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Who's Afraid of Tommy Lee Jones?

Just about everybody! The actor has built a rich career out of playing tough, blunt, and often hilariously mean men, the latest of whom is the rivetingly rude abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens in ''Lincoln''. We sat down and had a soda with Jones, and it was ... intense.

Tommy Lee Jones is in a good mood. So I've been told. But you can't tell by looking at him. That hardscrabble central Texas face, lined with every one of his 66 years, seems to bear only one expression: that of a bone-weary traveler being informed that his flight has been canceled.

The actor is said to be proud of his fiery turn in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, and understandably so. Jones plays the virulently abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a man so antislavery that he figures the president to be soft on the subject. Jones' performance is brimming with grandiloquent put-downs of his political foes, and critics have embraced it en masse, calling it ''gloriously obstreperous,'' ''riotously belligerent,'' and, in one case, ''even richer'' than Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of the cat in the stovepipe hat. For all the verbal fireworks, Jones has a surprisingly touching and vulnerable scene late in the film, where he manages to lay bare everything Stevens didn't say. Lincoln could be the actor's strongest shot at an Oscar since he won Best Supporting Actor in 1994 for The Fugitive. So he has every reason to be happy.

But there is no smiling as Jones walks to the corner booth of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I've interviewed him before, and his reputation for being one of the most fearsome men in Hollywood is well earned. We shake hands. There is no small talk. Once you've met Jones, you know better than to try to make any.

Josh Brolin, who studied Jones closely to play a younger version of his character in Men in Black 3, made that mistake at their script reading. Brolin (who'd worked with Jones twice before) brought greetings from his wife, Diane Lane, and his friend Charlize Theron, both of whom had also costarred with Jones. ''I said, 'Hey, man, Charlize and Diane send their hellos.' And there's a long pause and he goes [in a flat voice], 'Okay.' And I'm thinking, What kind of f--ing response is that? That's the weirdest ... I don't know what to say.'' Of course, Brolin adds, ''that's his genius: How can I make this the most uncomfortable moment anybody has ever had in the world?''

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