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SPEAKING HIS MIND TOMMY LEE JONES SHARES THOUGHTS ON WESTERN REALISM OF `THE MISSING'.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

Tommy Lee Jones does not often expound on anything much, at least not to the press.

But the Harvard graduate (and college roommate of former Vice President Al Gore) was clearly inspired by his latest movie, ``The Missing,'' to consider at length what still engages his creativity after nearly 3 1/2 decades of successful acting, beginning with ``Love Story'' and extending through an ever-eclectic range of big- and small-screen triumphs. These include ``The Executioner's Song,'' for which he won an Emmy Award, and ``Lonesome Dove'' on television; and ``Coal Miner's Daughter,'' ``JFK,`` ``The Fugitive'' (he's got a supporting-actor Oscar from that), ``Natural Born Killers'' and the ``Men in Black'' comedy blockbusters moviewise, among many others.

Perhaps it's ``The Missing's'' setting - the New Mexico frontier, circa 1885 - that makes this lifelong Texan so happy to gab about it. Maybe it's the complexities of his role - an artist named Samuel Jones who comes back into his resentful adult daughter Maggie's (Cate Blanchett) life after abandoning her decades earlier to live with the Apache - that he feels need explication.

Once Jones gets talking, you realize that, yeah, he has some comments on those subjects. But they're not at all what you might expect him to say. Unlike most actors trying to sell a movie, his thoughts are very carefully considered. And uniquely his.

Back at the ranch

The obvious first question goes something like: You're a real-life cowboy who owns two ranches, so it must've felt great to make a full-blown movie Western (as opposed to TV's ``Dove'' and his own cable-directing debut, ``The Good Old Boys''). The obvious answer is: Heck yeah!

The Jones dissertation is much more interesting.

``Well, I like the good movies, and I don't like the bad ones,'' he says of what you or I may refer to as the horse opera genre. ``Genre is a literary term to me; I don't easily apply it or find much meaning in the term as it applies to cinema. There have been some awfully good so-called Western movies: 'The Angel and the Badman,' the first 'Stagecoach,' 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,' 'Rooster Cogburn.' All those movies have some originality to them, or they did when they first came out, and they are very dear to my heart.

``And there are some real dogs that can be called Western movies,'' the 57-year-old actor notes. ``And you can say that the business has been guilty of racial stereotypes. It's a fact that you can find Western movies where Native Americans do nothing but chase stagecoaches and howl at the moon and look for chances to scalp you. And there are, of course, revisionist Westerns where all Native Americans are kindly grandfathers or dedicated environmentalists, and that's an equally stupid and prejudicial point of view.

``I'm happy that this movie represents all people as human beings. Native people are human beings: They're good, they're evil, they're tragic, they're funny, and their belief system is respected as much as the Judeo-Christian tradition might be. And that suits me just fine; I'm kinda proud of that.''

Wary reunion

In Ron Howard's film, which was adapted from Thomas Eidson's novel ``The Last Ride,'' Sam finds the homestead of his long unseen daughter, who's raising two girls on her own. His motivation is pretty selfish: Sam's been bitten by a rattlesnake and told by Apache wise men that he'd better make amends with his family if he wants to save his soul. Maggie, understandably, wants nothing to do with the deserter.

But when renegade Apaches kidnap the eldest girl, Lilly (``Thirteen's'' Evan Rachel Wood), along with other young women they intend to sell in Mexico, Maggie must team up with the one man who can track them and rescue her daughter - Sam. Along the way, they receive help from friends Sam has made from the Chiricahua branch of the tribe.

These friends converse with Sam almost exclusively in their dialect, a language spoken by fewer than 1,000 people living today - and which Jones studied intensively. One of his instructors was Elbys Hugar, granddaughter of the legendary Apache leader Cochise.

``We were under some time pressure, so I actually had to learn these sentences phonetically - but we did know what they meant, of course, and why,'' Jones explains. ``The first thing you have to do is learn how to make all of the noises that comprise the language. It has, for example, glottal stops and sibilant L's that people who speak languages of European origin find totally foreign. So you have to learn that, you have to learn the words, and then you have to figure out a way to give it expression. The thought of trying to get an audience to laugh at a line of Chiricahua was a real privilege. That was a happy undertaking, and I hope it was successful.''

Tell a joke in Chiricahua? This from a man so taciturn he's been presumed to have no sense of humor (he is, after all, Will Smith's ``MiB'' straight man) and who has even been quoted in the past acknowledging that.

``It sounds like a lie I would tell,'' Jones, well, jokes about that statement. ``Or a joke I would make.''

Making fun with Mr. Jones

So, what is he like on the set? Funny? Friendly? Hard to reach?

``Oh, I broke him down!'' Blanchett says, laughing heartily. ``I have infinite respect for Tommy Lee as an actor. As a screen presence, he is able to access such poignant vulnerability. And he was incredibly generous with me.

``I mean, we didn't talk a lot off set, but sometimes the way actors connect off set is strangely reminiscent of the characters,'' the acclaimed Australian actress adds. ``And there's such a sparsity to the dialogue - and such a yearning to get inside each other's heads between Maggie and Jones. So maybe that existed a little bit. But I think we respected each other. And he's a brilliant horseman and knows a lot more about guns than I do, so he was a lexicon for me.''

For all Jones' cowboy skills and the convincing cragginess of his range- worn appearance, director Howard seems to feel that that ability to explore the film's complicated father-daughter dynamics was the actor's key contribution.

``I think the nature of the relationship, its psychological sophistication, is contemporary,'' says Howard who, prior to embarking on his first Western, won an Academy Award for directing the psychological study ``A Beautiful Mind.'' ``Now, they didn't have the language to deal with it; you know, they had no Dr. Phil, and it was before the Freudian vocabulary existed. But here are these characters, and they're dealing with feelings that are just very, very relatable, and it doesn't feel quaint or old-fashioned.''

Backstory blues

Jones feels it could have been more relatable. It is never made quite clear in the final cut of ``The Missing'' why Sam left his wife and children. But Jones knew that he was a trained painter who, as was not uncommon at the time, rejected the 'civilized' world to find inspiration in more natural ways of life.

``To me, that's an interesting character,'' Jones says. ``Gauguin did that. But that part of his identity was removed from the movie in post-production. I don't know why, but I was told that it was looked upon as an unnecessary detail. And I miss it, I would have liked for it to have been part of the show. It explained quite specifically why he'd abandoned his family. But I still like the movie, even though I feel it's a bit incomplete.''

If you think the preceding was some disgruntled actor's tactic to damn with faint praise, guess again. It's Jones speaking his mind, nothing more; as is the following rapturous, equally clear-eyed assessment of director Howard.

``He doesn't mind making small talk with actors between shots; he's been an actor, he understands that life,'' Jones says of the onetime Opie. ``He's a nice man, and he understands the value of kindness. But the best thing about Ron is that he's lived around a camera all of his life, and he can see. To the normal eye, certain visual events may be fraught with meaning, very dramatic or romantic or beautiful or significant in some way - and yet just bore the hell out of a motion picture lens. Most of the things a motion picture lens will turn into drama or significance go unseen by the average eye. Ron can see anything that a motion picture lens can see.''

His method

Anyone who can describe the art of filmmaking so succinctly must really be able to explain his own craft. But Jones doesn't think so.

Then again ...

``An actor needs to be able to think well - and with some originality and objectivity,'' he tentatively reckons. ``If there is such a thing as talent, maybe it's maintaining objectivity and subjectivity at the same time, both at a very intense level. But hell's bells, there is no established vocabulary to deal with these issues. I've read all the acting books, and I know what they mean when they write, but I don't think what they write has a lot of meaning.''

Jones can be much more specific about the finer points of raising cattle (one of his ranches also does polo ponies). But that's not because he's more comfortable in a saddle than he is in front of a camera.

``It's not a real dichotomy,'' he says of the different endeavors. ``They're just two things that I do. One doesn't balance the other; one pays for the other. But my reality is in San Antonio and on the ranches of West Texas, not in Beverly Hills. That doesn't mean that I hate California or New York; I love both places. I'm just able to live at home, and that's what I choose to do.''

And, truth to tell, he really does want to make more movies about his homeland. As long as they meet his exacting standards.

``I'm certainly interested in movies that deal with the history of my country and the people that have lived on it,'' Jones says. ``The fact that so many bad Westerns have been made makes it difficult for me to get a job working on a movie that deals honestly with the history of my country. And I'm very, very happy to have a chance to do so.''

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss(at)dailynews.com

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2 photos

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(1 -- cover -- color) INTENSE

Tommy Lee Jones quietly speaks volumes about his new Western, `The Missing'

(2) Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett star in ``The Missing.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 23, 2003
Words:1783
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