Amid Oscar buzz for his ‘Lincoln’ role, Tommy Lee Jones sheds light on Thaddeus Stevens

Meriah Doty
Movie TalkNovember 15, 2012
Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens in "Lincoln"
Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens in "Lincoln"

It's a cloud-covered Southern California afternoon, and at the historic, salmon-colored Beverly Hills Hotel, a dapper Tommy Lee Jones, dressed in an impeccable grey suit, awaits his interview with Yahoo! Movies while tucked behind a half-moon-shaped booth in the hotel's pristine Polo Lounge.

Unlike other actors, Jones' presence is felt yards away. It's both surreal and daunting -- especially since the 66-year-old, six-foot-tall Oscar winner has a reputation for being less than forthcoming with the press. (Read "An illustration of the tight-lipped Mr. Jones.") This day is no different.

Jones makes no qualms, curtly avoiding questions he doesn't want to answer with short "No"s and dismissals. Still, he opens up about his character in "Lincoln" -- radical Republican House leader Thaddeus Stevens, saying, "We have to realize that he's looking at the world from the eyes of a person who's been physically impaired since birth." (Stevens was born with a club foot.) Jones also speaks freely about working with Sally Field (again) and Daniel Day-Lewis, calling both of them "fine actors."

Like Day-Lewis and Field, Jones is getting Oscar buzz for his "Lincoln" role. But when asked what he thinks about the early scuttlebutt, Jones simply says, "I don't have any thoughts on that subject."

[Related: Abraham Lincoln's surprising strength]

Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in 'Lincoln'
Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in 'Lincoln'

Jones is more comfortable detailing his character -- a Civil War-era congressman who was pivotal in getting the 13th amendment passed that abolished slavery in the U.S. What provided the most insight into Stevens was "that he was born to a family of farmers. Because of his club foot he could not work in the fields with his brothers and his father, therefore, didn't have any access to activities that would build self-esteem for a kid," Jones explains.

Growing up destitute and fatherless (Stevens' father vanished when he was a young boy), Thaddeus Stevens overcame the odds by getting into Dartmouth and eventually becoming a successful lawyer, and then a congressman. "I was impressed with his mother because she exposed him very early on to books and made that his life, and he responded very well and developed a very keen mind," Jones points out. "And when he went west to Pennsylvania, he was an immediate success as a lawyer and a businessman. So that impressed me."

Jones is supremely reluctant to draw connections between himself and Stevens. But there are marked similarities: Both grew up without very much money, both got into ivy league schools (Jones went to Harvard), and both experienced tremendous success in their respective careers -- which Jones is still experiencing.

[Related: Abraham Lincoln was a lot funnier than you might think]

During the 1860s, Stevens was "very radical, scary radical," says Jones. "There were people standing on the floor of the Senate and the House of Representatives, people from Northern States arguing at length that it was good and rightful for some people to be the property, the chattel of others for their own sake," Jones says, adding that the popular opinion of that time was that slavery was not only good for the economy, but also good for those enslaved. In that context, Stevens' battle to free slaves was quite controversial for its time, Jones asserts.

The actor hit the books to research his role. There are three biographies on Thaddeus Stevens, according to Jones, and only "two of them were worth reading." One that was written in the '30s and the other from the '80s -- both of which Jones reports reading thoroughly in order to compare historian perspectives. "That was all very informative as you begin to decide how to behave, what to think, and what to feel in the service of [Tony] Kushner's screenplay and Steven [Spielberg's] movie."

Jones' level of comfort in knowing Stevens is apparent when he compares the Civil War-era congressman to Richard III -- who has been described as having a hunched back, likely the result of scoliosis. "Richard and Thaddeus Stevens are radically different characters, but they're both looking at the world from a crippled body, and it has an effect."

[Related: Sally Field to Steven Spielberg: 'I won't let you walk away from me']

In the film, Jones has a pretty unforgettable scene with Sally Field, who plays Mary Todd Lincoln. Stevens (Jones) arrives at a White House party and receives the dressing down of a lifetime from Mrs. Lincoln, who reviled the House leader for trying to put a stop to her plans to renovate the White House. "It takes a real actor to do that and she did a beautiful job. It's about Mary Lincoln. It's not about Sally Field," Jones says of the scene, in which Field expertly relays a prose-packed monologue. "It's enjoyable at some point -- I'm sure for Sally -- because she's so good," Jones adds. "But she's playing a woman who's talking about one thing, which is the décor of the White House and its cost, and her resentment of Stevens for making it difficult for her to renovate the place.  But what she's really telling you, really telling him, really showing, really revealing to us is how hard it is to be a wife of the President during that time -- especially having lost a child." (The Lincolns lost their son Willie in 1862 -- the second child of theirs to die.)

A far cry from "Lincoln," Field and Jones starred together in the 1981 comedy "Back Roads." Without acknowledging the film outright, Jones says he has kept in touch with Field over the years adding, "We're friends. I love having friends who are fine actors. I feel pretty lucky about that."

[Related: 'Lincoln' star Daniel Day-Lewis heard the voice in his head]

On his experience working with Lincoln himself, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Jones says, "No one has ever represented Lincoln any better or even as well.  It was a very happy day."

"Lincoln" opens nationwide Friday.

[Related: See showtimes for 'Lincoln']

Watch Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg discuss 'Lincoln':

'Lincoln' Q&A: Finding the Voice 'Lincoln' Q&A: The Role of Fear

Watch the 'Lincoln' Theatrical Trailer:

'Lincoln' Theatrical Trailer
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