Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon Interview, In The Valley of Elah

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline recently sat down with Academy Award winners Tommy Lee Jones ("The Fugitive,” "Men in Black”) and Susan Sarandon ("Dead Man Walking,” "Alfie”) at the Los Angeles press day for their new film, "In the Valley of Elah.” The thought-provoking suspense drama inspired by true events is directed by acclaimed filmmaker Paul Haggis ("Crash”) and also stars Oscar-winner Charlize Theron ("North Country,” "Monster”).

On his first weekend back after serving in Iraq, Mike Deerfield (Jonathan Tucker) goes missing and is reported AWOL. When Hank Deerfield (Jones), a former military MP and his wife Joan (Sarandon) get the phone call with the disturbing news, Hank sets out to find their son. Emily Sanders (Theron), a police detective in the jurisdiction where Mike was last seen, reluctantly helps him in his search.

As the evidence grows, Sander’s missing person’s case begins to look more and more like foul play, and soon she 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.

Tommy Lee Jones was awarded the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Golden Globe Award for his portrayal of the uncompromising U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard in the box office hit "The Fugitive” in 1994. Three years before Jones receives his first Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Clay Shaw in Oliver Stone’s "JFK.”  Jones recently directed and starred in the critically acclaimed "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” which debuted in competition at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Jones won Best Actor and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga won Best Screenplay for this film about friendship and murder along the Texas-Mexican border.

Susan Sarandon is an extremely versatile actress who brings her own brand of sex appeal and intelligence to every role – from her fearless portrayal in "Bull Durham” to her Oscar-nominated performances in "Thelma and Louise,” "Lorenzo’s Oil,” "The Client,” and "Atlantic City” to her Academy Award-winning and SAG Award winning role in "Dead Man Walking” as Sister Helen, a nun consoling a death-row inmate. Sarandon was recently seen in "Alfie” opposite Jude Law, in "Shall We Dance” with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez and in "Noel” with Robin Williams, Paul Walker and Penelope Cruz. The hard-working actress has made a career of choosing diverse and challenging projects both in film and television.

Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon are terrific actors and we really appreciated their time. Here’s what they had to tell us about their new movie:

TOMMY LEE JONES: Good morning. OK. It’s OK to speak.

MoviesOnline: Can you both talk about being contacted by Paul and your thoughts on saying yes to the script?

SUSAN SARANDON: You can go first.

TOMMY LEE JONES: He sent me the script and I read it and thought, "I don’t have time to do this” and told him. And then he asked me again and [my] schedule cleared up and I started thinking about it at that point and realized that the movie is about something and it has some originality to it. It was time to go to work anyway, so I thought, ‘What better thing to do?’ It was appealing.

SUSAN SARANDON: OK. (Laughs.) I got the script and Tommy Lee was attached to it already and I thought, "Well, that’s brilliant, but I don’t know what to do with this part.” Because at that time it was even less than what it is now.

TOMMY LEE JONES: Well, it wasn’t any good at first. It was kind of thin.

SUSAN SARANDON: I just didn’t know what to do with it and I said, "I really think you’re missing the voice of this wife. You know, I’ve had a lot of contact with women who have lost kids, because I’ve been dealing a lot with the vets and I’m not quite sure what to do with it.” So, he came back and he wrote a little bit more. And actually there was another scene that was cut eventually and I just thought it was a great opportunity. I thought Tommy Lee was an excellent choice and that it was smart and an interesting way to get into this kind of a dialogue and that it was a film that really should be made. It was just a short period of time and the last time I spent any time with Tommy Lee was also in Memphis, so I felt incredibly nostalgic about that.

TOMMY LEE JONES: Mmmm. There was a very thin role on paper and Susan did some work with the screenwriter and was able to fill it up and make it real and worthwhile for everybody…


TOMMY LEE JONES: … and I hope for her as well.

MoviesOnline: Do you think this movie is saying particular things about this war?

TOMMY LEE JONES: Well, the way to respond to that is to say that this movie is about something that all Americans have in common. If you have not been to Iraq and come back, you’re kin to somebody who has. And if you haven’t been a comeback and if you’re not kin to anybody who has, you know somebody who has. And you read about it in the paper everyday and it’s in the front of everybody’s mind. So, it’s about something that we all have in common. I think that’s the real answer to the question you are wanting to ask.

SUSAN SARANDON: I think that also, it’s just time to acknowledge that war, especially of this nature, really changes people. And you are never the same however that manifests itself and there really has been a dialogue that’s been about a politicized war, but not that much dialogue about the actual war and what it really costs. And this is a great place to start. It doesn’t have the answers, but it poses some questions and it is a specific story that actually happened and it’s a nice way to try and begin a dialogue that deals with some real issues and some problems and huge numbers of people that are coming back that are changed by this experience which we would like to not think about.

MoviesOnline: Can both of you talk about what inspired your characters and what research you did to lend authenticity to your performances?

TOMMY LEE JONES: Well, there is a good documentary called "The Ground Truth” that we looked at a couple of times. And then there was an episode on "48 Hours” about this particular family upon which the movie is loosely based. We watched that a few times. And then other than that, you just read the script and make sure that you are prepared. And do your best to relate freely and openly with the people you work with. Research is a pretty loose term when it comes to preparing to act in a movie, unless you’re playing a rocket scientist or an oil painter or a composer of music. You know, I don’t know what you’d do.

SUSAN SARANDON: I mean at the end of the day, you have to just make it work. There are so many stories and so many different ways that these people can be. Even though the real people were actually there for awhile, it’s not a documentary. I’ve met a lot of mothers that have lost kids and on Mother’s Day I was in [Washington] D.C. delivering letters to Laura (Bush) from the moms that have lost kids and the mom’s that have kids there. I’ve certainly heard a lot of stories. I mean you can steep yourself, but finally at the end of the day, you have to try to figure out what just makes this particular storytelling work and hope that if you make it as specific as possible to the story, it will be universal in its ramifications, but you basically just have to drop whatever the particulars were and try to make the scenes work in whatever way. Paul had a very specific vision. He’s not somebody who is improvisational and all over the place. He definitely has something in mind when he starts.

TOMMY LEE JONES: So, research is a pretty loose term. It’s hard to apply unless you can think about an actress of Susan’s abilities and think of looking somebody in the face as research.

SUSAN SARANDON: Well, when we did "The Client,” a lot of that needed to be fleshed out and we talked to lawyers and we came up with some specific things to make those scenes work because it was kind of a lot of ‘attitudeing.’ So sometimes it helps to find out actually the specific problems or what you could threaten each other with if it’s not there. That kind of thing.

TOMMY LEE JONES: Yeah, how to talk like a lawyer. [Laughs] The deepest research we do is just looking you in the eye and finding out who you are.

MoviesOnline: When you did the scenes with the two of you on the phone together, were either of you on the other line?

SUSAN SARANDON: He called me at my house. I wasn’t even there yet! I was sobbing in my bedroom and my kids were saying to me, "Are you alright? Are you alright?” because they didn’t know what was going on because he did his stuff first. This was before I even came there. So, I wasn’t even sure if I was speaking with the right accent. [Laughs]

TOMMY LEE JONES: [Laughing] I wondered how she was able to go through all of that heartbreak right there instantly and she said, "We lost a basketball game!” [Laughs] So, it was really all about a basketball game.

MoviesOnline: What was it about your respective characters that appealed to you?

TOMMY LEE JONES: Personally, I’ve already touched on that. Those experiences are something that we all share and we all have in common.

SUSAN SARANDON: It’s not so much the character, I just wanted to be part of the attempt of whatever this movie is trying to do and luckily, it came at a time when I could go away for ten days or whatever and the people involved were really grade A, so I thought it’s worth my best shot. But it wasn’t so much the character. Everybody had scenes that were kind of demanding at some point, but I just thought everybody that’s involved – look at James Franco’s in it in a small part. You know, actors do that. And certainly none of us were doing it for the money. [to Tommy] Were you doing it for the money?

TOMMY LEE JONES: No. You know, there was a café – you’ll like this. Our trailers were parked on Martin Luther King Blvd in Whiteville, Tennessee. And around the corner there was a place called the Dove of Paradise Café, and really, what made the whole trip worthwhile were the pork chops and the greens.

SUSAN SARANDON: Some good music there too.

TOMMY LEE JONES: Yeah, pretty good music.

SUSAN SARANDON: Outside of Memphis, I went to a club and it was really good.

TOMMY LEE JONES: I don’t get out very much. I remember y’all went.

SUSAN SARANDON: It was at the very end of the shoot. I just got a call from Drew telling me that the old guy whose club it was died and his widow wanted me to know. I just got a message on my service.



TOMMY LEE JONES: Was it down on Mud Island?

SUSAN SARANDON: It was outside of Memphis. I have no idea where I was, but it was once we went back.

TOMMY LEE JONES: It was outside of Memphis?

SUSAN SARANDON: Yeah, yeah, it was right outside the city. It wasn’t when we were on location. Although I did get a lot of homemade fudge and some moonshine that somebody gave me. I got a lot of presents there.

TOMMY LEE JONES: So now, you really understand what acting is all about. Pork chops and moonshine.

SUSAN SARANDON: It’s the perks.


MoviesOnline: What was Paul Haggis like as a director?

SUSAN SARANDON: By the time I got to him he was worn down. I was at the very end. He was much more laid back than he was for the first month.

TOMMY LEE JONES: Yeah, he got tired. He’s finding his way as a director, figuring out how to work. He wants to feel secure and sometimes it drives him to shoot more takes than he needs to and that can get to be a drain. The results wind up being more than satisfactory, but the road(s) to the results are understandably more twisty and windy and rocky than sometimes they need to be if that makes sense.

MoviesOnline: In terms of takes, are you the type of actors who feel you can get it pretty quickly or do some scenes require more work?

SUSAN SARANDON: No, I think it is unless you are struggling over a problem with the scene. I remember Louis Malle said "Whenever you ask to smoke in a scene, I know that something is written badly.” Because if you feel hung up and you’re not clear on who is pitching and who is catching then I think you get into some complicated areas, but if it’s organic to what’s going on and you know your words and everything, then I don’t think doing 30 takes necessarily makes you better. Then it’s time to really have a talk. [Tommy laughs] And I think maybe one or two to loosen up, but I find that I’m better at the beginning and if you keep doing it, unless you are saying really specifically change something, I get pissed off.

TOMMY LEE JONES: As a director and an actor with some years of experience, I can tell you how it ought to go. And as far as I’m concerned, there is no argument. Everybody, 100 people let’s say, everybody has to be ready to get it right on the first take every time. Whatever it takes to be ready to get it right the first time is what everybody’s job is. The second take is for security so that you have a back up and in the event of some glitch in the photographic process. And the third take is for fun. The third take is what I call as a director the NRT which is the ‘no rules take.’ Everything you learned throughout rehearsal, everything you did on the first take, everything you did on the second take is simply grist for the mill and the third take is no holds barred. And if you go to the fourth take, somebody might have made a mistake. And so, you go ahead on. By the fifth take, you should be moving, leaving the scene of the crime.

MoviesOnline: What do you think when you hear of directors like Stanley Kubrick who would have their actors do 50 takes?

SUSAN SARANDON: I just worked with his first AD on "Speed Racer” and the stories. That’s crazy. I think then that’s some kind of power trip of trying to wear people down or else you’re not clear. I mean, the worst thing is when someone says, "Perfect!” and then you do it again. I mean, why would it be perfect if they ask you to do it ten more times? That’s a bit of a wank I think. Unless it’s a very complicated shot and there is a focus problem or something. That’s not your fault. That’s why it really takes everybody – you are so dependent on the other people that do their jobs to try to get… I always try to talk to the focus puller and say, "This is what I’m doing.” I mean if it was like "Dead Man Walking” or something, that this is what is going to happen. And I know a lot of these guys by now and so, they have been working all together to get the same feeling, but I don’t know why people would ask you to do 35, 40 takes. That’s just insane.

MoviesOnline: In this film, the two of you rarely appear in the same scene together. What did you do to establish your relationship and the bonds of marriage?

TOMMY LEE JONES: I don’t know. We just acted like actors. That’s about all. I don’t know. We talked mostly about…

SUSAN SARANDON: Well, the sex in the trailer, we’re not going to discuss that. [Laughs]

TOMMY LEE JONES: No, no, don’t say anything like that. [Laughs] We were talking about pork chops and moonshine basically was what it was.

SUSAN SARANDON: Well, it helped that we have a history together of having struggled through "The Client” and spent some time – which was many years ago – and so now, here we are again. So, in a way, I think the familiarity helped. When you are with somebody, they must have been together 20 something years and coming up on a 20 year anniversary myself, you know, it’s a different kind of, maybe you aren’t all cuddly. I think the fact that they – it’s a different thing. I mean, there was one scene which was cut where I thought it was a little bit more kind towards each other. The one in the truck that didn’t end up in the movie I don’t think.

TOMMY LEE JONES: I don’t know.

SUSAN SARANDON: The cut that I saw, it’s not there when I say, "Come home.” You know, I think these are people that are good friends with each other and even more than romantically involved at this point. Having already lost one child, I don’t even know what that did to them. So it is a very odd time to come into this relationship.

MoviesOnline: Tommy, was there any opportunity for you to talk to some of the fathers who have lost sons in the war, just as Susan mentioned earlier she had spoken to numerous mothers who had?

TOMMY LEE JONES: Not really, I spoke briefly to a gentleman named Lanny on whom the story is loosely based. I looked at a couple of documentaries, interviews of kids coming back, and I did as much thinking as I knew how to do, but I didn’t really interview or visit with a lot of people. The movie is based on human experience, so, if you know how to act in front of and around a movie camera and you’ve been an observant student of life, it doesn’t take you long to figure out how to play a couple that’s been married for 30 years and has lost two children to war. It didn’t take long to figure that out.

MoviesOnline: Your character could have been very aggressive and outwardly angry but instead he’s very still, very methodical, and maintains a very stoic outward appearance that seems to reflect his background and experience with the military police.

TOMMY LEE JONES: Yeah, those things are indicated in the screenplay, so you think of as many different way that you can to portray them accurately according to what the director indicates he wants to see.

MoviesOnline: When I think of the two of you in a movie, I also think of what you’re going to deliver based on past work. Does it feel that way to you? Do you feel that you carry that responsibility when you’re attached to a project, that there’s an expectation of you as Academy Award winners and as people who have repeatedly given good performances?

SUSAN SARANDON: Not until I see the poster and then it has it on the top. [Laughs] "Tommy Lee Jones, Academy Award winner, Charlize Theron, Academy Award winner, Susan Sarandon, Academy Award winner…” No, I don’t think like that. I think this is a job. It’s different than anything else I’ve done. How can I best serve the script and you give it your all. And you hope that they distribute it and you hope that they find a way to get it to people. But after all these years, I go into it more for the process than what’s going to happen afterwards. Because just too many times my heart has been broken. You work and work on something and then they decide, for whatever reasons, not to stand by it and so you never know how – you hope that it will find people that want to see it. You don’t necessarily think it’s going to be a blockbuster, but you hope that the studio will at least leave it in the theater for more than a weekend. And sometimes that doesn’t happen, especially these days with the distribution being really crazy. So, I think more about just trying to focus on what’s going to happen at that time and what I’ll learn and the people that I’ll meet and the process of doing it.

TOMMY LEE JONES: The most fun you have, the greatest joy in cinema is the privilege of shooting them. That’s what’s the most fun. I don’t go to the picture show all that often. I gotta be honest with you. But I sure do like making them.

MoviesOnline: Can you talk about working with the Wachowski brothers and filming in Berlin and also the new camera that they’re using?

SUSAN SARANDON: I love the Wachowski Brothers. Basically all I do is make pancakes in the movie and stand around serving breakfast to everybody.

TOMMY LEE JONES: What camera are they using?

SUSAN SARANDON: They’re using some high def thing that comes with guards and it’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen. I saw 10 minutes before I left, they did a special thing for me because they’re just wrapping and having a party tonight, they were still working after I left. They’re doing something where they’re layering film so that the front and the back are in focus like a cartoon and they’re also doing two dimensional and three dimensional stuff and mixing and everything is very, very saturated with some new kind of film, so they have to actually treat the actors in some way so we can hold our own with the background. So every color that wasn’t in "The Matrix” is seriously in this film.

TOMMY LEE JONES: The camera comes with guards? Like the jewelry at Cannes on the women?

SUSAN SARANDON: Yeah, yeah. When I talked to them on the phone – I’d never met them – when they asked me to do it, I had two conversations [with them] because it’s a very small part and it was a very long commitment because of the way they were shooting this. At a certain point I just said I don’t have the faintest idea of what you are talking about, I’m in. I just thought when am I ever going to get a chance to be up to my neck in something that I understand so little about and they definitely fulfilled my expectation. But they have two big, huge, widescreen things…at the end of the day you can see everything the way it’s going to be before it’s treated and they have a room of 200 or 300 guys that are doing all the background. It’s insane. And we were shooting on 4 stages and it was really interesting and a really lovely experience and all the actors were great and I was working with a monkey…I’m sorry a chimpanzee – he doesn’t like to be called a monkey. A chimp. It was wild… and they’re very, very sweet and have complete control which is every director’s dream to just have complete control of your product.

TOMMY LEE JONES: What is the movie about?

SUSAN SARANDON: It’s a cartoon called "Speed Racer” that they’re now making into a movie. What the story is about is John Goodman and I are mom and pops and he makes racing cars and it’s about the corruption of sports by corporations and of course, while we were doing it, all these horrible things were happening in the sports world – including the racing world. It’s all about cheating and betting and how things are fixed and everything else, but it’s also about family values and pancakes are love.

MoviesOnline: There is a lot of talk that it might be rated G? Are they still going for that?


MoviesOnline: Can you talk about working with the Cohen Brothers on "No Country For Old Men” and what that experience was like?

TOMMY LEE JONES: Well, it was a lot of fun. I stayed in Tusookee, which is a little town across the highway from the Opera House, north of Santa Fe. And I really liked Tusookee, it’s the third time I’ve stayed in that house and had a great time and I like Santa Fe a great deal. Most of the work was done – oh, we also worked in far West Texas where I’m very much at home. And then we moved out there and did a lot of shooting in Albuquerque which is a very a difficult place to shoot because it’s so noisy -- airplanes flying over and people changing tires with ratchet wrenches, and crows, radios, truck horns – just about any objectionable noise you can think of is going to be in the air in Albuquerque. Joel and Ethan are the easiest people in the world to work with. They don’t really have a lot to say. They are very well prepared and all the work is on the page and they are those three and four take type of guys that know what the hell they are doing. They methodically start at the beginning, proceed through the middle, and when they come to the end, they actually stop. (Laughs.)

SUSAN SARANDON: There is something fabulous working with two people directing. I didn’t know how that would work. I know them, I haven’t worked for them too, but directing is so lonely and there is so much pressure on you because you’re making all these decisions and having lived with a few directors – [looks at Tommy] not this one – but, other ones. [Tommy laughs] You’re making all, all you do is make decisions, decisions when you are not trying to keep your actors from having meltdowns. So, when you see people that have somebody else to bounce ideas off of and they really finish each other’s sentences and they know, I think it must be very reassuring because you don’t have that anxiety of "Did we get it?” You know that someone is always on your back and I wasn’t sure how that would work. I thought, "Well, do they both talk to you?” And it was so seamless. It was really fabulous.

TOMMY LEE JONES: There are really smart. And they are polite. And they have broad and generous minds. When I get through directing and I go home and my wife asks me what I want for lunch, I break out in a cold sweat and I refuse. "Don’t make me make a decision. Get away from me with this…lunch stuff.” [Laughs]

MoviesOnline: Tommy, will you be directing any time soon.

TOMMY LEE JONES: Well I’m planning on it.

MoviesOnline: Do you have a project in mind?

TOMMY LEE JONES: Yes, I do. If all my dreams come true, I’ll be starting very soon.

MoviesOnline: Nothing you can talk about yet?

TOMMY LEE JONES: It’s probably inappropriate.

"In the Valley of Elah” opens in theaters on September 14th.


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