“Lincoln” is far from a comedy, but for Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a staunch abolitionist with a major cranky streak, things often get funny. Particularly when he’s intimidating fellow congressmen.
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“(Screenwriter) Tony Kushner put some humor in the screenplay to leaven the reality, and it certainly was my job to bring that forward at the appropriate time and place,” says Jones, who rarely gets sentimental about his roles.
Stevens is shown as heroic for dialing back his more radical views to get the 13th Amendment passed — the law that would free the slaves — and its an action that exacts a personal toll.
Yet Jones’ dry drawl and stone-faced delivery provide some of the film’s most rousing, moving moments, and some of the most amusing. Those moviegoers who watched him in “The Fugitive” or “Men in Black” will recognize the actor’s singular ability to flip from gravitas to deadpan in a blink.
Director Steven Spielberg specifically wanted Jones in the role, and after reading the screenplay, thesp recalls, “I called him back and said this is a magnificent undertaking. We took it from there.”
Research led the Oscar winner to become something of an expert on the “Radical Republican,” as Stevens was called. And in discussing the character today, Jones can get fired up all over again — in his own low-key way.
“Stevens was looked on as a wild man for his belief in freedom,” says Jones. “It was a backward time. It doesn’t surprise me that he had to fight the way he did.”