True Gruff

Article excerpt

Byline: Nicole Laporte

Tommy Lee Jones, crusty and cerebral as ever, plays a suicidal academic in HBO's 'The Sunset Limited.'

There is something about Tommy Lee Jones and Southern California that does not fit. The persistently pleasant weather, the happy-go-lucky esprit de corps, all the damn sunshine. These things are wasted on Jones, who at 64 is a monument of somber gravitas. His moods are permanently etched into the lines of his famously craggy face--a Mount Rushmore profile offset by deep, slightly mournful eyes that, in a certain light, look like tiny oil wells.

It therefore seemed entirely appropriate that when the actor agreed to sit down in a hotel suite in the lush Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena recently, he did so in a dimly lit room with the shades drawn. There was no preliminary chitchat as he sat erect in a leather chair, his jaw set in that familiar lock, his eyes blinking only occasionally. Dressed in the uniform of his native Texas--jeans, a corduroy blazer, boots--he gave off the air of a magisterial outlaw.

Jones has built a career around playing exactly this type of tough-seeming, laconic Marlboro Man: wiseacre U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard in The Fugitive, crusty old-timer Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men. Audiences can be forgiven for associating those characters with the man playing them. But underneath the grizzle, there is another persona that cracks through the imposing exterior: Tommy Lee Jones the Thinker and Big Ideas man, who studied at Harvard (he was Al Gore's roommate) and can still talk eloquently about his senior thesis ("the mechanics of Catholicism" in Flannery O'Connor). This man is an uncompromising artist who believes deeply in his craft and has a scholar's devotion to the uses and construction of language. In recent years, in tandem with his literary hero and friend, Cormac McCarthy, he has sparked a kind of movement--call it Texas Apocalypse Intellectuals--devoted to interweaving big and very bleak themes with the straightforward jargon of the American West. McCarthy wrote the novel upon which the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, was based, and Jones has written a screenplay adapted from the author's most seminal work, Blood Meridian.

Now comes The Sunset Limited, Jones's television adaptation of McCarthy's 2006 play about a theological debate between a professor (Jones) determined to kill himself and a God-fearing ex-con (Samuel L. Jackson) who has just interrupted the professor's attempt at suicide. The film, which Jones directed, airs Feb. 12 on HBO, and it is based on one of the novelist's lesser-known works, which originated at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and played off-Broadway in New York. "I read the play a long time ago, and I read it several times since, and I always thought it would be really good," Jones says in a booming voice that does not speak so much as declare. He then pauses, carefully considering his words, which often come out in a spare, two-fisted syntax.

"It's filmworthy."

Pause.

"Entirely shootable."

Pause.

"And I said so to Cormac."

Perhaps most appealing to Jones about the project was that the play is so much about language, a love of his that comes from "reading a lot of books and going to some pretty good schools," he says. (Before attending Harvard, Jones was a student at the St. Mark's School of Texas, a prestigious prep school in Dallas.) "We ended up having a lot of conversations about the words--literally, the choice of a word or a sentence or a phrase in the script. I find that really invigorating as a writer," says John Wells, who directed Jones in The Company Men, the recently released film in which Jones plays an alpha-male executive facing the recession. …