Actor Tommy Lee Jones at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
Do they make men like Tommy Lee Jones anymore? Men who can rope a calf, direct a movie, and, you want to believe, write a love letter. Men who have no interest in opining about their work but care deeply about what they do. Men who can evokeboth a danger and a comfort, depending on how they look at you.
An actor who seems to embody the word "stoic," Jones, 65, makes occasional forays into rugged sexiness and gruff humanism. Etched with crevices and imperfections, his face conveys a life thoroughly lived, though don't look too hard for the specifics. It's that mystery that makes him the perfect hard-charging marshal in"The Fugitive,"the believable straight man in the absurd "Men in Black" series or the anguished father in "In the Valley of Elah."
But it's a bit unusual to find Jones cast as the lead of a romantic comedy, even one with somewhat melancholy overtones. Yet he was precisely the guy director David Frankel was looking for to play the resigned husband opposite Meryl Streep's frustrated wife in"Hope Springs," which arrives in theaters on Wednesday from Sony Pictures.
"Whenever I brought up his name to men, women, they would say he's sexy," recalled Frankel. "Sure he's weathered and experienced and not a spring chicken, but he still has it. He's still a guy men want to be and women want to go out with. He's got that thing."
To Jones, the opportunity to play the golf-watching, routine-loving Arnold — a man who has become completely complacent in his long-term marriage — was a chance to play opposite an actress he's admired from afar for the last 40 years. It also helped that the script from the young scribe Vanessa Taylor ("Game of Thrones") was brimming with originality.
Taylor's screenplay requires the frigid couple to rediscover their sexual relationship through a series of cringe-worthy intimacy exercises, guided by a therapist played straight by funnyman Steve Carell. Grounded in realism, the scenes can feel like watching your parents have sex. "Hope Springs" is among a spate of recent movies, including the India-set"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and the Streep-starrer"It's Complicated," that examine the human condition of the over-60 crowd rather than dismiss it.
"It seemed to be about real people: very common, widespread, with real difficulties: namely complacency, dedication to a day-in, day-out routine, deadened emotions. Just the ordinary, miserable qualities of a normal person. The originality was to discover how preposterous and funny that is," Jones said in his familiar staccato cadence.
"I thought it might be a chance to make a real movie that would give people the opportunity to laugh at something that made them cry yesterday," he added.
Though Jones has had a storied life and is constantly adding interesting chapters, drawing him out about what's making him laugh today — let alone what made him cry yesterday — can be a challenging task.
The busy actor, who won an Oscar for "The Fugitive" and was nominated for "JFK" and "Elah," has written and directed three of his own projects — two for television, one for the big screen — and is prepping a fourth for spring.
The committed environmentalist lives most of his life away from the Hollywood glare, on his 3,000-acre cattle ranch outside San Antonio, raising horses and playing polo with his third wife, Dawn Laurel Jones, a champion in the sport. His interest in the refined sport seems incongruous with the working-class characters Jones frequently plays, yet this was the activity he picked up in the late '70s soon after moving to California and declaring that "golf was a rich man's game."
The day after sitting down at the Beverly Hills Hotel for this interview, the onetime Harvard football star and former Al Gore dorm mate was scheduled to fly to Japan to film another round of his cultishly popular ads for a Suntory energy drink. Then he was going to pop over to Okinawa for a round of scuba diving, weather permitting.
But while other actors relish the opportunity to tell stories in interviews, it must be Jones' least favorite part of the job. He's happy to dole out parenting advice (he has two grown children from his second marriage) or regale you with his favorite finds at Connecticut's farmers markets, but if the questions get too personal — or in his mind superfluous — he doesn't answer them. He's comfortable saying "I don't know," and long pauses are part of the routine.
When asked to rehash some of his favorite roles from his early career, he demured , "No, this is already more embarrassing than I can bear."