With just a few days left until Oscar-nomination balloting comes to a close, now is not the time for subtlety. So let’s just say it: It’s absolutely pathetic that Tommy Lee Jones may not get any nominations this year despite turning in two phenomenal performances — as the father of a missing serviceman in the criminally under-seen In the Valley of Elah, and as the seen-it-all sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men. The no-nonsense actor took a break from tending to his horses outside Palm Beach to chat about his mighty work.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Everyone I’ve talked to who’s read Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men says the book doesn’t have much humor in it, and yet there’s so much droll comedy in the movie. Where does that come from?
TOMMY LEE JONES: I think it comes from the book. I think the book is very funny. You either think it’s funny or you don’t. Ed Tom’s got a pretty good sense of humor. It may be what some people call gallows humor, but it is funny. And he does nothing in the movie that’s not derived directly and faithfully from the book.
Is it a particular challenge to play for the Coen brothers’ unique sense of humor?
You can’t instruct an audience to laugh, but what you can do is read well and understand the spirit and subtleties, if there are any, in the dialogue. If you read the Cormac well, a kind of humor will often be the result.
One thing that’s interesting about No Country is that it doesn’t really have any of the Coen repertory players like John Turturro or Steve Buscemi in it. Instead, almost all of you were working with them for the first time. What impact does that have on the movie, do you think?
If the boys do have a repertory company, you’re not going to find many people who can convince you that they’re from the Southwest. But I think Turturro could have done a terrific job of playing Ed Tom Bell. I’d like to see it!
The second time I saw No Country, I looked at it more as an allegory and I got so much more out of it. What do you think people should know about the movie before they see it?
I would like for everyone to read the book. That’s what I would like. One, it’s a good book, it’s worth reading, it improves your time immensely. You won’t waste your time reading the book. And besides that, Americans don’t read enough. It would prepare them to make an informed judgment as to whether or not we as filmmakers are any good. And it’d certainly give you something to talk about, something to think about. These issues are not small or trivial. This is a good thing to be doing with your mind. What I would like them to know about it before they go see it, is that it’s not normal. It certainly is worth your time, but it’s not light entertainment. It’s not grim or intellectually overwhelming, but there’s a lot of sophisticated thinking going on with this story. This is not just another chick flick, man. And it’s not just another car-crash deal. The thing you should know before you go into it is that it’s pretty much impossible to slap one of those stupid genre labels on it.
Let’s talk about In the Valley of Elah. Is it disappointing to you that so few people ended up seeing it in theaters?
Well, you can’t say that you don’t care how well a film does at the box office, but you’re not in the distribution business as an actor. You can care, but you can’t have any control. I have worked on very good movies that have been buried, and I’ve worked on some resounding mediocrities that have been paraded through the marketplace like they were masterpieces.
NEXT PAGE: ”It doesn’t sound like an overly attractive title. I just can’t imagine people saying, ‘In the Valley of Elah, that’s a film I gotta see.”’