Tommy Lee Jones has been an unforgettable presence on the screen for years, acting in films that are milestones in cinema. Since his screen debut in the 1970 classic Love Story, Jones has appeared in iconic films like Natural Born Killers, Men in Black, No Country for Old Men and, recently, Lincoln. He’s also a four-time Academy Award nominee—including his Best Supporting Actor win for 1993’s The Fugitive.
In recent years, Jones has stepped behind the camera. His directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2005. With his second venture, The Homesman—now in limited release—Jones also stars and co-writes along with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver.
Based on Glendon Swarthout’s novel of the same name, the film focuses on the female struggle during America’s western expansion circa the mid-19th century. Hilary Swank stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, an independent, pious woman living on the Nebraskan plains. When three local townswomen are driven mad by the harsh environment, Cuddy volunteers to take them to safety and care in Iowa. By covered wagon—and with the help of a drifter, George Briggs (Jones)—Cuddy embarks on a journey to save both the women and herself, throughout which she faces immense physical and psychological challenges. The film also boasts an incredible supporting cast with John Lithgow, Meryl Streep, Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer and James Spader.
Paste sat down with Jones this week in L.A. to discuss the many hats he wore during production of The Homesman. We chatted about the process of working with his two writers, being on set as both an actor and director, and the themes of intimacy and isolation that run throughout the film.
Paste: It’s always nice to meet a fellow Texan. Do you live there?
Tommy Lee Jones: We have a house in San Antonio, and we’re in the horse and cattle business. Those ranches are in San Saba County. I’m a [Dallas prep school] St. Mark’s boy.
Paste: You grew up in Midland?
Jones: Yeah. It’s a good place to grow up.
Paste: Well, I loved the film. I grew up watching Lonesome Dove and it’s really nice to see the western reinvented. [Executive producer] Michael Fitzgerald sent you this novel—one that Paul Newman had optioned and Sam Shepard had wanted to tackle. What about it inspired you?
Jones: I thought we could make a screenplay of it that would have some originality to it. Life in the movie business is a never-ending search for originality.
Paste: You started off writing vignettes that focused on these three women and the circumstances that made them go crazy. Tell me about those vignettes; what are the ones we didn’t see?
Jones: We had a red notebook, a white notebook and a blue one. I told the boys, “I’m going to write the screenplay.” I was going to create a series of vignettes, maybe a quarter to a half-page long, probably 15 to 20 of them that might describe this woman’s journey into madness. I told the one that was the youngest [Kieran Fitzgerald] to take the youngest girl, do the same thing for her. I told the other one, who was a little bit older, that’s Wes Oliver, to take the middle girl. I would take the oldest one and write the screenplay. Once we had the screenplay finished, we could find ways to editorially insert these vignettes. Our cameraman was going to be very athletic. I knew I could put it into a situation that would motivate or prompt the so-called flashback.
Paste: There’s a scene where [Gro, played by Sonja Richter] is spinning the needles through her skin.
Jones: I thought that was pretty good, a beautiful thing. It looks like a Dutch painting.
Paste: Working with two other writers, did you email back and forth? Word is that the draft was written in 5 days?
Jones: It wasn’t written in 5 days but it was written very quickly. We didn’t have a lot of time. I was shooting a movie in Connecticut and I had a big house leased in Greenwich.
Paste: This is Hope Springs [Jones’ 2012 movie with Meryl Streep and Steve Carell]?
Jones: Yeah. So the guys just moved in. Our family maintains a chef so we didn’t have to worry about food or anything other than writing. They would go to work with me in the morning and all of those hours that actors ordinarily spend sitting around their trailer, or studying their script, were filled with the task of writing. At the end of the day, we’d all go home to the big house in Greenwich and work until bedtime and we developed a system that went smoothly and quickly. That, of course, required being thoroughly prepared for the work on Hope Springs.
Paste: For a character like George, do you do the emotional backstory work and then throw it away and be on set as a director? What’s your process for building a character?
Jones: Well, I wrote it, so it’s built!
Paste: What’s the challenge of being an actor and a director on set?
Jones: A challenge? I hear that word used a lot and I don’t yet know what it means. I’ve done a lot of movie acting.
Paste: Does it feel organic to be on set as an actor and director—it blends together?
Jones: It certainly does. We have had, for some time, the advantage of having a pretty good monitor for every lens that’s working, whether it’s film or digital. I can see on that monitor what every lens is seeing. I can even go back and see what we shot that morning, or last week. Just the touch of a keyboard can bring up any frame we’ve exposed or any amount of digital material.
Paste: It’s pretty amazing.
Jones: Yeah. Once you’ve learned how to use that system it’s a big help. You can create a shot, create the scene, direct a scene and compose the shot, step into it, perform it and then walk a few steps and see if you’ve achieved your objective or not. That process gets smoother with time.
Paste: I love [cinematographer] Rodrigo Prieto’s films [The Wolf of Wall Street, Argo, Brokeback Mountain] and then [production designer] Merideth Boswell. What was it like prepping with them before shooting? You took a lot of inspiration from photography from the time period.
Jones: A photographer by the name of Solomon Butcher was very informative to us in terms of architectural detail and costumes, even the hair department.
Paste: You’ve said you were interested in exploring the female condition in the mid-19th century, 1855, because it’s the origin of the female condition today. What elements have carried through time, what has evolved?
Jones: There’s not a female in your readership that hasn’t been, at one time or another, objectified or trivialized because of her gender—that all started somewhere.
Paste: Your character, George, and Mary Bee Cuddy have the drive to heal these women but also the need for connection, intimacy. Was that the through line of the script for you?
Jones: Yeah, sure. I think everybody in the film is a fool and they all have heroic moments, just like in real life. It’s very rare to find someone who knows what they want.
Paste: The film also explores isolation. Maybe our culture doesn’t feel physically like these characters, but do you think we suffer from mental isolation?
Jones: There are a lot of isolated people in the world. You can go to Beverly Hills and watch a person walking down the street that, for all the world, looks like a stark raving maniac having an animated conversation with themselves, until you find out they have a little device in their ear and they’re actually talking on the phone. They’re walking down the sidewalk, surrounded by people, behaving as if they’re sitting on the toilet in their own apartment and there’s no one there. That’s crazy. It’s very common but indicative of creeping isolation.
Paste: I related to Hilary in this, trying to find connection.
Jones: Mary Bee Cuddy was definitely isolated.
Paste: Not to give anything away, but the conclusion was shocking. Maybe this was work for Hilary to do, but did you have to recognize that arc in the beginning as a director and work with her to get emotionally to that point?
Jones: It’s something we did on purpose. It’s a progress in her character, very delicate, reveals itself bit by bit. ... You have to think about it, you have to look back. ... You have to be paying attention and thinking about it.
Paste: I love that George is both the good guy and the bad guy. It’s in line with this fascination we have with the antihero. Why do you think we gravitate toward that?
Jones: I think all the characters in [this] story are fools and they all have heroic moments.
Paste: And they all have bad moments….
Jones: Hell, that’s almost like real life!
Paste: What about The Cowboys—that is, your involvement in the planned remake of the 1972 John Wayne film?
Jones: I was hired by Warner Bros. to write a new screenplay for that as part of their library. They’ve been flirting with the idea of remaking the movie. I’ve been on three location scouts to Montana. I don’t think they’re ready at the moment to go ahead.
Paste: I’ll be tracking the project!
Jones: I’m tracking it too!
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.