Tommy Lee Jones has chased fugitives to the edge of a waterfall and Samuel L. Jackson has wrestled snakes on a plane, but neither task quite compares to their latest onscreen challenge: holding a 90-minute, stunt-free conversation without audiences thinking they've been tricked into a dinner with Andre.

In "The Sunset Limited," adapted from a play by Cormac McCarthy and airing Saturday on HBO, Jones plays a lonely professor, just rescued from a suicide attempt by a custodian (Jackson) who refuses to allow the academic to leave his apartment until they chat about religion, philosophy, food, race and the meaning of life. There are no exterior shots, no visits from nosy neighbors and nothing resembling a car chase or shootout. Pretty remarkable, considering the stars have built much of their reputations on action-packed flicks.

"I learned early on that in movies, about one-quarter of the film is dialogue and the rest is camera movement and people going from place to place, things like that," said Jackson, whose résumé includes "Die Hard: With a Vengeance," "Pulp Fiction" and "Shaft." "But here, this is a direct conversation between two people, exchanging ideas that are intelligent and sometimes antagonistic, and you have to sit there and give those words energy and give the other person your attention, because they're very passionate."

Jones doubled his challenge by also signing on as director, a role he previously assumed for the 2005 film "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." He uses various angles and lenses to keep things visually interesting, but he said he didn't want to employ sweeping shots or extreme close-ups just to keep viewers awake.

"The camera becomes a servant of the language and a servant to the actor," said Jones, who has personified tough guys in "Men in Black," "Lonesome Dove" and "No Country for Old Men," which originated as a McCarthy novel.

The dialogue was so critical that the actors dedicated a week for rehearsal, joined only by a script supervisor and McCarthy.

"Sometimes he would smile at us. That was pretty great," said Jackson, referring to the extremely private author, who also penned "The Road" and "All the Pretty Horses."

The experience doesn't appear to have persuaded either star to hotfoot it back to the stage. Jackson is prepping to return to the role of Nick Fury for "The Avengers" and Jones has shot appearances for the upcoming "Captain America" movie and the third installment of "Men in Black."

But both actors seem to have enjoyed letting their mouths -- and not their fists -- do the talking.

"This is like food for an actor, or lifeblood, in terms of saying that I can validate myself with this, that I'm intellectually capable of doing it," Jackson said.

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 Follow Justin on Twitter: @nealjustin