering how many actors I've interviewed who talk about getting lost in their roles--how characters take them over, moving into their psyches and setting up housekeeping.

It seems like there's a wider range in your roles recently, I said. Is that a bonus of getting to be more widely recognized?

"I think so."

A pause. Jones shifted in his chair and began to stroke the beard he grew for "Good Old Boys."

"I saw an interview with Mr. Mitchum a long time ago," he said at last. "Mr. Mitchum said that back in the 1940s, in the studio system, if you did well, you didn't get to do better; you only got to do more. Nowadays I think it's possible that if you do well, you'll get a chance to do better. I think maybe the business and the art form have both changed for the better in that regard."

In your case, what you were doing well was playing villains in action thrillers. But some of these forthcoming movies look like a change of pace.

"I liked 'Under Siege.' I thought it was a lot of fun. I thought it was pretty, too. I liked all that blue and red. I liked the boat. I just liked it. I thought it was cool. And I didn't take it very seriously at all. It was just good entertainment. I suppose "The Fugitive" is also a thriller or an action thing. But there was something about it that made you think that it was happening now and that it was real and it was new. It exuded spontaneity somehow."

He stroked his beard again.

"There's another action film coming up. It's called 'Blown Away' and I haven't seen it all. We worked as hard as we could to please the people we were working for. What it feels like to sit through it from beginning to end, I don't know."

Your character is Irish.

"Yes, sir."

You have a very authentic accent.

"Oh, good! I got away with it." The ghost of a smile.

How did you prepare for that? Did you meet any Irish people; listen to them, talk to them?

"First, you read a lot of books. Then you work with a dialectician, which is a person who's hired to teach accents to actors. And you listen to hours of tapes of people from Belfast. And then you follow your Irish friends around and watch what they do with their hands."

What do they do with their hands?

"Use them in different ways. Put it all together and you might be lucky enough to fake it."

Would you be able to go into a bar in Belfast and pass?

"No."

Again, this is a little startling, and refreshing, after all the actors I've interviewed who promised me they were mistaken for foreign cab drivers, nurses, diplomats, surgeons and chefs.

"I don't think I could convince them that I was from Ireland. Maybe I could for a little while if I didn't say much, depending on how hard I had to fool them. I could fool part of the people part of the time."

The reason this interview is not exactly whizzing along, I thought to myself, is that Tommy Lee Jones is only speaking the simple truth, in as few words as necessary. People in general, and actors in particular, tend to grease the conversational skids with a little genial nonsense from time to time, but Tommy Lee seems allergic to chitchat.

"Natural Born Killers," I said. He nodded. It is an Oliver Stone film about the way the public makes heroes out of killers, perhaps because they're dazzled by their celebrity. The movie was finished long before O. J. Simpson got into the back seat of his white Bronco, but the message seems timeless.

"I think it's a good movie," Jones said. "It's a lot of fun. It's a satire. There'll be a temptation to say the movie is appealing to the worst in the audience; that it's another hatchet-movie. But I think the movie goes far, far above that. It's a work of art."

Some movies are violent, I said, and some movies are about violence.

Jones nodded. "Violence is not that good a standard by which to judge quality. The legend of 'Three Little Pigs' is a violent story. Look at the poor wolf. He falls down the chimney, and gets scalded. He never gets anything to eat. Look at 'Rock-a-bye Baby in the Treetop.' What's gonna happen when the wind blows?"

Ty Cobb, I said. When Jones accepted his Oscar last March, he made a very short speech. "This is the greatest award an actor can receive," he said. "The only thing a man can say at a time like this is, 'I am not really bald'." That was because he was bald at the time, to play the role of the gifted and unhappy baseball legend.

"Very complicated," Jones said. "Cobb is a complicated man. I think that's a fair statement."

So the movie is not going to be about just another baseball hero.

"Not just another baseball hero, no. It's an elegant movie about a rather elegant man. Mr. Cobb is thought of essentially as a rattlesnake, but you have to conclude that he was a pretty tough guy. After he left baseball, he had a lot of problems. He was a real racist. An anti-Semite. None of his family members would attend his funeral. They didn't like him personally. Does a guy like that have any redeeming qualities? Well, yes. No one's entirely beyond redemption. Otherwise they wouldn't call it 'redemption,' would they? "

I guess not. Did baseball give him happiness?

"Oh, hell, no! Nothing gave him happiness. He set 93 batting records; but they weren't enough. He didn't bat a thousand."

What attracted you to the character?

"I have an enormous respect for American athletic desire."

And that's what he had.

"Plenty of. "

He stroked his beard.

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