Tommy Lee Jones has played his share of prickly characters onscreen, and just sitting opposite the man in real life is intimidating enough. But that’s part of what makes him the perfect choice to play politician and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens in Steven Spielberg’s epic “Lincoln.” Not unlike his Oscar-winning turn as Marshal Samuel Gerard in “The Fugitive,” Jones brings both intensity and humor to Stevens, something the actor is also capable of in real life. Asked if Stevens was the only part he considered, he replies with a straight face, “I’m not right for Mary Lincoln. I could play it, but probably not as well as Sally Field.” Another factor Stevens has in common with Gerard: Jones’ performance is earning the actor deafening awards buzz.
Jones has played real people before, most notably in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “The Executioner’s Song,” and notes there is no secret formula to the job. “There’s not a set way of playing a historical character,” he says. “Your obligation is always thorough, whether you’re playing a fictional character or trying to duplicate a historical character or playing a version of a historical character.” Jones admits his biggest concern was convincingly portraying Stevens’ clubfoot. “You always worry about whether or not something is going to seem real,” he says. “That’s what you’re paid to do—to find a way to make it work.”
To prepare for Stevens, Jones read several biographies, the names of which he can’t quite recall. “There are three, two of which are readable,” he says. “One is from the 1930s, and I think the other is from the ’80s, and they have entirely different perspectives on Thaddeus Stevens, but they’re full of the same biographical facts.” Jones notes that the ’30s book “looked at him as a radical, weird guy. The more recent one looked at him as possibly the only sane man on the floor of the House of Representatives.”
Jones adds that he didn’t struggle too much with Stevens’ flowery language, praising Tony Kushner’s script. “Sometimes I would take a word out here or there just to make it sound smoother. On those days, you would hear a knock on your dressing-room door, and there would be Kushner, wondering what happened to his word,” says Jones. “And you’d have to talk to him a little while, and either you’d put it back in or leave it out, depending on who was most persuasive.”