Talking History with Tommy Lee Jones as General Douglas MacArthur in ‘Emperor’

Adam Pockross
Movie Talk

I may be the first reporter to ever say this, but I thought Tommy Lee Jones was a great interview.

I recently spoke with the notoriously surly Oscar winner to discuss his latest foray into dramatizing history's most interesting men: Playing General Douglas MacArthur in "Emperor".

Part thriller, part love story, and part historical drama, the film begins at the conclusion of World War II in the ruins of Japan, where MacArthur is serving as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. Sporting a personality big enough to match that title, MacArthur is tasked with the enormous undertaking of steering Japan back from devastation and guiding the country towards becoming a thriving democracy.

MacArthur faces the difficult decision of whether or not to try Japan's revered Emperor Hirohito with war crimes -- an offense punishable by hanging. Such an act could easily unhinge not only the recovery efforts, but also the fragile peace. To investigate the best course of action, MacArthur turns to his attaché, Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, played by Matthew Fox.

Sitting across from Jones, his penetrating glare seemingly dissecting my existential worth, it's easy to see how a man of such obvious gravitas landed the role. As Jones sank his chopsticks into his Japanese breakfast, he spoke to me about the complexities of MacArthur's world-altering decision, how much fiction is allowed in fact-based films, and his definition of fun.

"Emperor" opens today in limited release.

[Related: Local Tickets and Showtimes for 'Emperor']

Adam Pockross: Actually my first research paper ever was written about Douglas MacArthur.

Tommy Lee Jones: What did you learn?

AP: I remember that he had a formidable mother…

TLJ: Yes, she went to West Point with him.

AP: Right! Pinky. I remember that because it was the first time I ever learned the word formidable. So what did you learn about Douglas MacArthur doing your research that surprised you?

TLJ: I was surprised to learn the significant role that he played in the character of life in the 21st Century. He labored very hard to keep the Emperor alive because he didn’t want to break the back of Japanese society. He knew what would happen if the politicians who were in the United States had their way, the politicians who were elected by people, they were clamoring for the Emperor's blood but he had no -- they didn’t have anybody to kill or punish, no leader of state. They couldn’t kill Mussolini. They couldn’t kill Hitler. They wanted to kill somebody.

And those politicians had to respond to those people, and if MacArthur had allowed them to have their way, the Japanese society would’ve collapsed. The war would have gone on and on and on. There would’ve been an utter chaos, uncontrollable, certainly more easily controllable by Joseph Stalin than Harry Truman. Because Stalin was right there. And what would the world be like if we left a vacuum in Japan and the Russian communists had filled it? What would the world be like today? It would be far worse place than it is.

So I was a little surprised and fascinated to come to an understanding of just how important that man was to history and to what our world looks like even today, all these years later.

AP: In that regard, it’s quite surprising that we don’t hear more about it, that we haven’t heard this particular story told before.

TLJ: Yeah. I think it’s certainly a worthwhile of story that needs to be thought about.

AP: When you're researching a historical figure, which you have obviously done before to great acclaim, is your approach different with Thaddeus Stevens, where there was no record of the man -- video or audio -- versus MacArthur, who does that record?

[Related: Tommy Lee Jones sheds light on Thaddeus Stevens]

TLJ: Well, I think it differs every time I go to work. Yeah, it does. The way a character works within the context of a screenplay is more important than making a photographic record of what somebody looked like. There are records of Stevens. There have been three biographies with him. One of them is readable. And there are pictures. I mean he has been studied by historians.

AP: I'm sure thanks to you people will read more.

TLJ: Well, that would be a good thing.

AP: So you say you go by the screenplay and how it fits the story, but are there aspects of MacArthur's character outside of the screenplay that you cling to and stuff that you discard?

TLJ: Anything you can learn about a historical character can help you decide how to walk and how to talk and what the character feels like -- how to physicalize your reading. Nothing that a person clings to. If you want to impersonate MacArthur, you better cling to a corncob pipe and some aviator sunglasses and a campaign cap with a lot of fruit salad on it. That’s about as close as I got to looking -- to impersonating his character physically. He had a habit of putting his hands on his hips, otherwise I don’t bear a resemblance to Douglas MacArthur at all.

AP: Well beyond that, the physical though into how you actually play him as a man, as a force of nature, which I think you deliver, how do you get in touch with that?

[Related: An illustration of the tight-lipped Mr. Jones]

TLJ: Just read the books and think about it. It’s not much more complicated than that.

AP: In your thought process what do you think about when you're approaching a character like that?

TLJ: A variety of things: You think about his relationship with his wife, his childhood in the Philippines, and his time at West Point, his relationship with his mother and his father, what his parents were like, what they did, his grandfather.

AP: Quite a life he lived. He was born to be a hero, right?

TLJ: He certainly was and did not disappoint in my view.

AP: It’s a question that has come up a lot lately and in this it’s interesting because you're dealing with the facts and with the admittedly imagined portion of the film, the love story. But when you're dealing with a fact based film, how much fiction do you think is allowed or necessary?

TLJ: I don’t think there are any rules or any way to quantify what dose of fiction in historical drama is allowed? I suppose that’s the author’s license. There are historians who will argue that Richard III was really not all that bad a guy.

[Related: Matthew Fox Talks History, Gridiron Glory & Bonding with Tommy Lee Jones on ‘Emperor’]

AP: Yeah, Shakespeare had his way with history a bit. Do you have a preference for how to balance history and drama?

TLJ: No. I don’t have a preference. There are no rules that I know of.

AP: Well, rules aside, are there ways to benefit the story, or to benefit humanity even? Like say with "Argo," they got the point across, you get the story. And I felt like I was in history lesson with "Lincoln".

TLJ: Oh, good.

AP: Yeah. But a really good history lesson that I could actually pay attention to.

TLJ: Yeah. And that you can believe.

AP: Right. And then when I went and did my research, I definitely believed it, even if the Senator from Connecticut said something else.

TLJ: Yeah. They got that wrong and the people from Connecticut are up in arms, feel that they’ve been maligned -- some of them anyway.

AP: 'Emperor' is primarily a thriller. What is the trick to keeping the thriller aspect taut?

TLJ: A good screenplay.

AP: What attracted you to this screenplay?

TLJ: I love New Zealand and I love Japan and the more I read about MacArthur the more interested I got in being part of the project.

AP: So the first readings, what was your impression?

TLJ: This could be a lot of fun was my first impression.

AP: And what is fun for Tommy Lee Jones?

TLJ: In terms of movies?

AP: In terms of how you choose your work?

TLJ: Good locations, good subject matter, interesting subject matter, good screenplay, a well organized company, just the usual. That’s what I’d call fun.

[Related: View clips and trailers from 'Emperor']

AP: How did you enjoy working with Matthew Fox?

TLJ: He’s a good guy and a good actor and we have some things in common and we both like to go fishing.

AP: Did you guys do that together in New Zealand?

TLJ: No. His dad came to visit him and he took his dad fishing. I had a week off at one point. I went down to the South Island and went fishing in Fiordlands National Park and that was a thrill.

AP: And one other thing you have in common with Matthew Fox is Gridiron Glory in the Ivy League?

TLJ: That’s right. He was a receiver. I think a receiver for Columbia.

AP: What position did you play?

TLJ: I was an offensive lineman. But at a different place.

AP: Harvard. I've heard that’s a good school. Mr. Jones, it’s been a great pleasure.

TLJ: Okay. Thank you for coming by, I do appreciate it.

See Tommy Lee Jones in the "Emperor" theatrical trailer...

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