CATEGORIES Movie NewsIn a film of impressive performances, Tommy Lee Jones nearly steals the show in "Lincoln" as Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who fought hard for abolition and whose blistering insults of his opponents in Congress made him both feared and hated.
The role is tailor-made for an actor who's made a career of playing cantankerous tough guys who don't suffer fools gladly -- and that's pretty much Jones's reputation in real life as well. When Moviefone sat down with the Oscar winner at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, he wasn't shy about his disdain for a few questions. However, he was also effusive in his praise for co-stars Daniel Day-Lews and Sally Field, along with director Steven Spielberg.
As he says of Stevens's and Lincoln's often-contentious relationship, "They could laugh together." Jones also discussed whether Stevens could exist in today's political climate and the fiery on-screen exchange he has with Sally Field's character, Mary Todd Lincoln.
Did Spielberg give you your choice of roles for the film or did he always want you to play Stevens? I don't know if he always wanted me to play Stevens, but I never had a shot at playing Mary. He just called and said, would I read the screenplay and consider the part of Thaddeus Stevens? I did and called back immediately and said, "This is a wonderful undertaking. I feel lucky to be asked to join the gang."
What kind of research do you do when you're playing a historical figure? It's never the same. For this one, I found all the biographies that I could. There are three. Two of them are worth reading. I learned as much as I could about the life of Thaddeus Stevens because it's informative to me, as I interpret the screenplay.
Sally Field told me she stays in character throughout filming. Is that something you like to do as well? It doesn't matter to me. I'm going to do what you do. I don't have any way of working. I want to work the way the other actor or the director works.
So when you go home at night, are you still Thaddeus Stevens? No. [Laughs]
Stevens and Lincoln were not friends, from what I gather. They didn't get along and yet they were both after the same goal in passing the Thirteenth amendment. What's your take on their relationship? They could laugh together, as we see in the movie. They were not sworn enemies. They'd had a contentious professional relationship from time to time. I think they respected one another, to some extent. Do you watch the National Football League? You can see linebackers and offensive tackles laughing together between plays.
Daniel Day-Lewis said, "I don't expect to have a day's work that excites me as much as the day we worked together did." What does it feel like to have him say that about you? It's flattering. It was a fine workday. Two characters talking about the biggest issues of the day in a kitchen. It's fraught with drama and a fascinating thing to watch. It was certainly a fascinating thing to be part of. Lincoln's never been portrayed as thoroughly or as well as what Daniel's done. I'm very impressed with Steven for making that the movie's objective. And I'm impressed -- highly impressed -- with Daniel for showing us a Lincoln that is human. He's a country boy who's not really comfortable in town, a brilliant lawyer, although self-educated. Very funny man, very fine poet, truly heroic outlook, a man capable of unthinkable self-sacrifice. And all that's immediately apparent, it's as plain as day [Laughs]. No pun intended. It's as plain as can be.
Sally told me there weren't a lot of rehearsals for key scenes. Do you do any improv at all on the the set? Improvisation? Not in my life!
You two have a great scene where you both get in each other's face. She got in mine.
True, it's probably the most diplomatic and restrained Thaddeus is for the whole film. Mmmhmm. Stevens was chairman of the Ways and Means committee and controlled the purse strings that maintained the White House, and Mary was unhappy with the conditions when she moved in and spent a lot of money to renovate. Either she spent a lot of money or Stevens thought she spent a lot of money. They had their differences over that. And that's what the scene is ostensibly about. But when you look at her rather eloquent scorn for Stevens, you come to understand what the scene is really about and that's how difficult it is for her to be in that position, to have that man for a husband, to live in that house at those times having lost a child. You can see that she's on the edge, she's barely hanging on. That's what the scene's about. Sally does a beautiful job of that, talking about one thing while showing you another. That takes an actor.
Stevens has been called "the dictator of Congress" and a journalist at the time wrote that "No Republican was permitted by 'Old Thad' to oppose his imperious will without receiving a tongue-lashing that terrified others." I've heard that. That would be my reading of history, yeah.
Do you still follow politics? Oh yeah.
Can you imagine a character like Stevens in the current political climate on talk shows, giving interviews? Can't begin to answer that question. What if he could sprout wings and fly to Idaho?
Those scenes in Congress are so heated, it seems like politics were even more inflammatory than they are now. There were so many important things at stake. There's a lot of things at stake today, too. There's always a lot of things at stake. But in those days, there were no sound bytes, no television. Politics and government was conducted with language through oratory. People had to speak their minds rather than insinuate them.
Do you think the amendment would have passed without Stevens? I don't think so. Things could have gone very differently and very badly.
He made a lot of enemies, but he did a lot of good. That's what I would say. He made a lot of enemies, but he did a lot of good. I'm really glad that he struggled as hard as he did for the Thirteenth Amendment and I'm really glad that his intentions for Reconstruction were not pursued. Reconstruction was bad enough as it was. If we'd followed his ideas, this country would have gone to hell. And we'd have had another war.
You have those great, fiery exchanges with Lee Pace, who plays your main opponent in Congress. How much did you enjoy those? I enjoyed every day on that set. I enjoyed every hour. It was a lot of fun to work on this movie.