Jones Unquestionably Intense

Interview: Is It Hot In Here? Like His Big Problem In The Disaster Film `Volcano,' Tommy Lee Can Make A Person Sweat.

April 28, 1997|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BEVERLY HILLS -- Tommy Lee Jones, the Oscar-winning actor and Harvard-taught good ol' boy, isn't paid to be nice.

Much of the buzz during a press weekend for "Volcano," which stars Jones, is about his abrasiveness. Reporters trade war stories about their encounters with him. Studio types worry whether he'll be pleasant during interviews.

It's not as if there's nothing else to talk about. Twentieth Century Fox is gambling mega-millions on "Volcano," featuring Jones as an Office of Emergency Management chief who rallies the troops when a volcano erupts in Los Angeles. The film, which opened Friday, follows another lava saga, "Dante's Peak," by just 11 weeks.

And "Volcano," along with "Men in Black" and the quasi-sequel to "The Fugitive" (titled "U.S. Marshals" and shooting this summer), comprise the most critical test of Jones' marketability since he copped the supporting-actor Oscar for "The Fugitive" in 1994. At the relatively late age of 50, he'll find out if he can breathe the rarefied box-office air of a Gibson or a Cruise or simply continue to win critical raves for his intense roles.

There is no escaping the intensity of his media encounters. But these publicity interviews are just part of the job, as Jones reiterates in a sun-splashed Beverly Hills hotel room.

Asked if he is aware that he intimidates people and if it bothers him, Jones replies: "I don't know who would be intimidated and why. I don't understand the relevance of the question. I've never intimidated anybody. Why would you ask?"

OK, so the guy isn't Dale Carnegie. And when he pops a couple of Advil to begin the interview -- the bags under his eyes even more pronounced than usual -- the conversational signs aren't promising.

Jones answers questions curtly at first but eventually elaborates. He gives the impression that he'd simply rather not be here.

At times he is thoughtful and tolerant. He waves off his publicist when she storms into the room because the questions stray from the film. He expounds on the appeal of disaster movies: "Man is required to put aside his pettiness and realize what he has in common to forswear his vanity for survival."

And he touches on the character-building qualities of football, a passion since his days as a 205-pound offensive lineman at Harvard (he roomed with Al Gore). "I'm one of those old-fashioned people who believes that the things that you learn on a football field are useful all your life," he says.

Just days before the "Volcano" premiere, Jones feels the game pressure. He claims he is in "the business of not getting nervous" but still acknowledges that much is expected of the star of a would-be blockbuster on the heels of a similar film.

"The pressure is hard to quantify because there's so much of it," he says. "There's always a lot of money at stake. There's never enough time. What you're in pursuit of is perfection. Three to seven takes is not enough to achieve it. You're never gonna be satisfied, you're never gonna be happy, you're never gonna be secure."

Despite the anxiety, Jones has carved out a prodigious career. He captured an Emmy for his portrayal of killer Gary Gilmore in "The Executioner's Song" and an Emmy nomination for the role of Woodrow Call in the epic mini-series "Lonesome Dove" before making the big screen his home. In addition to "The Fugitive," he's been working his way up the Hollywood hierarchy with performances in "Cobb" as the misanthropic baseball great and in "The Client" as a ruthless prosecutor.

In "Volcano," Jones is disaster expert Mike Roark. He's got a kid (Gaby Hoffmann) to protect, a seismologist (Anne Heche) to charm and a city to save.

Asked if filmgoers might get a kick out of seeing Tinseltown incinerated, Jones responds, "I don't think that poorly of movie audiences that they are coming to see one of our greatest cities die."

"Tommy Lee is very much like the character he plays," says Mick Jackson, the "Volcano" director. "If you try and B.S. him, you'll get a bad time."

If Jones, a cattle rancher in San Antonio, has been branded "difficult" by some in the industry, you wouldn't know it by his supporting "Volcano" cast.

Don Cheadle ("Rosewood") joked that once he punched Jones, they got along fine. "I heard the Tommy Lee stories, but I didn't experience any of them," he says. "We approached the movie as two actors, not star and peon."

Adds Heche: "He was so giving and loving."

That same man isn't here in this suite, but the circumstance is a lot less nurturing. Jones is wary of journalists and says he has been misquoted, including in a report that said he was "psychologically abused" by his oil-man father. "Teen-age boys sometimes fight with their fathers," he says. "He wasn't perfect."

Jones credits his father with instilling boldness and a tireless work ethic, which he hopes to pass on to his children, ages 5 and 14.

Jones winces at celebrity soul-baring. His personal life, including a much-publicized second divorce, is off-limits. But when the subject of polo comes up, he visibly softens. He expresses regret that, due to his "U.S. Marshals" commitment (Wesley Snipes will replace Harrison Ford as the fugitive), he'll miss the seasons in the Hamptons and Santa Barbara, where many of his friends are.

Jones concedes that polo and reading ("The Book of Disquiet," by Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, is on his night stand) are among the few diversions he allows himself in a life of steady toil.

"I never take vacations," he says. "They make me nervous."

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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