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In his latest film, Jones is just where he likes to be: in control

You can listen to Tommy Lee Jones talk about any number of things -- directing and aquifers and polo and Flannery O'Connor -- but what you walk away with, what comes closest to his emotional truth, is his statement: ''It's a good thing to be king."

This is a man who establishes his alpha dog credentials early in a conversation. He's not physically imposing, but he moves through life in his own force field, the way he did as an All-Ivy offensive guard at Harvard. He talks like his character in ''The Fugitive," Marshal Sam Gerard -- high and loud and insistent. His bark is unmodulated.

''He's a 24/7 hardass who won't change for anybody," says Barry Pepper, an actor in Jones's new film and first feature directorial effort, ''The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," which opens here tomorrow. ''That's what I love about him."

His directing technique can be startling. He told Pepper to prepare for his part by camping out alone in the mountains above the south Texas moonscape where he filmed the movie -- much of the film was shot on Jones's 110,000-acre ranch (which he has since sold) near Van Horn -- and by reading Flannery O'Connor and Ecclesiastes.

''It seemed so random at times," says Pepper. ''Like, 'Why am I reading your Bible?' But it's a very generous, brave way for a director to work."

Jones said that he told Dwight Yoakam to read Camus's ''The Stranger" -- ''especially the preface, which is just as good as the text of the book. Alienation is an important theme in the movie."

(Yoakam sports an endearing wig in the film. To fit his character, he demanded a bad one, Jones recalls, and that's what he got: ''I told him we can make it as bad as you want. The damned thing cost me $5,000. For a bad rug.")

Jones was in town last week to screen ''Three Burials" for a benefit at the Harvard Film Archive, which he has supported generously over the years. He entered a Cambridge hotel room trailed by an assistant who handed him a beer, and then he sat in the dwindling late afternoon light -- no one bothered to turn the lamps on -- as he answered questions, often monosyllabically. He has no control over questions, and you know he just hates that.

If he were standing behind you in line, you'd feel his presence -- tight, impatient, and combustible. If he were caught in a traffic jam, he'd leave his vehicle and, like George C. Scott playing George Patton, take control of the mess. Like George W. Bush, whom he abhors, he gets livid when people are late.

Flannery O'Connor matters to this movie first because Jones wrote his cum laude thesis at Harvard on her. Second, family members of the film's coproducer, Michael Fitzgerald, are executors of O'Connor's literary estate. ''So we both knew our O'Connor rather well, and it was just a natural approach for me."

''O'Connor is important to the way this movie is constructed," he continues. ''What you do is you consider some so-called religious thinking without the didacticism of the classical approach. You look for the allegorical intentions of what we're taught in the Bible, and then find some way to have it revealed or expressed by common experience. You'll find this happening over and over again in O'Connor, who was a rather classical Catholic thinker who wrote about nothing but backwoods north Georgia rednecks."

''Ecclesiastes is essential to the movie as well," he says. ''It has to do with the passage of time. You want to start thinking as an actor that the past, the present, and the future are occurring simultaneously, and God requires an accounting of all three."

Jones, 59, has feasted off his colliding parts for years. He was raised hard in mean circumstances and now calls polo ''a family sport." (He looks at his watch at one point and says of his third wife, ''She's playing right now.") He's the literary cowboy who talks about roping and allegory yet is totally at home at Cannes, where he won best actor last year for his role in his own movie as ranch hand Pete Perkins.

''Three Burials" is a spare effort, allegorical for those who choose to take it that way, built around a journey from Texas to Mexico by Jones's character to bury his friend Melquiades Estrada after he was killed north of the border.

He craves the creative control offered a director and keeps an eye on his actors. ''Well, you don't let anyone go," he says. ''All actors make mistakes from time to time. You just watch out for that. The important thing is to find good actors and not ask them to do anything they cannot do."

Picking them is all gut. Take Melissa Leo. ''I took her straight to the cafe that ultimately became the set and had lunch," Jones says. ''We ate some really greasy fried eggs, watched people sit around and smoke cigarettes, listened to the radio coming out of the kitchen. It was easy to tell if she'd be comfortable and creative in an environment like that. She was excited." Done deal.

''He challenges you to think, and that can be intimidating and scary," says Pepper. And he can bite. ''He said to one of the wranglers when one horse screwed up, 'You call them horses? I'll give you 50 cents a pound for them to feed my dog.' "

''Three Burials" was hatched by Jones and his good friend and hunting buddy, the Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who copped best screenplay at Cannes for his work here and also penned the critically acclaimed ''21 Grams" and ''Amores Perros."

''We just decided one day to do a movie," Jones says. ''We figured out ideas we had in common and came up with a study in the social contrasts along the border. It took about a year to put the screenplay together. We talked about themes and decided on a narrative structure of a journey."

Jones has written a handful of screenplays over his career, and he's 16 pages into a new one, under wraps for now, that will anchor his next directorial project. Plus he's been a minor script doctor in some of the movies he's been in, offering a few pages privately to a writer or director under a guarantee of anonymity. Did it work? ''Every time." Any examples? ''I don't remember." (That's the same answer he gave when asked how he got out of Vietnam after graduating from Harvard in 1969.)

Jones is a great fan of the El Paso writer Cormac McCarthy, whom he calls perhaps the best stylist in English. His next acting job will be in the film rendition of McCarthy's most recent work, ''No Country For Old Men," directed by the Coen brothers. And he's written a screenplay of McCarthy's apocalyptic opus ''Blood Meridian" -- ''a bell ringer" in his own words -- that he says no studio will touch because of the violence embedded in the book.

Jones, his wife, and two kids live well on two continents. There are two ranches around San Saba, the town northwest of Austin, Texas, where he was born. There's another spread in Palm Beach County, Fla., where the family is wintering this year, and a property in Argentina. Think polo.

The sport entered his life like a virus years ago when he ran into some polo players in Santa Barbara, Calif., and one gave him a mallet. He then acquired an ancient polo saddle in the property warehouse on the Universal lot.

''I started tapping that polo ball around the roping arena," he recalls. ''Next time I looked up, I had three polo horses in trailer headed for Santa Barbara. It's a very important part of my life today. A lot of our best friends come from that world."

Jones goes sour, and a tad pompous, when asked about his proudest achievements in his film career: ''Pride is a sin. I can't name anything I'm particularly proud of. Nothing I can name I'm ashamed of either. I just don't have a favorite object of my personal pride."

It's around this time that he begins inspecting the fine print on a bottle of water. That pretty much signals a wrap. He smiles wanly as he leaves. His face was not rigged to smile. When he does, through no fault of his own, it's got the vague look of a jack-o'-lantern. He could not care less. The big dog has better things to do.

Sam Allis can be reached at

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