LOS ANGELES Maybe it's of complete insignificance, but Oliver Stone and Tommy Lee Jones were born on exactly the same day.
"Sept. 15, 1946," Stone said. "He's a few hours older than me."
So that's why you get along?
He smiled. "That's why we work together well."
Jones has been around for 20 years, and suddenly he's hot. After playing enormously popular antagonists in "Under Siege" and "The Fugitive," he's a box-office factor. In this year's Academy Awards sweepstakes, he's running against himself in the supporting actor category - for the federal marshal in "The Fugitive" and the troubled military adviser in Stone's "Heaven and Earth." After directing him in "Heaven and Earth," Stone hired him again to play a prison warden in his next film, "Natural Born Killers."
"You know what?" Stone said. "I think part of his appeal is simply because of the name - Tommy Lee Jones. It tells you right off the bat the guy is a Southerner, that's he's authentic. It's like a football player name.
"And I think he's got an integrity that people can sense. He lives in Texas, he's got a ranch, he's a cowboy, he cuts right to the bone. Tommy Lee's 6-foot-2. He's big. He's strong. At the same time, I think, with "Heaven and Earth," anyway, there's a tenderness in his performance that comes out that shows he has leading-man qualities. You could say he's got that Gable thing. He may not be as attractive, but then, Gable had big ears and wasn't the Cary Grant type, but Gable had an authenticity and a grip and the size."
He does put a real tenderness into his character, and it plays to tremendous advantage in the scene where he's trying to convince this woman that he really does take her seriously.
"In a scene like that, you could say that Tommy Lee is a metaphor for America and that he had a love-hate relationship with Vietnam. He tells her, 'I want an Oriental wife,' and it's a very complex statement. He wants her and he respects her, but there's this latent racism, this hatred, this misunderstanding of what Buddhism is, that he can't accept. Finally, he threatens her, and that was what America did with Vietnam. We wanted to help these people, if you remember, at the very beginning. And then we betrayed them in the deepest level, in every way."
You and Tommy Lee Jones have very strong personalities. Did you ever have disagreements?
"Oh, yeah. But not fights like I had with Jimmy Woods on 'Salvador.' My God!"
"Salvador" (1986) was Stone's first high-profile directorial success, an angry movie about U.S. involvement in Latin America, with Woods and James Belushi as a couple of rock-magazine journalists in way over their heads.
What was it like with you and Jimmy?
"Screaming vengeance! He always knew better than anybody else. He'll drive you crazy. I like Jimmy; I'm his friend, but he would drive you nuts. Tommy Lee, on the other hand, was just gruff. He likes control, he likes order. And the way I shoot is the total opposite; it's very improvisational. I'd change dialogue, I'd change positioning. He likes to know exactly what he's doing. Sometimes he would irritate me, and I would just blow up at him and say, 'Do it. This is the way I work.' And then he'd back off and he would just do it.
"I think he just needs a strong director, somebody who has a vision and who says, 'This is who I am and this is the way I work, and if you can't work that way, then too bad.' But he calls me 'Boss' on the set, which is very Western, I guess, very cowboy. Sometimes he'll direct other actors, which irritates me. He'll say, 'Now you do that, you do that.' And because he's so scary, the other actors get intimidated by him. I cut him off on that."
After 20 years, why is it all happening right now, at last, for him?
"He's always been good, but he was out of the limelight for a while; he had a bad period, but he was great in 'Coal Miner's Daughter' (1980). I remember that movie and 'The Executioner's Song' (1982). He was always working. He never gave up; he never sold out; he never changed during that down period. Sure, he was in some bad pictures. But he did what Chuck Yeager said to do: 'If they're not letting you fly the best planes, fly the second-best planes as best as you can.' "