Tommy Lee Jones enjoyed playing an abolitionist in 'Lincoln,' bad wig and all
By Chris Lee
Published: Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, 8:56 p.m.
Ask Tommy Lee Jones about his cantankerous performance as radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens in Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln” and the veteran performer bristles. Perhaps, mistaking the question for a personal comment, the Harvard-educated, Oscar-winning actor feigns ignorance: “Cantankerous? I don't know what the meaning of that word is!”
He paused, adding: “And, I hear that word all the time.”
If the “No Country for Old Men” star has been hearing the word more than usual lately, it's likely because of Jones' spirited portrayal of the fiery abolitionist congressman in the acclaimed biopic, which arrived in theaters earlier this month featuring Daniel Day-Lewis as America's 16th president.
Jones brings a lacerating intensity to Stevens — the power-brokering chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a key figure in helping pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery — stealing almost every scene in which he appears. And, despite the actor's total disavowal of the awards season politicking process, Oscar whisperers have already begun to handicap Jones' shot at a supporting actor nomination.
But it's hardly a no-brainer that Jones, 66 — a Texan of few words known for portraying strong, silent types in movies such as the blockbuster “Men in Black” franchise — should come to be cast as a flamboyant Pennsylvania politician known for his hard-charging wit and his withering oratory skills. Playing a guy who's as serious as a heart attack, who's hell-bent on overturning slavery as a moral imperative, Jones throttles through quite a few actorly speeds: sly and Machiavellian, granite-faced and unflinching, trash-talking and pit-bull tough, even goofy and tender.
“Great things are done by real people, not people with angel wings and halos,” Jones said. “Sometimes, they stink; sometimes, they're glorious. Sometimes, when they eat boiled crabs, the juice falls down their shirts. To be reminded of that while being entertained is worthwhile.”
Jones underscored the character's humanity with what, for him, is a highly unusual prop: a floppy black wig that looks totally out of place framing the actor's Easter Island statue-like features. Turns out that Thaddeus Stevens suffered from alopecia, an ailment that causes baldness and body hair loss, which prompted Jones to volunteer for some extreme facial deforestation. “I originally suggested that we shave my eyebrows,” he recalled. “Steven would have nothing to do with that. He said, ‘Your eyebrows are the most expressive part of your face.'”
Although the gruff Texan brushes aside any notion that the wig affected his performance, he enjoys the frisson it provides his most dramatic scenes. “I liked the fact that there was this element of ridiculousness in these moments that carried so much gravity,” the actor said. “That was kind of cool.”
In an email to the Los Angeles Times, Spielberg praised the actor's multifaceted performance with an extended musical metaphor.
“Tommy is not just a subtle solo instrument,” Spielberg said. “There is an entire symphony orchestra inside that man, and I knew this when I cast him, in the hope that he would represent the Thaddeus Stevens that history tells us was flamboyant, volatile, radically determined and, to some, even tender-hearted. Tommy gave me everything I asked for and much, much more.”
Although Jones won a supporting actor Oscar in 1993 for portraying U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard in “The Fugitive” — another relentless character of unshakable moral convictions who barks dialogue and strikes righteous fear in those who oppose him — the actor refuses to countenance taking part in any sort of Oscar campaign.
“I don't think about it,” Jones said with finality. “And, I surely don't talk about it.”
Chris Lee is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Friday’s PIAA semifinal football games postponed
- Penguins notebook: Malkin to miss 2nd straight game Saturday
- Traffic tickets — and revenue — plunge in Dallas
- Steelers notebook: Woodley expects to start Sunday vs. Dolphins
- U.S. gets ‘Group of Death’ in World Cup draw
- Kovacevic: Keeping faith in Letang is simple
- Former personal assistant says Irish billionaire, former Heinz exec, owes her stocks, money
- Greensburg Diocese decides that Trent Bocan is “no longer superintendent” of Catholic schools
- Ex-Pirate Jones close to signing with Marlins
- Steelers rookie RB Bell gets respect from teammates, foes alike
- Greensburg man remains hospitalized after crash