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Tommy Lee Jones Tolerates Us for a Talk on HBO’s Sunset Limited, Men in Black 3, and Captain America

Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson co-star in an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s play The Sunset Limited, which debuts Saturday at 9 p.m. on HBO. Jones, who executive-produced and directed the film, plays White, an angst-ridden college professor who, while attempting to throw himself onto the tracks of a subway, is pulled to safety by a born-again ex-con named Black (Jackson). The one-act production takes place in Black’s barricaded tenement apartment, where the two engage in an all-night steel-cage match of the minds, debating the existence of God and the meaning of life. In person, Jones takes his work very seriously, reminding us of how ungladly he suffers fools — or simple-minded, solipsistic, irony-prone journalists.

Congratulations on the feel-good movie of the year!
I hope so.

What interested you in this story?
It’s beautifully written and contains some rather sophisticated thinking. That’s very appealing to me.

So refreshing to see godless, nihilistic despair win for a change!
That’s interesting. People often ask who won, but you’re the first one who’s decided who the winner is.

Sam’s character, White, looks pretty defeated at the end.
One of the things you now have a chance to think about is the difference between faith and certainty. I’m reminded right now of Flannery O’Connor’s definition: Faith is that which you know to be true whether you believe it or not. Some people look at the final scene and he looks sad, he looks desperate, and they think, Oh, he’s defeated. I don’t think the play is that simple-minded.

Um … well … uh … I don’t mean to suggest that he’s defeated overall, more that he didn’t win this round.
No.

Putting aside that you play one of the characters, do you sympathize with one of them more than the other?
My sympathies tend toward Black. I personally don’t live a nihilistic life, I don’t have any use for it. But this is embarrassing. What I think and feel is irrelevant to this play.

Are the characters’ names, White and Black, meant as deliberately generic signifiers, or is the play informed by racial issues in any way?
The subject of race comes up, but I don’t think the play has a racial statement to make. They’re called Black and White because they’re opposites. That’s part of the reverence to the more formal dialectics of the past.

White’s attitude — “Suffering and human destiny are the same thing” — is reminiscent of a lot of existentialist literature, like Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground.
I kept thinking about Huis Clos.

Huh?
No Exit.

Oh, right, that too. Especially since Black’s apartment door is quadruple-locked through most of the play.
You’re not getting out.

To the extent that the play has a message, a moral to impart, could it be that to have any degree of serenity or happiness in this life, one must live with either faith or delusion?
I looked at the point as being to ask the good, big question as well as possible.

For me the moral was: This is why you should never let a Jehovah’s Witness into your home.
[Laughs.] Yeah!

You clearly feel a kinship with McCarthy, and looking at this play, well, it’s not exactly a surprise coming from the man who wrote The Road and No Country for Old Men. How do you account for that sort of dark worldview?
I don’t know that he has a dark worldview. This play deals with the biggest ideas in the world, and they’ve been the biggest ideas since man started thinking. And what could be more interesting than to render those ideas anew?

Well, certainly you’ll allow that he’s no barrel of laughs…
My fondest hope is that we get a lot of laughs in watching this movie. I’m happiest when people are laughing. That’s when it’s working.

How would you describe your sense of humor?
I don’t think I would describe my sense of humor. Doesn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d do.

When I mentioned to some other journalists that I was going to be speaking with you, they warned me: He’s no fun.
[Laughs.] I know. Journalists — they say that to each other. Especially the ones who tend to write about themselves.

But I do get the feeling this isn’t your favorite part of the job.
Well, what are we talking about now?

You know, promotion. Do you look at it as a necessary chore in this business?
Well, I like this play. I’m invested in it, I’m interested in it. I’m really not so interested in talking about the experience of interviews. I don’t think it’s relevant to the play. But it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.

Well, that’s a relief. I’d like to talk briefly about what’s coming up for you. Are you done shooting Men in Black 3?
No. I have probably about a week to go.

Is it still fun to do those?
Men in Black is a hell of a lot of fun. I can’t think of any better company than Will Smith or [director] Barry Sonnenfeld. It’s just a pure joy all day, every day.

Can you give me a sense of the plot of this one?
No. I don’t really know what the plotline is. There are vast pieces of the script yet unwritten.

Even though there’s only one week of shooting left?
One week for me.

Does that mean that you die early on?
Well, that’s a strange concept. I don’t want to say too much about the movie because I don’t know a lot and I would like for audiences to anticipate buying a ticket.

Finally, what are you doing in Captain America? I mean, literally: What are you doing in Captain America!?
Yeah, I ask myself that same question every day! The character I play is the one you’ve seen in a thousand movies: the gruff, skeptical officer overseeing a team of talented, slightly sarcastic, specially talented soldiers.

And I’m guessing you’re confounded by the Captain …
Not confounded, exactly. Skeptical. At first. And then convinced.

Photo: Andrew H. Walker/WireImage