Tommy Lee Jones on Playing a Fiery Congressman in ‘Lincoln’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

t’s not just Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field who give excellent performances in Steven Spielberg’s well-received “Lincoln.” The entire cast is superb in a variety of roles which helped bring to life the tale of how the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was passed. One performance which really stands out in particular is Tommy Lee Jones’ as fiery abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Time Magazine put Jones at number nine on their list of the Top 10 Movie Performances of 2012 with Richard Corliss describing him as giving “a flinty, inspiring turn.”

Whenever Jones is onscreen, he is a powerful presence and injects this role with both seriousness and a sense of humor as we watch him disassemble the egos of his fellow congressmen for daring to go against the idea of abolishing slavery. Stevens proves to be as obsessed about getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed as U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard was about capturing Dr. Richard Kimble in “The Fugitive,” and Jones is as entertaining to watch in “Lincoln” as he is intense.

While most people are aware of whom Abraham Lincoln is, many are not as familiar with Thaddeus Stevens. Known as a Republican and one of the most powerful members of the House of Representatives, Stevens was described as being witty, sarcastic and quite the flamboyant speaker. Jones did a lot of research on Stevens and described him to Bill Goodykoontz of AZcentral.com as “a radical Republican abolitionist during the (Civil) War, with a very severe policy of Reconstruction during the war.” But Jones really got at the heart of his character when he described Stevens to Randee Dawn of Variety.

“Stevens was looked on as a wild man for his belief in freedom,” Jones told Dawn. “It was a backward time. It doesn’t surprise me that he had to fight the way he did.”

History also states how Stevens suffered from alopecia, a disease which results in the loss of body hair and baldness. This explains Jones’ use of his black wig to portray Stevens, a wig which in any other movie would look completely out of place on any other actor. Learning of Stevens’ unfortunate ailment, Jones wanted to shave much of the hair off his body to present a more honest portrayal of this congressman. A certain person, however, was deeply involved in making “Lincoln” to put an understandable stop to that.

“I originally suggested that we shave my eyebrows,” Jones told Chris Lee of the Los Angeles Times. “Steven (Spielberg) would have nothing to do with that. He said, ‘Your eyebrows are the most expressive part of your face.'”

It goes without saying Jones deserves serious awards consideration for his performance in “Lincoln” but, like Anthony Hopkins who is currently earning praise for “Hitchcock,” he is not interested in mounting any sort of Oscar campaign. As Jones bluntly told Lee, he doesn’t think about or even talk about it. All the same, it is a rousing performance that reminds us of the great actor Jones can be when he is given top rate material. The actor’s talent is certainly not lost on Spielberg who ended up describing Jones quite beautifully.

“Tommy is not just a subtle solo instrument,” Spielberg said. “There is an entire symphony orchestra inside that man, and I knew this when I cast him in the hope that he would represent the Thaddeus Stevens that history tells us was flamboyant, volatile, radically determined and, to some, even tender-hearted. Tommy gave me everything I asked for and much, much more.”

When it comes to talking about the endeavor of making “Lincoln,” Jones described it to Madeleine Marr of The Miami Herald in a way that was both respectful of the movie and very down to earth in regards to his profession.

“It’s a fine undertaking – entertaining and educational with a great respect for American history,” Jones says of the movie, adding, “But I’m always happy to have a job.”

SOURCES:

Richard Corliss, “Top 10 Movie Performances: Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in ‘Lincoln,’” Time Magazine, December 4, 2012.

Bill Goodykoontz, “Q&A: Tommy Lee Jones, in time, talks ‘Lincoln,'” AZcentral.com, November 15, 2012.

Randee Dawn, “Tommy Lee Jones in ‘Lincoln,'” Variety, December 1, 2012.

Chris Lee, “Tommy Lee Jones on playing a real firebrand, in fake hair,” Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2012.

Madeleine Marr, “Tommy Lee Jones talks ‘Lincoln,’ his career and charity,” The Miami Herald, November 6, 2012.

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