Pushing a prickly Tommy Lee Jones to dish on his new HBO film, The Sunset Limited
I knew I was in trouble when the publicist called, well in advance.
We were setting up an interview with an actor and artist known as a tough interview, star Tommy Lee Jones, to discuss his 90-minute HBO film of Cormac McCarthy's two-man play The Sunset Limited. And friendly as the HBO folks were, they also made it obvious: He will eat you alive if you’re not prepared.
Which was no problem. I watched the film and found Jones' Sunset Limited -- which airs at 9 p.m. Saturday on HBO -- an engaging, if overlong, work. Frankly, I’d watch Jones and co-star Samuel L. Jackson recreate scenes from a SpongeBob script.
But McCarthy gives them a wonderful premise: Jackson is Black, a passionately religious ex-con trying to save Jones’ White, a college professor who tried to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of the train which gives the play its title.
At first, I feared this play, which takes place fully in Black’s apartment, was another story of the so-called "magic negro" selflessly devoting himself to helping a white hero. I finished it wondering if the story wasn’t really about Black’s faith, and what happens when it meets White’s boundless, intellectually honed despair.
But Jones wasn't much interested in talking about any of that: Here's a heavily-edited sample of our conversation:
Deggans: What’s your sense of the ultimate message of this film?
Jones: Oh, I don’t know. I think the question is much more important than the answer . . . because this is a dialectic. It’s an argument meant to shed light, provoke thought and ultimately, questions are our business here. I don’t’ know that we have a message. You know, we have some pretty good questions.
D: Samuel L. Jackson is one of the few actors who could share a screen with you and not get blown away. Was he your first choice? How did you light on using Sam Jackson here?
J: I never thought of anyone else to play that role. It requires someone who can read and who can do the thinking and who could convince you that he’s familiar with both Harlem and southeast Louisiana . . . in addition to being a fine actor and also when you think about those things, Sam is the first fellow that comes to mind.
D: And I wonder, is it more of a challenge to direct a film that’s this intimate, where it’s just you and one other actor or is it easier? I mean, I think I might be hard to be objective about your own performance when it’s such an intimate work.
J: Oh, I don’t know anything about degrees of difficulty and the concept of challenges is mysterious to me.
D: So you didn’t see this as a particular challenge because it’s the two of you in a room for 90 minutes?
J: Challenge is not a word that I … you use in regard … as I approach the work I do, I don’t … I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about (laughs).
D:What, for you, were the most important questions dealt with here?
J: The most important question in American cinema, I’ve learned, is ‘When is lunch?’”
D: How did you work with Cormac on this?
The first thing we did on the first day was sit down together and read through the play. Then we did it again in the afternoon and asked Cormac to join us. For the next week or 10 days, (we) worked in a sound stage alone (with a script supervisor) with this set indicated by tape on the floors and improvised articles of furniture, and built the play. The play is, in effect, only one scene but I divided it into 52 pieces that could be worked on individually and then welded together, and that’s for the purpose … really more for the practical purposes of shooting and the organization of shooting than anything else, and that’s how we proceeded.
D: Do you think this is a dark play?
It really invites us to think about the meaning of faith. I mean, it’s not the same thing as certainty. And thinking along those lines, it’s pretty healthy for actors, directors and audience. I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor and her definition of faith, which was, ‘Faith is that which you know to be true, whether you believe it or not.’ And I don’t … personally, I don’t conclude that Black’s faith is shaken.
Thanks for the transcript by Times staffer Barbara Moch