What does it mean to be a “Texan actor”?

This article is part Texas Monthlyspecial issue commemorating the fiftieth anniversary. Read about other icons that have defined Texas since 1973.

Texas Monthly has been around for fifty years, and it seems that Tommy Lee Jones was old for almost all of them. He is one of those actors whose fame is associated with age; a Google search for “Tommy Lee Jones + craggy” yields over 70,000 results. For many viewers, Jones appeared sometime in the early nineties, as the stone face of power seen in films such as Fugitive and Men in Black, or on TV like lone doveWoodrow Call.

Prior to that, he had played for two decades, playing a variety of villains and other cruel people whose menacing eyes could suddenly become cloudy and hurt; who could disarm you with laconic wit delivered in a Texan accent from his unsmiling mouth. But Jones only reached his fullest, prickly blossom after his features had dried up to match their harsh wisdom, and the roles began to follow suit.

In 1970, you may have seen the San Saba native, then called “Tom Lee Jones”, make his big screen debut in a film with three handkerchiefs. Love story, provided you didn’t run to the bathroom during his few fleeting scenes. Years later Love story Author Erich Segal has revealed that he based its protagonist, preppy hockey player Oliver Barrett IV, on a mixture of Jones and his Harvard roommate Al Gore, whom Segal met when they were all living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Like Barrett, Jones was an athlete with the soul of a poet, a tough backwoods footballer who loved Shakespeare and Brecht. But the movie role went to Ryan O’Neal. Jones just shows up to purr about a little misogyny around a cigarette, leaving little lasting impression other than a sort of retroactive novelty.

At the time, you probably only heard of Jones if you were deeply immersed in the New York theater scene. If you were a housewife or unemployed, you might know him from his daytime soaps. One life to live where he worked for four years as Mark Toland, a suave Texas doctor who cared for women of varying levels of sanity.

Jones, despite his dark beauty and cowboy sternness, was no one’s traditional leading man, but he spent his early years acting in art-house novels and wooing Kate Jackson on television. Charlie’s Angels. In 1979, Jones—finally nicknamed “Tommy Lee” as he grew up—even flattened out on the cover of a show business tabloid. After dark, his feathered hair is slightly disheveled, his plaid shirt is open to the navel. Seeing this photo today seems not only out of place, but also wrong, like stumbling across a hidden box of Polaroids under your dad’s bed.

The powerful shot of Jones was taken a year before his breakthrough in Miner’s daughter where he finally earned rave reviews which, along with his 1982 Emmy win executioner song, only exacerbated the feeling that he should be a bigger star than he was. But it was another decade before his career really took off, starting with another Emmy-nominated role in lone dove which, characteristically, saw him turn gray prematurely under a white wig and beard. Jones was just born old. His star needed time not only to rise, but also to cool, until it became more solid and dense, with a much greater gravitational pull.

Today we don’t give actors that luxury. Most of them are filmed from the Disney Channel cattle yard and they have a TikTok flyover to make or break it. So it’s all the more remarkable when someone like Jonathan Majors is in full command of his powers.

Like Jones, the Majors are another badass, self-made Texas jock who found his way into the Ivy League, going from a troubled childhood in the Dallas Metroplex to the Yale School of Drama, where Gus Van Sant personally chose him to play a gay activist. . in the miniseries As we rise. However, unlike Jones, it didn’t take Majors years to find himself, or us to find him.

The Majors made an instant impression on indies like Enemies and White boy Rick; then he left it all on the field with 2019 The last black man in San Francisco delivers an outstanding performance as a sensitive artist who is annoyed by the prescribed roles of black masculinity. Since then, he has done significant work in Spike Lee’s Vietnam War caper. yes 5 blood; in the revisionist western The harder they fall; in the HBO social horror series Lovecraft Country; in last winter’s fighter pilot drama Devotion. In 2023, the Majors officially hit the list of the best, replacing heels. Creed III and new Ant-Man film, where he will play the main villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He just started, and already a big name: recognizable, admired, expected.

It can be said that the Majors have benefited from how the media has changed since 1970, now that your start in television often means starring not in soap operas but in prestigious HBO dramas, and the abundance of content includes a greater variety of smart and risqué projects. But the Majors’ shifting ascent also seems uniquely tuned to our moment. After all, what’s the best avatar for Texas, whose cultural influence is increasingly defined by black artists like Beyoncé, Lizzo, Attica Locke, and Justin Simien? If Jones personified the Texan of the twentieth century as a silent lone (white) wolf, then Majors represents his diverse, urbanized present – busier, much less depressed. Jonathan Major’s trademark move is a manly scream, wiping away the tears that run down his defiantly wrinkled face, usually before he explodes in anger. He is not so much tired of the world as he is aware of how much pain is inside him, and he is determined to bear this burden.

But these two actors are more similar than you might think. What they have in common is a work ethic that is distinctly Texan and reflects a belief that talent and discipline transcend any coastal privilege. Both are serious people who tend to tell stories inspired by their roots. When Jones spoke (reluctantly) to Texas MonthlySkip Hollandsworth seventeen years ago on his directorial debut in West Texas, Three burials of Melquíades Estrada, he stated that he wanted to capture his “native people” for an audience that had long tended to brush them off. Majors also talked about his desire to express the authentic experience of black Americans and how Lovecraft Country, as a teenager, he relied on the horrors of being unmasked and pursued by Dallas cops. “As long as there is pain in humanity, my culture, children and the planet,” he recently told BET, “something needs to be done.”

The Majors is still young at 33, still enjoying his shirtless heartthrob of centerfold magazines and house parties. Saturday night life. But he acts with such authority that these lofty aspirations seem not only achievable, but inevitable and already in motion. We don’t need a decade or two to appreciate what he’s doing. We can see it today, just as we can see it fifty years from now.

This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of the magazine. Texas Monthly with the headline “Behave Like a Texan”. Subscribe today.

Image credits: Jones: Barry King/Getty, Ron Galella/Getty; Specialties: Michelle Kuance/Getty, Robin L. Marshall/Getty; Coal: Michael Oks Archive/Getty; Jackson: United Archives/Getty; Harder: The David Lee Collection/Netflix/Everett; Lovecraft: Eli Joshua Ade/HBO Max/Everett Collection

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