IAR INTERVIEW: Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank Talk 'The Homesman'

Friday, 14 November 2014 10:48 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR INTERVIEW: Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank Talk 'The Homesman'

Everybody knows and loves Tommy Lee Jones the movie star, an iconic Oscar-winning actor who has brought a singular presence to the screen for forty years.

He's also an increasingly accomplished director.  Almost a decade ago, he made a big impression with his contemporary western riff The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.  His new film, The Homesman, is a full-blown western set in the tense, unruly decade before the Civil War.

It's a labor of love for Jones, who directs, co-writes, produces, and co-stars alongside fellow Academy Award winner Hilary Swank.

Swank stars in The Homesman as Mary Bee Cuddy, a single Nebraska farmer who is considered too plain, forthright, and assertive to marry. When three women in her community (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) are driven to insanity by the difficulties and tragedies of frontier life, Cuddy volunteers to take them East via covered wagon to Iowa, where they'll be taken care of by a kindly matron (Meryl Streep). 

As she crosses the harsh landscape, Cuddy encounters George Briggs (Jones), a ruffian and drifter she saves from lynching in order to recruit his help on her long, difficult journey.  Together, this strange motley crew go on an odyssey back to civilization.

Thanks to Managing Editor Jami Philbrick, IAR was on hand at the Los Angeles press day promoting The Homesman, opening in theaters Friday, November 14th.  Both Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank thoughtfully and enthusiastically discussed this unique movie, which acts as both a double-barreled western and a feminist critique of the genre.

The film is based on the 1988 novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout, a novel Jones has spent a long time developing as a feature.  Asked what drew him to the material and kept him toiling on The Homesman, the characteristically taciturn Jones answered, "The book offered us the chance to make a screenplay that had some originality to it, and of course our lives as filmmakers is a never-ending search for originality, desperately clawing for originality. It’s not always readily available."

The indomitable and upright Mary Bee represented a major casting challenge. "We worried about Hilary for probably two or three seconds," said Jones. "We met at that Italian restaurant – I don’t want to name it – here in Beverly Hills, and it was immediately obvious to me and (executive producer) Michael Fitzgerald that Hilary was absolutely perfect. I had seen all of her films before meeting her, but I knew immediately that if we could talk her into playing Mary Bee Cuddy, half our job would be done."

For Swank, the role represented a connection to her own past.  "I was born in Nebraska. I come from a generation of farmers, too," she said. "What was interesting, my dad gave me accounts of our history, to the early 1700s, and there was one account that is so shockingly similar to this story, but I only read it three days ago. My jaw dropped. My dad is here for the premiere and he doesn’t know what the movie is about. I thought, ‘Wow.’ I couldn’t wait to tell (my father) that. One of the things was Indians shot one my ancestors, John Swank, nineteen times, but he was against a rock. So, they fled because they thought he as a spirit and he didn’t fall over."

"I would say the things that Mary Bee was working through is not dissimilar to the things that we all work through in our lives. We all struggle how to find how to be the best people we can be and try to find love along the way. That’s why for me it’s not just a period piece," Swank explained. "It parallels everyday life for a lot of people. To me, Mary Bee is a woman who has manors and morals and values. She wants to do the right thing just for the sake of doing the right thing, and in my opinion, we’ve really lost touch with that as a society today."

"So there’s so many reasons why I love her, and then there’s so many reasons why I relate to her," she continued. "Because as an independent woman myself, as a woman who, for all intents and purposes, people would probably call bossy… and I have a real clear idea of how I see the world and how I want to live (in) the world, and I want to see my dreams realized. I want to continue down my path. And so finding a man to walk shoulder to shoulder with me, it can be challenging. I think women today have that challenge."

In The Homesman, Swank tackles a new challenge with a striking scene in which she sings onscreen. "The important thing is Mary Bee’s loneliness and her hunger for some kind of culture," said Jones. "There is a very telling moment early in the movie where she is playing this scene beautifully with John Lithgow. She looks out the window through this beautiful light. In a more or less abstracted way she says, ‘I don’t think I can live much longer without real music.’ That becomes telling and that’s more important. We didn’t have any musical auditions. The important thing was Hilary’s sensitivity to the nuances of Mary Bee’s character."

"Actually Tommy Lee didn’t want to cut a lot," she explained of the singing scene's construction. "He said, 'I’m not going to cut around this. We’ll do two different setups of this but I really want it to be pretty much all in one.' It made me even more nervous and he said, 'If it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. We won’t put it in the movie. I’d like the whose song. But if we only get a quarter of it, it’ll only be a quarter of it.'"

According to Jones, Swank "sang that song six times to get that scene. The essential thing about that scene was a dolly track that moved 180-degrees from this profile to head on to that profile. You do that in two different sizes, medium and close, going both directions. And then you lock off over there; it was eight times."

Obviously, Jones was a technically attentive director.  No small feat under the best circumstances, but remarkable given that he was both directing and acting in most scenes. 

His leading lady was effusive in her praise, saying, "He’s truly extraordinary. Tommy Lee comes alive in a different way when he’s in that element of doing what he loves, and for me, it’s hard enough to figure out my character, let alone wear all the hats that he wore as the co-writer and as the director, and the actor. And to just be as together as he was, and being at the helm of all of those things, I have to honestly tell you that I didn’t want this to be over; I wanted it to continue going on. I even made a joke saying, 'TV’s not my medium,' only because I like to play a character and then let it go and find the next character. I don’t know how I would do playing a character year after year, but if this could have gone into TV series, I would have been really happy."

"I really enjoyed it at every level as an artist and all of the things I was able to sponge off of this veteran, and just being under his guidance," she said. "And also when you work with a director who’s also acting with you, there’s a shorthand. He knows how to say something in a few words to get the point across."

When our man Philbrick inquired about Jones's learning curve on his second feature film as director, he replied, "It gets easier to budget my time hour by hour. So I suppose that’s a learning process."

"My education as a film maker has been entirely practical. I started working professionally in the film business since 1970 and I have been at it steadily since. I pay a lot of attention and I’ve worked with some really good directors and some very bad ones. I learned a great deal from both. From the untalented people you learn what not to do, and when you work with highly talented people you want to emulate them. So as I said my education has been practical or on the job training," he concluded. "Everyday is a bigger, broader, brighter day then the day before."

The Homesman opens in select cities Friday, November 21st, 2014.

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