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Tommy Lee Jones

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada


Which director would you like to work with that you haven’t before? “I don’t know if that’s really the kind of thinking I do. It’s not that there’s not anybody out there that I’m dying to work for. It’s more that I’m dying to do a good job.

How do you balance commerce vs. art? The whole point of seizing creative control is to do whatever you can to bring the two together. That’s really the reason for making movies. Apart from that, you take a pretty good look at the list of bills you have to pay, so it’s got to be a good business deal, and a good story and cast, and a location that my wife might be interested in. Those are all things that you think about before you go to work.

Up next: “A Prairie Home Companion,” directed by Robert Altman

Tommy Lee Jones’ involvement in creating “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” was multifaceted, but to viewers, it’s all funneled through his strikingly open-hearted performance as Pete Perkins, the rancher who goes up against the law and the elements to keep a promise to his slain Mexican friend.

Perkins is a man of simple, deep feelings and few words, who acts brazenly upon his vigilante sense of justice, while still projecting such a touching aura of decency that a blind man — literally, played by Levon Helm in one of the movie’s most memorable sequences — can sense it.

Says Jones, who like the protagonist lives on a West Texas ranch, works with cattle and is fluent in Spanish, “He’s a man who is part of two cultures and speaks two languages, but he also lives in his own country, in a sense, and when his own country is insulted, he takes it personally.”

The character was relatable enough that the actor could wear his own work clothes, and film on his own ranch, but was fictional beyond that. The sadness of Pete’s soul was “what the story seemed to call for,” says Jones, who contributed his ear for the local dialect to Pete’s character and some of the others, collaborating with Guillermo Arriaga to develop the script.

“I polished the American vernacular, particularly the West Texas vernacular,” says Jones.

He also produced and directed, making his feature film debut in those roles. Ten years ago, he directed “Good Old Boys,” a telepic for TNT that also dealt with cowboy life in West Texas, in which he also starred.

“Being in de-facto control of any of those three other jobs makes the fourth one easier,” says Jones of performing in a picture he played such a broad part in creating. His performance wowed the jury at Cannes, which gave him the fest’s acting prize when the film world premiered there in May.

An Oscar winner for “The Fugitive,” directed by Andrew Davis, and a nominee for Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” Jones says he is willing to consider continuing his relationship with the director of this particular picture because “we both need the work.”

“Not to get too schizophrenic about it, but an actor’s job is to figure out as well as he can what a director wants to see, and do whatever he can to make it possible for him to see it,” says Jones. “That’s the way I relate to all directors, whether or not they’re me.”

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