Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank bring the stark reality of the Nebraska frontier to life on the big screen in the beautiful and brutal drama The Homesman.
Tommy Lee Jones is hungry. He’s so hungry he’s calling my cell phone to intercept me before I get to his home in Santa Fe for an interview about his new movie, The Homesman. We’ll be meeting instead at Santacafé, an in-crowd fine-dining spot and one of his favorite haunts.
Today the restaurant is definitely making good on its claim that it’s frequented by the famous and infamous and has some of the best people-watching in town. Jones walks into the historic adobe looking great in a cream-colored straw hat and aviator shades. If people notice, he’s not paying attention.
A no-nonsense man, he avoids preliminary pleasantries. He sits down and suggests I have the “best thing on the menu” — the hot dog with sauerkraut, which is what he’s having. But I go with a veggie omelet, and without further ado, we get down to business discussing The Homesman.
Filmed primarily on location in New Mexico about 100 miles from where we’re lunching, the movie, which premieres November 7, stars Jones as a dishonest claim jumper who teams up with a devout pioneer woman to escort three insane women from Nebraska to Iowa across the 1850s frontier. Variety calls it a “sturdy cross-country western” and opines that it “shares more than just an actor in common with Lonesome Dove.”
But The Homesman, Jones’ first directorial outing since his acclaimed contemporary western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada nine years ago, is its own unique movie. Based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout, who also wrote The Shootist, The Homesman revolves mainly around women and the terrible tolls that living on the hardscrabble frontier exacts. Jones managed to attract a stellar cast (Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep) and top-tier cinematographer (Rodrigo Prieto of The Wolf of Wall Street, Argo, Brokeback Mountain, and Babel fame), and get the beautiful and expansive film made for less than $16 million.
“Michael Fitzgerald sent me the book and asked me if I thought there was a movie in it,” Jones says. “I thought there was a good movie in it, so I moved forward and bought the rights and we were underway. It was always my intention to produce, write, direct, and act in the film.”
The Homesman caused a stir at the Cannes Film Festival for Jones’ hard vision of women traveling across the country, human frailties in an inhospitable world on raw display. “We didn’t think about westerns or genre or anything except making a movie about American history from our own point of view,” Jones said during a press conference in Cannes, where the film first screened in mid-May. “The journey is the inverse of what you usually see in a movie that has wagons and horses in it. And the subject matter is women, insane women, not so-called heroic men.”
Hilary Swank’s devout Mary Bee Cuddy is on a mission to transport the women in a wagon through the Nebraska Territory to Iowa, where a Methodist minister and his wife (Meryl Streep) have organized a charitable relocation service. But Cuddy can’t make the dangerous journey alone, and, tasked with finding a “homesman,” or escort, she desperately settles for George Briggs (Jones).
When she first happens upon Briggs, he is sitting on a very unsteady horse with a noose around his neck. In exchange for saving his neck and cutting the rope, she gets him to agree to accompany the women to their destination. Thus begins a sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal trek that will subject the pathetic party to Indian attacks, ice storms, loneliness, and the difficulties of trying to corral a group of mentally ill women.
“I was very lucky that Hilary Swank was enthusiastic about playing Mary Bee Cuddy,” Jones says. “Her character’s relationship with mine changed over the journey, and even though we were the only two who spoke, the other relationships were quite complex. The relationship between Mary Bee and Briggs is at first distrustful and goes through many variations until it winds up intimate, and ultimately very sad.”
The Homesman isn’t a classic western romance in the tradition of Westward the Women or How the West Was Won. If there is a love story in it, it’s more an unromanticized look at the complexities of human bonds on the frontier and a harder look at the bitter downside of the relentless quest to settle the West. Some critics have called it a reverse western for its west-to-east trajectory; some have called it an anti-western for its themes.
“I won’t try to hide the fact that a consideration of American imperialism on the west side of the Mississippi River is the film’s underlying theme,” Jones told reporters at Cannes, where he was nominated for a Palme d’Or. “It’s a consideration of the history of westward expansion, a way of looking at what the schoolchildren of America learn when the subject of Manifest Destiny comes up.”
That consideration comes to life in the stories of the three “cuckoo clocks”: 19-year-old Arabella Sours (played by Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer), who loses her three children to diphtheria in three days; Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto), who tosses her infant down an outhouse to freeze, unable to contemplate raising a fourth child with no heat or food to spare; and barren Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter), who attacks her husband with a knife after he fruitlessly forces himself upon her one too many times and leaves her mother’s dead body out in the Nebraska snow.
Although the mentally unstable women speak very little in the film, casting the roles required a lot of thought and introspection. “I interviewed Miranda Otto on the patio of a little bungalow at The Beverly Hills Hotel,” Jones says. “She came with another woman, who was a costume designer, and brought along an interesting hat. Miranda put it on and I took a picture of her in the sunlight. It was a compelling image.”
Contemplating the casting of the two Scandinavian immigrants, Jones was worried about how to write their dialogue, “which would have inevitably been accented by their native language,” he says. “I ultimately said ‘the hell with this’ and we called the best casting agent in Denmark and asked who the very best actors of this age category were.” Thus he scored Sonja Richter and David Dencik, who plays her husband.
Jones had a more personal connection with Grace Gummer. He had seen Streep’s second daughter, whose big sister is actress Mamie Gummer, in the Broadway play Arcadia. After meeting with Grace, “sitting around an actors restaurant eating oysters and drinking chardonnay, and knowing her mother pretty well, it didn’t take me long to read her mind about being right for the role of Arabella,” Jones says.
In Swank, Jones had his final frontier woman — not one broken by its unforgiving cruelties, but one forged into a paragon of strength. No stranger to strong female roles, Swank carries off the “plain as an old pail” Mary Bee Cuddy with the same authenticity that earned her Oscars for roles playing similarly tough characters in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby. “I like real people,” she explained at Cannes. “I like real women. It’s obviously subjective what people find pretty or not. I’ve had a lot of people say Maggie Fitzgerald from Million Dollar Baby or Mary Bee Cuddy in this film are beautiful because they’re natural and real.”
The role appealed, Swank said, because Cuddy “has fortitude, she has good morals. I think we’ve lost a lot of our virtues in our world today, so it was nice to play a character who has strong values.” As she explained it, the movie asks one basic question about the Western settler’s plight: “Ultimately how much can a person take? We’re talking about a time that was extreme in every way. It was a hard, hard place to live.”
If Swank saw moral goodness and strength in her character, what attracted Jones to the ne’er-do-well Briggs? The answer suggests itself when Jones explains a scene in which his character finds and rescues Arabella from a bad guy (with worse intentions) after she wanders away from the campsite. Even though Arabella and the other two women have lost touch with reality, “they didn’t want to be abandoned and understood there was goodness associated with Briggs, who was doing his best to shuck goodness and responsibility. But ultimately he was unable to leave them.”
The Homesman is a critical look at westward expansion, but it’s also a picture about human connection and our essential humanity. Jones’ observation about fundamental goodness might be nothing more than what would naturally occur to a Harvard English lit major. But it might also be a personal glimpse into a guy who typically plays it close to the vest with reporters and has a reputation for being prickly and peevish in interviews.
Less the easygoing, affable cowboy type and more the intense, stoic sort, Jones is an eighth-generation Texan. He was born in the small Central Texas town of San Saba outside of San Antonio, where he now keeps a cattle and horse ranch. He left the Lone Star State after high school to attend Harvard University. There he famously roomed with future Vice President Al Gore, played offensive guard on Harvard’s undefeated football team, and majored in English, graduating cum laude in l969.
After graduation, Jones moved to New York to become an actor and immediately got cast in a Broadway play. The next year he appeared in his first film, the frequently maligned Love Story, and he’s been working ever since in roles as diverse as Woodrow F. Call in Lonesome Dove, U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive (for which he won an Oscar), Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln, and Agent K in the Men in Black franchise.
When he’s not on set making movies, the 68-year-old Jones is bound to be in the saddle on the polo field. He’s been riding horses for most of his life and is a supporter of both the San Saba and Harvard polo teams. With six polo fields of his own — two in San Saba County, Texas; two in Palm Beach County, Florida; and two in Argentina — Jones can partake of polo year-round, because, as he says, “It’s always summer somewhere.” The Harvard team goes down to his polo fields in Argentina during Christmas and spring vacations, and annually holds preseason practice at his fields in San Saba. “If a kid is able to gain admission, diligent enough to stay in school, and dedicates himself to the sport of polo, all the polo fields are available to him or her.”
Film and polo run in the Jones family. Tommy’s son from his second marriage, Austin Leonard Jones, was a music supervisor on The Homesman, and his daughter from that same marriage, actress Victoria Kafka Jones, had roles in Men in Black II and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Jones’ wife, Dawn, is a noted photographer with her own IMDb listing of credits for her assistant camera work and movie still photography. She’s also an accomplished polo player who has been at the game for more than a decade. Two years ago she won the U.S. Women’s Open “as the most valuable player,” Tommy says proudly. “We’re building a team for next year’s Women’s Open. My 22-year-old daughter, Victoria, who just finished the acting program at SUNY Purchase and has a small role in The Homesman, also plays polo.”
We’ve long since finished off our lunch at Santacafé and adjourned to Jones’ beautiful Santa Fe home with a bottle of very good wine that is keeping the conversation flowing. Jones is uncharacteristically open when he pulls out some family photos to share — self-portraits of Dawn and shots of Victoria on a trip to Japan when he was shooting a TV commercial there.
Looking ahead, he’s got “eight days of fishing in the panhandle in Idaho, where cell phones don’t work,” and another collaboration with writing partner Wesley Oliver, who co-wrote The Homesman screenplay along with Kieran Fitzgerald and Miles Swarthout [see “A Father’s Western Legacy,” page 118], on a remake of the John Wayne classic The Cowboys for Warner Bros. Jones will write and direct, but he won’t let on if he’ll play the lead.
It’s easy though — even without the heady effects of a fine malbec and the striking New Mexico light — to see a gruff Tommy Lee Jones as the iconic Wil Andersen, taking immature young cowboys under his crusty old wing and making men out of them for the tough job ahead.
From the July 2014 issue.