Interview of the week: Tommy Lee Jones

By KAREN BUTLER  |  July 4, 2002 at 12:40 PM
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NEW YORK, July 4 (UPI) -- Tommy Lee Jones is back in black.

After a string of dramatic roles, the Oscar-winning star of "The Fugitive" returns to comedy in "Men in Black II," the sequel to the 1997 hit.

Not surprisingly, the 55-year-old Texan says the special effects-laden alien movie was as much fun to make as it is to watch.

"Director Barry Sonnenfeld has the very wise theory that if you're not having any fun, you can't expect the audience to have any. So, we have fun all day, every day. And it's a real pleasure to go to work," Jones explained. "There are 60 people on a movie set that have to do the right thing at the same time every time, if you're to get even one shot... It can be an impossible amount of pressure for some people. It's a real effort to keep people in good spirits and Barry's dedication to having fun makes the very serious business of shooting films... a lot of fun."

Famous for his authoritative screen personas and regarded by journalists as a tough, no-nonsense kind of guy, it is difficult for some to imagine Jones engaged in on-set hijinks. Yet Sonnenfeld and Jones' co-stars Will Smith and Lara Flynn Boyle insist Jones is one of the warmest, funniest people you'll ever meet.

"We have like a really brilliant relationship," Smith told reporters in New York recently. "I just think everything that comes out of that man's mouth is hilarious. A lot of times the press doesn't get to experience that side of Tommy Lee Jones, but for me, spending three, four months with him, he is a machine. That dude is hilarious."

Jones says the feeling is mutual.

"Will does a lot of [entertaining] things," said Jones. "He has a hard time playing just one character. He's got five or six different personalities that you can see at any given time and they're all hilarious. One of them was that noise that you heard [in the film,] I think a human boom-box... and when I heard him do that it occurred to me right away that that should be the alien language that he should be called upon to use in the post office."

So, does Jones have a theory as to why he and Smith have so much chemistry on-screen?

"Will is a very hard-working actor," Jones remarked. ["He has] a very serious work ethic. He's always on time and very energetic. He buoys up the spirits of everybody on the crew, everybody on the set. And he understands my rhythms, I understand his... We try real hard. And I think it took some time for him to adjust to life outside of Muhammad Ali. When you put that much of your creative life together with your physical life in playing a role, it conceivably takes a day or two to walk away from that."

As much fun as he had making two "MIB" movies with smith, Jones says he would like to test their relationship in a film outside the franchise.

"I don't know if anybody would let us do that," he admitted. "I would love to [work with Smith again.] I think it would be wonderful. But gee whiz, I mean, I'd do that in a minute, I'd start tomorrow. I don't know if anybody's got the - if anybody in California is brave enough to take that on. But I'm ready... I think we can do anything."

In "MIB II," Jones reprises his role as secret agent Kay, a government investigator who tracks intergalactic trespassers and criminals, but he is not the straight-laced alien expert we got to know in the first film. Fans of that movie may remember that Kay's memory was "neutralized" or erased by his rookie partner, agent Jay (Smith,) so he could live an ordinary life as a postal worker. A few years later, however, Jay yanks Kay out of retirement to help him crack a difficult case. Problem is, Kay has no idea what Jay is talking about because he has no memory of his past life. Playing the rookie to Smith's seasoned veteran offers Jones a great opportunity to showcase his considerable comedic talents.

"I thought that was a pretty cool, interesting thing to do," Jones said of the role reversal.

Asked if he has any idea how funny he is in the film, Jones admits that "sometimes I laugh," but then quickly turns his praise back to Smith.

"Sometimes I'm just amazed at how good Will is or just how well a scene works," he explained. "And I could laugh, I suppose, in a knowing way, but I'm critical and analytical when I watch these movies. And I certainly don't take them personally. It's not a personal experience for me."

Although Jones began his acting career nearly three decades ago, most children were not aware of him until "Men in Black" made him an unlikely action hero in 1997. But the actor says he gets a kick out of being mobbed wherever he goes by pint-sized fans.

"I love to see kids have fun," Jones remarked. "And I like it when... I'm able to improve the time of children. I love that."

"MIB II" marks the second time Jones has returned to a character he immortalized on the big screen; the first time was in "U.S. Marshals," the disappointing sequel to "The Fugitive."

"It was a lot easier this time because I had a happily established working relationship with Barry Sonnenfeld and Will Smith and basically we couldn't wait to get back together and continue having the fun we did on the first," he said.

In addition to Smith, Jones also found himself sharing his scenes with an army of computer-generated aliens, puppets and a wisecracking pug dog.

Asked if it is harder to act opposite an "imaginary" co-star than it is to perform with a live one, Jones deadpanned: "No, not at all. We're often called upon to use our imaginations as actors."

Jones says he was equally comfortable acting opposite his canine co-star, Mushu Pug, who plays gravel-voiced, Frank the dog in "MIB II."

The actor says his recent visit to New York City to promote "MIB II" was the first time he had been to the Big Apple since September 11. Noting how a climactic fight scene on top of the World Trade Center was changed after the terrorist attacks leveled the Twin Towers last year, Jones stated: "We felt it would be appropriate to change that and we did. And that's about the only response we made."

Like many others, Jones acknowledges that he has found a new appreciation for the city and the strength and courage of those who live there in recent months.

"When we got off the airplane and drove back onto the island, I was overwhelmed with the emotion at... not all of which I understand, but it made me very, very sad to think that somebody could do such a horrible thing to a place that I love," Jones said.

"Men in Black II" is in theatres now. Jones can be seen later this year in "The Hunted" opposite fellow Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro.

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