The onscreen husband and wife discuss working with Paul Haggis
Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon were in Los Angeles recently to promote their new post-war drama, In the Valley of Elah.
The independent film stars Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, James Franco, Frances Fisher, Jonathon Tucker, Jason Patric, Josh Brolin, Jake McLaughlin, Victor Wolf, Mehcad Brooks and Wes Chatham.
On his first weekend back after serving in Iraq, Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) goes missing and is reported AWOL. When Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones), a former military MP and his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) get the phone call with the disturbing news, Hank sets out to search for their son. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), a police detective in the jurisdiction where Mike was last seen, reluctantly helps him in his search. As the evidence grows, her missing person's case begins to look more and more like foul play, and soon Sanders finds herself in a fight with the military brass as she and Hank struggle to keep control of the investigation. But when the truth about Mike's time in Iraq finally begins to emerge, Hank's entire world is challenged and he's forced to reevaluate long-held beliefs to solve the mystery behind his son's disappearance.
We attended a press-conference with both Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon, and here is what they both had to say:
Susan, was there more to your role than we saw ... I was disappointing as a big fan of yours...
Susan Sarandon (SS): It's a little misleading when you see the trailer and my entire parts are in the trailer. There was one scene that was cut. It was the scene where before he drops me off, I say "come home and you don't have to stay". Kind of a soft scene after the identification of the body, I think you just see me getting in, but there is actually dialogue in the truck, but it was a small part, it was even smaller when he asked me to do it. I didn't know what to do with it and it just seemed like there really wasn't a point of view in terms of her character and then he worked on it a little bit more and.
And what led you to this as much as there was a smaller role?
SS: Because I think that, this man I've worked with before and he just seemed born to play that part and I thought it would be exciting to have a chance to do some of those scenes with him, but I also felt that it was really time to deliver something that acknowledge that war does terrible things to people and takes really good people and fucks them up in a way that's pretty significant and we've had a real disconnect between the politicized war and the actual war and I thought this a good way to start a dialogue. so I, you know, it's a very clever film because it's a who-done-it and everything else and I thought it stood a good chance of being a good film.
Why were you born to play this part, Tommy Lee Jones?
SS: I said it, not him...
I'd like his reaction to that
TLJ: I don't know. I'm an actor, I'm always looking for work. I was born to do that (Susan chuckles).
Why did you want to do this and do you see this as very similar to the role in the Coen Brothers film where you...
TLJ: No, I don't see it similar at all. I hope not. I try as hard as I can for everything to be different from one movie to the next and wanted to take this role ... at first, I said "no", but then I started thinking about it and decided that "dang, it's actually about something" and if we do it well, I think every single American would be able to relate to it. It's about something that we all have in common. If you have not been to Iraq or Afghanistan and going to war and come home, you are kin to somebody who has, and if you are not, you have been paying attention to it everyday and it's been speaking to you in the dead of night. This is something that everybody has in common. It's timely and I ... that's what appealed to me that it was actually something important.
The actors we spoke to who played the role of the arm forces, they said that they felt like the plot didn't skew to far to blue or red states per se. Did you feel like there was a universal storyline in that sense, or did you feel there was a protest message to the finished product of the movie in terms of the Iraq war?
SS: The thing is not about if the war was right or wrong, it's about who's left afterwards. It's about the effect of a war, especially a war, where there's, you're not fighting people in uniforms and you are in a civilian population and you have nowhere to be safe. What that does to somebody, I would hope that would skew to everybody because we're not taking responsibility for these people when they come back.
Jake (McLaughlin) also said that Mr. Jones gave him the direction "don't say your lines too fast". Could you explain why that's a problem in acting?
TLJ: Well, lately in the last, you know, I'll take 10-15 years, you'll find that if you pay attention to the vocal presentation of our young people, they tend to talk very, very fast and swallow half of their words and it's almost illegible. So the point is legibility.
SS: Although Maureen Stapleton once said to me "honey, just talk fast and get off". Maybe she was talking about theatre?
TLJ: I'm sure she also meant "talk clear".
Tommy Lee Jones, there is such great chemistry between you and Charlize Theron. What are your general impressions in the scenes...
TLJ: She's a wonderful actress ... very talented, lot of fun to be around. She's very funny and inexhaustible and...
Would you play your scenes in different ways with her or did you guys find the beat that seems to be on the screen in this sort of ... nail the scenes fairly quickly?
TLJ: No, we nailed them very quickly, not very difficult, but she was prepared. I try to stay ready and we knew what the hell we were doing ... and it's just keep doing until all the other people are satisfied ... the crew, the people with camera, lights, whatever.
The two of you seemed to have these phone conversations through the movie. How did you do that, I mean, you're in separate...?
SS: He called in Manhattan for the first time, he was working before I was. I just went down to the end, and so, I was sobbing in my bedroom and then I came back and did the other thing later
You were on the phone with each other when you were filming this?
SS: Yeah, it was hard, remember? There were all those difficulties in ... he had to do something which was very hard because he had to actually call me. It wasn't like he was ready to go. You had to deal with...
TLJ: I had to get through on the telephone. It helps, it makes you feel like you're trying to get through on the telephone. Had to dial her up and go through the switchboard in the little old motel and that makes you feel certain ways and effects the way you look and the way you sound and a useful process and we didn't have any worries at all about Susan. We already knew each other and she was ready the very moment she picked up the phone, but this example of what professionals have to do because the only communication between the two actors in the scene was the telephone. I had this
"OK Susan, they are adjusting the light ... now, OK, there's the clapper. OK Susan ... and cameras ready. OK. Action." ...
Booooo hoooo hooo (i.e hysterical crying). That's about the way it worked.
Did you feel like you were sort of a mentor with the three young veterans (in the movie), who for maybe Jake it was his first film?
TLJ: Yeah, I don't know that it's "mentor". You see the ... any Susan does it, we all do it, if you see ... some actors ... there's something you'd say to a young actor that make their lives easier and by way of advice, you always do it. That's the only way acting is taught really, it's a Socratic descent.
Did you talk about working with Paul Haggis? What is his traits and weaknesses are?
SS: Well, by the time I got there, they were exhausted so I don't think my experiences is the same as Tommy Lee's because I got there toward the very end and they exhausted their long-take things and everything and I think he, at least for me, he was, we didn't do the way it was in the beginning. I think Paul, he's very clear on his idea of how things, and what he wants. There were some things that I had a problem with, that he helped with and other things he refuse to, so I think he's very ... I'll always rather be in a ship that's got a captain that has some vision. It doesn't really matter to me if I want to go out dancing with him later, I just want somebody who cares about what they are doing, which he does. He fought to make this film and it was a difficult film to get up and, so you are working with somebody who, who really is, not just waiting to go out to dinner at the end of the day. He really is committed to it, so I think that helps. By the time I got there, it was like being the youngest in the family. My experience with the parents were very different than the first child.
OK first child (i.e. TLJ), what was your experience?
TLJ: He does care about his work and is bound and determined to get the desire result. He's finding his way as a director. The road to the result is sometimes a bit more twisty and windy and rockier than it should be , but that's only to be expected from a person who doesn't have a lot of experience around movie sets. The important thing is that he, you arrive at your destination. You tend to forget how many times you run the tires off of your pickup getting there.
You each have a many interesting projects coming up. Susan, can you tell us about Speed Racer?
SS: Did you see the cartoon?
SS: That's it!!!!! It's a wild. I can't even begin to tell you about Speed Racer, the Wachowski Brothers are really brilliant and really fun and big hearted and I loved working with them and it's an international cast. We have Rain who is a Korean rock star and Hiro from this Kung Fu, but you're still, you're kind of a cartoon. It's the first time I've really worked with a chimpanzee. It was definitely a lesson in surrendering to a world that I couldn't even comprehend because of the way it was being filmed and everything is so extraordinary and I have a tiny ... I mean, I'm there all the time, but I server pancakes.
You're playing the mom in the cartoon ... so, do you have that look that ... are you playing her faithfully to the cartoon?
SS: My hair's in a flip. Yeah, we play it naturally. It's not exaggerated, but we are playing it naturally, but the whole world around us is crazy.
Are you a cartoon in Enchanted as the evil Queen?
SS: No, that's different ... I am a cartoon in Enchanted which then, as we pop up in Times Square, I become a person, but we were cartoons. Speed Racer, we're playing it, kind of for real, in this world which is kind of like "The Jetsons" meets I don't know what ... everything is very, very bright ... very infused, but in Enchanted you see as cartoons, then once I transform into the wicked whomever, I push her down that kind of vortex of some kind and Amy Adams pops up in Times Square and from that point on, everybody that pops up is a cartoon figure who now had flesh, so that's a different style of acting and it's ... I look a little like a drag queen actually when I finally...
And how about The Lovely Bones?
SS: Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson's movie, I start in October. I am doing a film with my daughter first in the middle of nowhere down in Louisiana.
TLJ: How old is she?
SS: She just turned 22 and she just did another movie, she's got a "In Bloom" is coming out at the Toronto Film Festival. She graduated from college this year with honors from Brown. Went right into another film, she done two the summer before and they are coming out now, and then she did this thing "animals" and now she's doing a movie, which is her really her movie that I get to pop in for a week to torture here.
This movie on the poster says "Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones" and you got "Academy Award winner" ... and you got No Country for Old Men which created a sensation at Cannes and is coming out in November...
SS: Did it, what was the sensation that it created?
The people thought that it was like one of the best movies that they have ever seen ... it's a great film, but do you feel at all like you are going to be competing with yourself at awards time as a "best actor"?
TLJ: I can honestly tell you that I don't give such things any thought at all. Zero.
Was it easy to work with the two Wachowskis, but they also, I understand do the storyboard and they know every shot they are going to do.
TLJ: Storyboards, yeah, are important to them and I certainly appreciate that. When I'm a director, I storyboard every frame in the movie. It's useful for the entire company, and I'll make sure everybody has access to it. I also do shot lists with diagrams of where the camera goes, what size lens is on ... and if it movies, the diagram will show you that.
SS: I'd give you money.
Susan, what's your ... I think the production notes mentioned that your initial discussion after the reading the first draft of your character's role was that "there's not much here" and then there was mention that after a revision, you said "that's good". What did you specifically want to add to your character.
SS: She had no voice, I didn't know who she was. I don't mind doing a small part when you at least have a couple of meaty scenes that tell you who the person is. I don't think he had thought about her point of view at all, so it wasn't the size as much as I just didn't understand why she was even there. She didn't function in any way...
So she didn't have that line that said "Why did you have to take both of my boys"?
SS: No, and I actually had an objection to the fact that there were two boys. I didn't understand why you needed that first boy because I didn't know how that had affected our relationship and I felt that it was somewhat manipulative ... "wasn't one enough"? But, he felt that it was important because they have gotten through one and now they were challenged by another one and is something that he was adamant about that, so that didn't get changed, but that was in there ... but that was about it. So he did a little bit more, something to hold on to.
Was the phone scene added? ... while you're breaking down on the phone?
SS: No, it was changed slightly but no, that was there, but that was about it. But I didn't know ahead of time ... now a lot of the stuff he added has been cut, so, but I guess at it helped me at least to figure out where I was, but you never know.
I'm just wondering about this film and No Country for Old Men about saying something about, something very dire about the state of America at the moment. I'm wondering if either or both of these movies express feelings that you have about the state of the country?
TLJ: I don't consider my private feelings to be relevant in any way, actually. I don't have any political statements to make other than what he can see or divine or discern from looking at my work.
Both of you have had such successful careers making movies for the world to appreciate. Have there been any movies that you have seen that you felt were significant that changed the way you look at the world, or thought about yourself?
SS: I loved The Lives of Others recently ... I was also interested in the way it was done. If that had been done by an American TV kind of aesthetic that sometimes permeates a lot of the way things are paced and shot and everything, and I thought that it was just really ... I felt like I had a sorbet to cleanse my palate, it was really like a beautiful vision of whatever the context was historically, but also the power of art and music and I really love that aspects of it ... that was film that moved me.
TLJ:Pan's Labyrinth was a good movie.
SS: I was just going say "Pan's Labyrinth". Absolutely, because it takes us somewhere again. It was something original. It's really hard to find stuff that is original. You pick up scripts and in four pages you know where it's going and the same thing when you are sitting in a theatre, I just rejoice when something unfolds in a way that I'm not conducive...
TLJ:Pan's Labyrinth is a very elegant movie. Who could be more creative and imaginative in their lives than a ten-year old girl? And who could be less than what a Franco's fucking fascist and to see the two meet and to see how they interact was done quite beautifully I thought.
In the Valley of Elah opens nationwide on September 14th.