Rebel, rebel: Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly cast as the Republican abolitionist in Lincoln

 

Tommy Lee Jones is staring out over Central Park. It's late winter in New York but the park is a rich spectrum of autumnal colours – red, yellow and gold. It is moments such as this that make you wish for a camera.

The 66-year-old actor, illuminated by the day's dying sun, looks quite splendid in profile. That craggy, weather-beaten face of his – one so immovable it must take a super-human effort just to force a smile – has such an imperious quality to it. Should ever a space become free on Mount Rushmore, Jones' visage could ably fill the gap.

Today, it's not him playing president; rather, that's left to Daniel Day-Lewis, cast as the 16th caretaker of the White House, Abraham Lincoln, in Steven Spielberg's heavyweight biopic Lincoln. Set in 1865, in the last months of Lincoln's life before his assassination, the film charts his attempts to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States. A sombre, serious-minded work, it is fast-emerging as a frontrunner in this year's awards season; it has dominated the Oscar nominations, with 12 nods, leads the pack at the Baftas (with 10) and led the Golden Globes (with seven).

Jones co-stars as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican abolitionist who frequently locks political antlers with Lincoln. It's a firecracker of a part – one that's already seen him nominated for a Globe and a Bafta and provided him with the fourth Oscar nod of his career (he won Best Supporting Actor back in 1994 for his US Marshal in The Fugitive, the archetypal Jones role – a man of character, conviction and rock-hard moral fibre). Just don't attempt to swing him round to discussing anything as frivolous as the Oscar race: "I don't think about it or talk about it!"

This is Jones all over. A man of precious few words, this enigmatic eighth-generation Texan, with palms as wide as cattle plains and cowhide skin, is like a figure from a bygone era. Actor, director, cattle rancher, polo player, one-time oil-rig worker, Harvard literature graduate and former college football star, his appearance is gentleman's tailor immaculate, his manner as tightly wound as the Windsor knot in his tie. It's not my first meeting with Jones; he is, what you might call, a tricky customer. His answers can be taciturn, his mood prickly, and woe betide if you make a generalisation.

I still mildly tremble every time I think back to the conversation we had around the time of Men in Black II, where we got on to the subject of actors making excessive demands on set. He wanted specifics; I blanked. "I'm not trying to put you on the spot, but I'm trying to indicate that these are rumours," he said. "I personally don't lead a pampered life. I personally don't have any wants, needs, wishes or requirements on a movie set that don't serve the work. As far as these spoilt, demanding actors that you're talking about, I wonder why you can't tell me what they're asking for." Short of any concrete evidence, I finally admitted I'd made a generalisation. "That's what I wanted to hear you say. You can leave me out of the generalising."

A man of dualities, like the villain he played in Batman Forever, Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, he is both blue-collar and blue-chip. A voracious reader, who performed in Shakespeare, Brecht and Pinter at Harvard, he speaks in a staccato cadence, using arcane phrases such as "the motion-picture industry". I ask whether he senses that he is an imposing figure. "Journalists ask me that question all the time. It seems an easy and appealing question for a journalist. I don't know why. It seems something they are hungry for. It's a line, an angle, it doesn't require a lot of work. It's almost a rumour, and rumours are worth money." Do you think of yourself as a man's man? "No, I don't think of myself as a man's man, or intimidating… I don't have anything to say about image."

The trouble is, it's too easy to characterise Jones as a curmudgeon – the real-life incarnation of Ty Cobb, the baseball icon he so expertly played in 1994's Cobb. He also has a dry-as-a-bone humour – put to great effect in the Men in Black trilogy, in which he plays an alien-hunting agent, but also in a series of commercials for Boss, a Japanese k canned coffee, in which he plays "Alien Jones", an extraterrestrial who has landed on Earth in human form to learn our customs and culture. One spot has him working in a store, donning a headband with two plastic eyeballs on springs that light up; Tommy Lee Jones wearing deely-boppers is, indeed, a sight to behold.

Thankfully, he's in the mood to talk today. When he finds out I'm from London, he mentions a recent foray there with Dawn Laurel, his third wife, whom he married in 2001. What was he doing ? "I don't know what the hell I was doing!" he jokes. "Oh, I know what it was…" It was an auction of his wife's pictures. Laurel, who worked as assistant camera-person on The Good Old Boys, a TV film Jones directed in 1995, is a professional photographer, and both she and Jones recently undertook an expedition to Antarctica, with the Climate Reality Project, an eco-group involved in education and advocacy surrounding climate change, started by former vice president Al Gore. "She took a lot of pictures down there and the Climate Reality group liked them so much, they put on an exhibition, and auction in London. So we were there to hang that show and attend the auction."

His voice softens, as he thinks back to his wife's work. "She took some beautiful pictures there. Of course, the ice is melting, and these pictures dramatised that somewhat. They're very beautiful pictures. She sold 17 and that brought in a little over $401,000 to support this organisation that we actually are a part of."

A former dorm-mate of Gore's at Harvard, Jones has remained close friends with the man ever since; he even presented the nominating speech at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, when Gore stood to become the party's presidential nominee (noting that, "Al's the closest thing I've had to a brother"). But he prefers to reminisce about his time in London than his student days with Gore. He recalls looking out on to the city, a typically bleak London day. "I'd been thinking about India, North America, Australia… I was thinking about imperialism. I wondered what motivated the English to leave Europe and steal all that land. It occurred to me – hell, those guys were just trying to get off that island!"

Since we're plundering the pages of history, I ask whether making Lincoln made him reflect on America's history. "Of course!" he says, almost surprised I should ask. But, I mean, in a way you hadn't thought about it before? "No. I don't think so. It was like visiting history, though, in a way. Janusz Kaminski [Spielberg's regular cinematographer] did such a wonderful job of creating 19th-century light, and the sets, the clothes, the hair and the language were all tickets to ride into mid-19th-century America. For actors, that's a lot of fun."

Despite his distinguished career, he'd never worked with Spielberg before. Was it an ambition? He nods. "It makes you feel pretty good about yourself. You wake up in the morning and say, 'Hey, I want to go work with Steven Spielberg today,' and that's a good feeling. Not all people experience that." The feeling was clearly mutual, as Spielberg told the Los Angeles Times recently: "Tommy is not just a subtle solo instrument. There is an entire symphony orchestra inside that man, and I knew this when I cast him in the hope that he would represent the Thaddeus Stevens that history tells us was flamboyant, volatile, radically determined and, to some, even tender-hearted."

Jones is all of those things and more. Stevens, the Machiavellian chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who pushed tariff and tax policies to finance the Civil War, acts as a counterpoint to Lincoln – emotionalising and intellectualising the bid to abolish slavery (not least because of his relationship with his black housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith). Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg's producer, says Jones "immediately understood" Stevens. "I don't know that I understood him right away," he counters. "I understood him once I'd read the biographies and done the thinking. I try to be prepared."

Stevens being cursed with a club foot and alopecia, the ailment that causes baldness and body-hair loss, means that Jones wears a wig throughout – a rather incongruous-looking mop-top. He even volunteered to shave his eyebrows, until Spielberg told him those whiskery canopies were the most expressive part of his face. I wonder whether he felt nervous, working with Spielberg and the transformative Day-Lewis? "I don't know," he growls. "I'm immune to pressure." Really? "I don't respond to it. I feel it because people try to put it on to you but I don't respond to it." Why are you like that? Is it just the way you are? "Yeah."

Trying to psychoanalyse Jones is like trying to prise open a coconut with a needle. He is clam-tight, presumably the fallout from his tempestuous Texan childhood, which he once called "psychically horrifying", defined as it was by his parents' drunken arguments. Does he ever look back on his earlier life? "No, I don't do a lot of looking back," he sighs, sounding weary. Is that a good maxim to live by? "Yeah," he mutters, momentarily confused. "It's good to think about… I don't know… 'Don't look back.' It's just like a bumper sticker. I don't know what the hell it means!"

A self-described "oil-patch kid", he was born in San Saba, the only child of Clyde Jones, an oil-field worker, k and Lucille Marie, who worked variously as a policewoman and school teacher, and owned a beauty parlour. He developed an early passion for football (the American sort) and won a scholarship to the prestigious St Marks' prep school in Dallas, before being accepted – also on a scholarship – to Harvard. Graduating cum laude with a BA in English, he moved to New York, where he began acting in theatre, paid some dues on daytime soap One Life to Live, then made his big-screen debut as Ryan O'Neal's roommate in 1970's Love Story.

A year later, Jones married his first wife, Kate Lardner, granddaughter of veteran writer/columnist Ring Lardner. Their marriage lasted for seven years, by which point Jones had played Howard Hughes in a TV movie, starred in cult thriller Rolling Thunder (a favourite of Quentin Tarantino) and won plaudits for his psycho cop opposite Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars. He remarried in 1981, this time to actress Kimberlea Cloughley, whom he met when she was an extra on Back Roads, the film he made with his Lincoln co-star Sally Field. Together, they had two children – Austin, now 30, and Victoria, 22.

While he went on to an Emmy-winning turn as real-life Death Row inmate Gary Gilmore in 1982's The Executioner's Song, the remainder of the decade was largely forgettable – at least until he played his ex-Texan Ranger in the celebrated 1989 mini-series Lonesome Dove (gaining a second Emmy nomination). The 1990s were altogether more eventful: a first Oscar nod, for his flamboyant socialite Clay Shaw in Oliver Stone's JFK, the Oscar win for The Fugitive, a Batman movie and an end to his second marriage, in 1996.

A third Oscar nod came for his distraught father in 2007's post-Iraq film In the Valley of Elah – but Jones still claims concern for his career. "I don't have any reprieve from worry. Every actor has that moment when he realises he'll never work again. Every actor has that. There's no security in this job." However tough he may seem, you can sense vulnerability in Jones. He once told me what a "hero" Clint Eastwood is to him; they previously worked together on Eastwood's astronaut yarn Space Cowboys. "I'd like to be more like Clint than I am… I admire his approach to cinema, his way of working, his leadership qualities, his relaxed sense of humour, his authority. I just like Clint."

Jones did manage to emulate Eastwood – directing 2005's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a border Western infused with the spirit of Sam Peckinpah, which also won him a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Hollywood willing, he will direct again – The Homesman, a prairie-set period piece which he hopes to shoot in New Mexico this year. He'll next be seen in Emperor, yet another true-life tale, this time playing Second World War leader General Douglas MacArthur – a man Jones calls "heroic in the face of opposition".

Having also just shot Malavita, an action-thriller with Robert De Niro, their first collaboration, it caps a remarkable period in a remarkable career. Given his work ethic – those working-class values instilled in that Texas upbringing – you sense that retirement is still a distant speck on the horizon. Immune to pressure, worried about getting the next job – he's a mass of contradictions. One more attempt to put him on the couch: does he ever feel dogged by responsibility? "I suppose," he muses. "If responsibility is a burden – and I'm not sure it is – I feel it every day, no matter what I'm doing." I feel like I should salute him.

'Lincoln' (12A) opens on 25 January

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