Hollywood’s good sport. POLO+10 interview with Tommy Lee Jones, polo enthusiast and Harvard alumni.

by James Evans

Tommy Lee Jones is a Harvard-schooled actor, director, charity ambassador, Democrat, farmer and San Antonio Spurs fan. On set he totes guns, makes incredible speeches and charms even the coarsest of ladies, he possesses an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, speaks fluent Spanish, and even entertains himself with a fine and ever-evolving array of facial hair. Yet for all his talents, all this passions, all his future ambitions, there are few things that ultimately make as much sense to the affable 67-year-old as the sport of polo. We say ‘affable’, Jones is renowned in the industry as a straight-faced, outspoken and sometimes prickly character, but breaking cover on his love of the sport, you can’t help but admire the man’s honesty.

That very honesty may have caused Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and notable political figures to fail the Jones approval test, but brazen chutzpah in a showbiz world that all too often hides behind itself cannot be a bad thing. “I think we owe it to ourselves to be honest,” he begins. “If we have an opinion we should express it – I have always believed that. I never set out to hurt or offend people, but the very nature of this industry is that we put ourselves forward for praise, criticism and everything in between. That’s how it works.” Maybe indulging a passion for polo, as Jones has done for well over two decades now, has helped expel some of the frustration that the Texas-born actor feels for the industry.

After all, this isn’t just a trip to the open ranches – each year he spends a small fortune financing the sport in fields in Florida, his native Texas, plus a 74-acre equestrian facility in Buenos Aires. And when in action, he fields two separate teams, consisting of himself, his wife Dawn, six professional polo players, and at least 50 horses. It’s a colossal operation that isn’t taken lightly, and demands constant attention… something that may indeed have contributed to the actor stepping away from bright lights over the past couple of years. After all, those teams spend nearly half the year based in Palm Beach, Florida, where Jones has a horse farm and stables – he recently put it on the market for $27million – and the other half of the year at the San Saba ranch in Texas.

“Polo brings out some really raw, inspirational emotions,” he continues. “And as a team, we are at the top of our game. We can beat anybody, anytime, anywhere. And we love the thrill of proving it!” The competitive element is certainly something that spurs Jones on. Not content with 44 years ‘active’ on the big and small screen, nor a multitude of generational film roles – from Natural Born Killers to Batman Forever to Men In Black to Lincoln – Jones’s schedule for tending to his lot is arguably more demanding than his time on the film set. “In the summers, we’ll work cattle, and then at about 7 pm at night, we’ll start playing polo. We’ll play until about nine, and then when we’re done, we put the meat on the fire and watch the dark come. It’s a good life. Everyone is happy.” Privacy remains a buzzword for the actor however, with visitors only very rarely invited to his Texas ranch to watch the polo matches. “It’s just not the way I want it to be,” he offers. “We keep the gates locked and everything is shut down. That’s the way we like it – just friends and family, no outsiders. I think we can justifiably ask for that.”

Of course, a life in the saddle has seen Jones become rather accomplished at the sport he loves. While the thrill still excites, he reminds us that the core skill in the sport remains the toughest thing to accomplish. “The mechanics involved in being able to hit a ball that small from the back of a horse, are quite staggering. If you consider you’re aboard an animal running at 30 mph, your time and vision are being stretched to the absolute limit in order to be able to hit that ball with any amount of accuracy. It took me many years to get the technique right, and I’m still a long way from perfect,” he smiles. “Remember, you should never ask a horse or an actor to do something they cannot do. Wisdom will teach you to find out what they can do, and then make it easy for them.”

Such is Jones’s passion for polo, these days he actually talks of the movie business interrupting his time on the field. Is he really supposing that he’d forfeit the fame, wealth and security he has built up through his creative craft in favour of chukkas, sideboards and wraps? “I always wanted to be an actor, and I guess my passion for polo has been fuelled by what I’ve done in that respect, but more and more, as you get older, you look to the things that make you happy… really happy. And the fact is, I look back now and realise that the movie business has hurt my polo. To realise your full potential, you have to play all year round, and that’s just never been possible for me. And I was always a good athlete… football was a wonderful experience for me. It provided a means whereby I could sustain much of my youth. In times of trouble, I‘ve always had football. I always knew I was a football player. And that was a comfort on many occasions. Would I have liked to have built a similar base of knowledge through polo? Certainly. But I’m a player not a coach – I just don’t have the patience to teach others!” While ambassadors of Tommy Lee Jones’s calibre continue to emerge, the reputation and popularity of polo seems to be in good hands. Certainly, the accessibility of the sport to a wider audience can only be a good thing, even if the actor likes to keep much of his enjoyment private.

“We’ve built world-class polo fields and practice fields so my team and the kids’ teams can play. My daughter, Dawn, has been playing polo since she was six, and now she’s entirely fearless. She sometimes plays six chukkas. Dawn is one of the best women polo players in the country and she didn’t even know how to ride a horse ten years ago. My goal is simply to carry on enjoying the sport. It’s the competition, the people and the experiences, and once you’ve discovered that world, it’s difficult to let it go.”