Jones Down Home in Texas

image1114292x.jpg
Actor Tommy Lee Jones attends the Variety Screening Series of "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" at the Arclight Theaters on December 4, 2005 in Hollywood, California.
GETTY

Tommy Lee Jones doesn't work just for the sake of working. He tries to choose only quality jobs. He says he turns down a lot of films because simply "they aren't any good."

"You read the script and you don't want to do them. They're just not good," he says.

Over more than three decades and more than 50 television and feature films Tommy Lee Jones has built his reputation with good parts in good movies.

He was country music star Loretta Lynn's husband Moony in "Coal Miner's Daughter"; the murderer Gary Gilmore in "The Executioner's Song," for which he won an Emmy; the Texas ranger Woodrow Call in the landmark TV miniseries "Lonesome Dove"; and the hard-driving U.S. marshal Sam Gerard in "The Fugitive," a role that earned him an academy award for best supporting actor.

But while Jones has become a Hollywood star, he's always been uncomfortable with the Hollywood spotlight.

"Here, on this ranch and in this county, everybody knows everybody and we don't have any movie stars here," says the notoriously private and sometimes a bit prickly actor of his sprawling ranch in the Texas hill country.

He's also a hands-on rancher with a commercial cattle operation.

"These cattle are called Brangus cattle, which means they are a cross between a brama from India and Angus cattle from England," he says as he points to his herd.

Jones's father worked on a ranch for a time, and young Tommy was practically raised in the saddle.

"We've never been too far from horses and cattle. Nobody in my family has ever owned as many things as I did, but they all worked harder than I do."

Jones grew up in Midland, Texas. He moved on to Harvard, where he famously roomed wit Al Gore.

Five years ago, Jones got a lot of questions about his old friend, especially when he put gore's name up for nomination at the democratic convention.

What was that like?

"That's a really easy house to play," he says modestly. "You've already got them. You don't really have to do much because they're already on your side."

While Gore was the son of a famous senator, Jones's road to fame was far less certain.

When did he realize he wanted to be an actor?

"I did theater in prep school and college. It became my summer job working repertory jobs during the summers, and by the time I graduated, I'd actually done 45 plays," he recalls. "And I thought, well, I'll just go to New York and see if I can compete with the professionals. And it didn't take very long to get a job."

Ten days to be exact. But though he succeeded as a stage actor, casting directors weren't giving him top roles.

"I heard this several times, 'you could play this part, you're probably right for it but we can't cast you.' and when I said why not? They said, 'you're not famous enough.' I said, what do I do, how do I get famous?" They said television series, movies. So that was enough motivation for me to move to California."

And so a movie career was born. With intensity, depth, and humor, Jones earned a reputation as a versatile actor, eventually winning roles in big-budget blockbusters. He played the villain Harvey Two Face Dent in "Batman Forever" and Agent K in "Men in Black."

"I love watching that movie. It's scary one minute, then it's funny, it's scary then funny, and it's always original," he says.

Originality is what Jones is striving for in his latest film, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." It's a movie about cowboys set amidst Jones's beloved Texas landscapes.

He was the star, the director, and the producer. How'd you get along with himself in all those roles?

"Just fine," he says "As an actor, I know what the director wants. As a director, I can read the actor's mind. As a producer, I'm not going to give either one of them any thing they don't need, but I will give them everything they do need."

The film uses a mixture of English and Spanish, which Jones speaks fluently. It's the story of an illegal Mexican immigrant, Melquiades Estrada, who is accidentally shot and killed by a callous border patrol guard who tries to cover up the crime. Jones plays Estrada's boss and friend, Pete Perkins, who kidnaps the guard and forces him to help bring the body of Estrada back to Mexico for final burial.

"It grew out of uncounted true stories," Jones says.

The story is in part a study of life along the U.S.-Mexican border. Jones recruited his friend, Mexican screen writer Guillermo Arriaga to write the screenplay.

"He likes to make movies about his country and about his history," Jones says. "I feel the same way, about my country and its history. You don't have to spend very much time at all along the Rio Grande before it occurs to you that those two countries are the same."

At this point in his career, does he care about what the critics think?

"Yes. I want people to love it," he says.

When it was shown at the Cannes film festival this summer, the "Three Burials" won best screenplay and a best actor award for Jones. And though he obviously savored the moment, his inner bad boy emerged when it was time to pose for a French photographer. Jones said no.

"If you're promoting a film, for example, you do a lot of interviews, and people tell you that you're a celebrity, and you try to look as if you know what that means," he says.

In fact, Jones never quite looks comfortable on the red carpet, even with his wife, Dawn, at Cannes. It is his third marriage. She was an assistant cameraperson when they met.

"We've been together for 11 years, and, I'm sorry, darling, I don't know how long we've been married. I don't remember those things. But we were very happy before we got married and we were very happy afterwards."

Jones has a 14-year-old daughter, Victoria. He also has a son from a previous marriage. He brings them to his polo ground in Florida. He sponsors and plays on his own team. It's a sport he loves and he has made it a family affair.

"I guess horses have been a part of my family's life for many, many generations. And I came to the conclusion some time ago that polo's probably the finest thing that you and a horse can do together," Jones says.

Making movies is also becoming a family affair. Dawn was the still photographer on "Three Burials," and Victoria had a role as a Mexican immigrant.

When we went to Jones's ranch, we realized that his latest movie is something of a moving tribute, a symbol of what's important to this 59-years old actor. He's back astride a horse, working closely with his family and friends, on a journey through the vistas of his Texas roots.