By David Hochman
Photography by Rainer Hosch | March 28, 2015 | People
Holed up on his 3,000-acre spread in San Saba, 2015 Texas Film Awards honoree Tommy Lee Jones talks The Homesman, Harvard, and horses—not too bad for a reluctant legend.
He famously hates being interviewed, so why is Tommy Lee Jones talking so animatedly about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? “Oh, it was my first adventure in show business, you see,” he says, and if you didn’t know better, you might actually think Jones was smiling. “I was playing Sneezy in an elementary school pageant in Rotan, Texas. We put the play on in a high school gym. A reporter came all the way from Abilene to report on it. I took the role very seriously.”
“Sneezy. It was a big deal for me, and I’ve been devoted to being a good actor ever since.”
Say what you will about Jones—and people certainly do. The media loves to brand the 68-year-old Oscar winner as “ornery,” “curt,” “difficult,” and a “curmudgeon.” But maybe he’s just someone who prefers working hard at working hard, and you can’t really fault a guy for that. Think about it. If you grew up in a certain type of unfussy West Texas environment—Jones’s dad was an oil-field roughneck and his mom was a cop for a while—you, too, might find displeasure in the inane sideshow that goes along with a career in Hollywood: the red carpets, the junkets, the TMZishness of it all. Jones acts exactly like the rest of us would if the rest of us just wanted to focus on the goddamned job at hand.
His latest job is a juggling act. “Correction,” Jones interrupts, and, okay, so he’s definitely direct. “I don’t look at it as juggling. I see it as filmmaking.” Either way, The Homesman meant tossing a lot of balls in the air. He is the director, a producer, a writer, and a star of the period drama set against the lonesome horizon of the Great Plains, circa 1855. Jones plays a grumbling schemer brought on to help a self-reliant frontierswoman (played by Hilary Swank) transport three mentally unstable women from Nebraska to Iowa. Put it this way: It’s not exactly a spring break road trip.
The shoot was no breeze, either. The weather was so nasty in New Mexico, where part of the movie was filmed, that scenery paint froze in cans and the crew had to use protective gear to keep dust from destroying camera lenses in 60 mile an-hour winds. “We spent a lot of time shivering in the wooden box we used as a wagon and thinking the weather was like a character itself,” says Grace Gummer, who plays one of the madwomen (Gummer’s mom, Meryl Streep, has a smaller role as a minister’s wife who offers to take the travelers in). “When conditions are that rough, it really tests you and pushes you beyond where you’re comfortable, even as Tommy was telling us, ‘Go, go, go.’”
Jones, predictably, was fine with the situation. He thrived on it. “It wasn’t miserable for me,” he says plainly. “I had a great time photographing whatever the world did around us. We’re moviemakers and it’s not always the smoothest terrain, physically or emotionally. But cinema warriors are equipped with the engines and tires to get across it.”
Jones was always a charge-up-the-mountain sort. Moving around Texas for his father’s work, young Tommy Lee stood out in football in a state where there’s no higher calling. He might have built a blue-collar career (Jones worked on a garbage truck for a summer), but fortunes turned when he earned a scholarship to St. Mark’s, an elite all-boy’s prep school in Dallas. It’s where Jones started acting for real. His triple-threat status as actor/athlete/A+ student took him all the way to Harvard. There, as every pop culture buff knows, he roomed with Al Gore and became a star offensive guard on Harvard’s football team. Jones’s standout moment was playing in the infamous Harvard-Yale game of 1968 that ended in a 29-29 tie. On the side, he managed to shine on stage in student productions of Shakespeare, O’Neill, and Pinter.
From the outset of his professional career, Jones refused to put up with any bull. “When I was lucky enough to get a meeting with the casting director of Love Story, I walked into her office and before I could say a word, she said, ‘You’re not right for this part,’” Jones says. You can still hear the incredulity in his voice. Jones was going out for the role of Ryan O’Neal’s Harvard roommate, but the casting agent clearly hadn’t read his résumé. “She told me, ‘You might be a football player, but these are special football players. These guys are from the Ivy League.’ And she kicked me out.” Jones wasn’t just any Ivy player. By then he was an All-Ivy, All-East, honorable mention All-American who had done 40 plays at Harvard. He handled the situation in typical Jones fashion. “What you do in an instance like that is you call whomever that person is most afraid of,” he says. “I called a Harvard guy who knew her boss’s boss’s boss, and next thing I knew, I had the role.”
By no means was Jones a typical leading man. Even in Love Story, he had crinkles at the eyes and a dark, moody presence that would soon get him parts playing psychos, toughs, and cowboys. He won raves as Loretta Lynn’s domineering husband in Coal Miner’s Daughter, and an Oscar nod for Oliver Stone’s JFK as a gay Dallas businessman caught up in the plot to kill Kennedy. His taut performance as the US Marshal who tracks down Harrison Ford in The Fugitive earned Jones an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in 1994, putting him on Hollywood’s A-list. Jones jokes—at least it sounds like a joke—that he still felt uncertain about his future in a business that sometimes felt foreign to him.
“The last day of shooting on The Fugitive, I was in the basement of a hotel shouting out my lines to about 30 laundry bags hanging from the ceiling,”—it’s the backdrop to the famous final scene where Jones’s character catches Ford’s in a hotel laundry—“and I thought, ‘My God, this is so strange. I’m never gonna work again.’”
As he approaches 70, Jones is fully committed. It helps that he figured out a way to run the empire from his 3,000-acre cattle and polo estate in San Saba, Texas. To get from the headquarters of his ranch to the nearest airport that can accommodate his private airplane, it takes about 40 minutes “and once I get there,” he says, “I can be in Los Angeles, with my plane parked at Santa Monica Airport, sitting at Ivy at the Shore having soft-shelled crab, in three hours.”
Today he’s in the San Antonio offices of his company, Javelina Film Company. Jones is sitting at a desk designed by Donald Judd, set opposite a Josef Albers bookcase. (“I think a minimalist outlook is perfect,” he says. “I appreciate the emotions of geometry.”) Jones has five screenplays in front of him that he’s written or cowritten, and he intends to get every one made. In 2005 he directed his first feature, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a neo-Western that won high praise from critics and top awards that year at Cannes. Directing flexes new muscles for Jones, and it’s a role that suits him perfectly. As he says, “I get to be everybody’s boss… and do the things that interest me.”
That’s how he is behind the scenes, too. At San Saba, he oversees a world-class polo program that breeds, raises, and sells polo Thoroughbreds, and also hosts elite players from around the world. It’s one of two polo facilities Jones owns (the other is in Argentina). Polo as a hobby was something the actor discovered almost by accident in Los Angeles, where he lived for seven years in the 1990s. He was leasing a house at the top of Bel-Air and driving out to Simi Valley to work on his roping skills. One of the horsemen gave Jones a polo mallet, another gave him a ball, and he began tapping it around the roping arena. “Next time I looked up I had a truck, a trailer, and six horses and I was headed to Santa Barbara to play with some of the greats,” he says.
He now works closely with Harvard’s polo team, inviting them to both his ranches for weeks-long practice sessions each year. Jones is an active donor at his alma maters, including St. Mark’s School, and he is honorary chairman for the annual Destination Fashion event to raise money for The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis, which helps research treatments and cures for spinal cord injuries. “When you meet with success, it’s your responsibility to give back,” he says.
Jones doesn’t give away much about his personal life. He is married to his third wife, Dawn Laurel, and has two adult children. He says he’s never seen Facebook or Twitter and doesn’t watch much on TV beyond CNN “for maybe five minutes a day.” Local Texas sports fans know him as a regular at Spurs basketball games, and he’s “quite impressed” by the Houston Texans football team. “I like their quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick,” he says. “Product of the Harvard football program.”
With Jones’s replies growing ever more succinct, it’s clear he’s ready to move on. He is working on a thriller called Criminal with Kevin Costner and Gary Oldman and is needing to “get to it,” he says. Asked if he knows he can be intimidating, aloof, and, yes, occasionally ornery, Jones pauses a minute. Is this the moment the interview takes a dire turn? Nope. Jones stays true to being Jones. “I’m sure there are people who concern themselves with such issues,” he says, “but I’m not one of them.”
Photography assistance by Jared Clatworthy; Grooming by Angelina Mata