That growly, barky delivery, those foot-draggy Southwestern vowels, the world-weary sighs. The voice on the phone could belong only to Tommy Lee Jones, calling in to talk about "Lincoln" as he drove across south Texas toward Houston.
In Steven Spielberg's Civil War panorama, Jones nearly eclipses the nominal hero. He plays Thaddeus Stevens, the thorny Republican congressional leader who was Lincoln's temperamental opposite and tactical antagonist as both sought to free the oppressed. Jones' bullying and sarcastic eloquence counterbalance the folksy humanity of Daniel Day-Lewis' pragmatic Lincoln, each delivering a searching character study of complex men for complex times.
While some projects draw Jones' interest because of the director, the quality of the script or the stature of the acting ensemble, "Lincoln" offered him the whole package.
"It has all of those elements together," Jones said. "Steven called me and asked me to read the screenplay and consider the part, and I did. I called him back immediately. Told him I thought it was a very fine undertaking. I would be very happy to be part of it."
Jones has played many historic figures, from Howard Hughes to convicted murderer Gary Gilmore to baseball great Ty Cobb, all to high acclaim. It's less common for him to do costume drama, but Stevens' career and personality presented an irresistible challenge.
"All I knew of Thaddeus Stevens was what an attentive student of American history would have learned in high school or college," he said. "He was a radical Republican abolitionist with a very severe outlook on Reconstruction," arguing that the postwar South should be punished like conquered provinces where constitutional restraints would not apply.
What Jones didn't know was that Stevens had a club foot, lost all his hair and wore a wig cut the same way all around so he wouldn't have to waste time locating the front. Jones called wearing his impressive toupée just "one of the vicissitudes of acting."
While his Stevens does not suffer legislative fools, Jones also stresses a warm, private side to the man. The film highlights his tender relationship with his longtime housekeeper, Lydia Smith, a mixed-race widow. Their intimate friendship inspired much Washington tongue-wagging.
"He was very tough on his political rivals, and his heart and mind were in the right place. I wanted to be as true as possible to my reading of history," Jones said. He praised Tony Kushner's deeply researched screenplay as "awfully good" but added with a droll turn of phrase, "everything is always never in the script."
"There are really two biographies to speak of, of Stevens. With the same facts, the one that was written in the '30s depicts an eccentric, very nearly a madman. The one that was written in the late '60s depicts a man who you would think is the only sane man on the floor of the House. My point of view on him is more modern than the one that would come out of a racist society like the United States in the 1930s."
"It was great fun" acting alongside two-time Oscar winner Day-Lewis, who submerges himself in character to the point of invisibility, Jones said. "I don't think Lincoln's ever been played better or to greater effect to date. His voice played beautifully." But the 66-year-old actor said he hopes audiences would see the film as more than a monumental feat of historical re-enactment.
"I hope no one takes it strictly as a history lesson," he said. "There's much more to the movie than that. It gives you an opportunity to think about the fact that politics is still dirty. And that great things are done by people, working hard. Great things are not hurled from the heavens like lightning bolts by an old man with a gray beard in a white robe. They don't spring from the earth full blown. Great things are the achievement of sometimes lowly people working very hard."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186