The actor: Thomas Jane spent much of the ’90s and ’00s bouncing around Hollywood, working for well-respected directors like Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights and Magnolia), and Frank Darabont (The Mist) but not necessarily earning box-office appreciation as a leading man. Thanks to writers Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin, however, Jane has found success on the small screen, playing Ray Drecker, the well-endowed lead character of the HBO series Hung, which returns for its third season on October 2.
Hung (2009-present)—“Ray Drecker”
The A.V. Club: Did series creators Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin specifically come looking for you to play the role of Ray? If so, exactly how did they pitch the premise?
Thomas Jane: No, to tell you the truth, I think it was Alexander Payne, who directed the pilot. I think he called me. He was going to do the pilot, and he said to Dmitry and Colette, “Who did you have in mind?” They said they’d written the thing with me in mind, and Alexander said something like, “Oh, I know Thomas. I’ll just give him a call.” And he called me up, and I was, like, “You want me to do what?” [Laughs.] And then they sent me the script, and the rest is history.
AVC: What’s the best way to approach Hung? As a comedy with dramatic elements, or as a half-hour drama?
TJ: I think it’s a drama with comedic elements. I think all good drama is funny. All the best drama is ultimately very funny. Life is funny. You can’t have any honest treatise on life without bumping into some humor.
AVC: How much of Ray was in place when you got the initial script, and how much came into play as the series evolved? Was the entire first season effectively laid out when you got the script for the pilot?
TJ: I don’t think so. I think we basically just had the pilot, and… I think that they probably had a little bit of an idea where to take it, of course. But it wasn’t until the pilot got picked up that they actually started writing the rest of the season in earnest, and a lot of the writing was based on what Dmitry and Colette were sort of observing of how me and the other actors were interacting with each other. That’s the great part about television: It’s alive, and it changes and evolves with the way the characters evolve. Stuff that happens to you in your life when you’re shooting a TV show, you have to be careful, because it might end up in the show. And that’s what I think is the neat thing about TV: how alive it is, and how the writers respond to the stimulus that they’re getting from the actual actors. Whereas a movie is more hermetically sealed.
AVC: Are you regularly asked how much acting is involved when it comes to Ray’s, uh, member?
TJ: [Laughs.] Ray has a much bigger penis than I do. The difference is that Ray’s penis is imaginary. Mine’s real.
She-Wolf Of London (1991)—“Johnny”
TJ: [Long pause.] I don’t remember that. Johnny…?
AVC: It was apparently a one-off episode, but it’s ostensibly your first TV work.
TJ: Oh, shit! God, I wish I remembered that, ’cause that’s a great title. [Laughs.] Darn!
Padamati Sandhya Ragam (1987)—“Tom”
TJ: Oh, yeah, I remember that one! I was 16 years old, I’d dropped out of high school, I was working at a hardware store and taking acting classes above a liquor store in Bethesda, Maryland. My acting coach, Ralph Tabakin, called me up and said, “There’s these Indians in town, and they’re looking for a blond-haired, blue-eyed kid to be in their Indian Bollywood movie.” And I said, “Ralph, I don’t have blue eyes. I can’t go.” Ralph said, “Well, you got blue eyes now. You go down there and get the part. And I get 10 percent, ’cause I’m acting as your agent in this regard.” And I did, and I did. And he did. [Laughs.] And I ran around America with a crew of about 30 or 40 Indians and a real stuck-up Indian starlet bitch, and we made this singing, dancing Bollywood-style Romeo-and-Juliet-type love story about an Indian girl and an American boy. And then we all ran off to India, where I lived for six months finishing the film, and it was probably… well, it was definitely a defining experience of my life and career, because I came back to America and… They didn’t have money to pay me, so they gave me the RV that we used to make the movie and drive the crew around in. And I sold it, bought a 1969 Camaro, and drove it out to California to be an actor. But I miss all the singing and dancing now that I’m in Hollywood.
The Punisher (2004)—“Frank Castle”
TJ: You know, I remember the workout regiment and training with the Navy SEALs was intense. That, and somebody forgot to replace the real knife with the prop knife for the scene with Kevin Nash, and I ended up stabbing him in the chest. And, you know, he’s about 7’4”, and… that was an interesting moment. [Laughs.] I still don’t think they’ve gotten a Punisher movie right. They’ve made three of ’em now, and he’s yet to be done correctly.
AVC: Would you come back to the franchise if somebody pulled together the right script?
TJ: Yeah, if they had the right script. I’ve been saying for years, it’s really not hard. All you have to do is make it look like Death Wish or Rolling Thunder or Taxi Driver, and you’ve got yourself a really fun vigilante film.
Arrested Development (2004)—Himself
TJ: [Laughs.] I get so many… like, most of the time when people come up and ask me to say a line in real life, it’s from Arrested Development. They want me to say, “I just want my kids back!”
AVC: How did that appearance come about?
TJ: I don’t know. God, I guess they were fans, and they called me. I guess Mark Wahlberg wasn’t available. [Laughs.]
Boogie Nights (1997)—“Todd Parker” / Magnolia (1999)—“Young Jimmy Gator”
AVC: How did you find your way into the Paul Thomas Anderson camp?
TJ: I auditioned. The casting director [Christine Sheaks], I think I’d auditioned for her in the past or something, and she knew that I was good. And she brought me in, and I auditioned. I remember doing improv for Paul. For a really long time. [Laughs.] And then he brought in John C. Reilly, and I was doing improv with John C. Reilly, and we both kind of fell right into our characters. And that was that. It was really great. I wish he’d call me back to the fold. I liked working with him, and there’s not a lot of guys like Paul around. But we, uh, got in a fight years ago over something stupid. Like, me peeing on his lawn.
AVC: Should I ask how that came about?
TJ: Oh, just being drunk and stupid.
AVC: I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.
TJ: [Laughs.] Yeah, I guess.
AVC: Presumably that took place after you did Magnolia?
TJ: Yeah. Oh yeah. [Laughs.] Yeah, with Magnolia, I was supposed to play two parts. But again, Paul got mad at me. Because I took another movie. I wanted to work with Gene Hackman, so I took this Gene Hackman film [Under Suspicion], but the schedule overlapped into Magnolia, and so I couldn’t play the two parts in Magnolia. I had to only play one. Paul never forgave me. And the movie with Gene Hackman, of course, has been totally forgotten.
Deep Blue Sea (1999)—“Carter Blake”
TJ: Another disappointment for me. I wanted to do something with the leading-man-type character of Carter Blake, and… y’know, it’s just so hard to do something within the studio system. It’s so hard to break the mold. But it’s a movie that never dies. I mean, they’re still playing Deep Blue Sea on cable all the time. [Laughs.] And it was my first experience at making a big studio film. We shot it at the old Titanic studio, down in Mexico, and it was five months of eating fish tacos next to the big water tank in Rosarita. It was gorgeous, so beautiful, and so much fun to do that movie. I’m sure it’ll never die.
AVC: What did you think of Samuel L. Jackson’s death-by-shark scene when you finally saw the finished product?
TJ: Oh, yeah, y’know, when we first screened it in New York City, we thought… Well, unfortunately, Warner Brothers had already kind of given up on the film, so when we screened it, they didn’t assign a whole hell of a lot of publicity. They didn’t assign a lot of advertising dollars to the movie. But then we had a première in New York City where, after Samuel L. Jackson got eaten, the audience didn’t stop howling or screaming for five whole minutes. The scene after Samuel L. Jackson got eaten was completely lost, because you couldn’t fucking hear a thing, which… I was thinking to myself, “Well, that’s good, ’cause that’s a shitty scene.” But people loved, loved, loved the movie, so Warner Brothers tried to catch up by pumping more dollars into it, but the movie was already going to open, and since they hadn’t pushed it as hard as they wished they would’ve, it was too late. So we opened second to The Blair Witch Project. We opened at No. 2, and—this was the first time this had happened in the history of film—a tiny little independent, low-budget film named The Blair Witch Project opened at No. 1 at the box office and beat out an $80 million studio film. And to make it doubly painful for me, The Blair Witch Project was shot in the woods of Maryland, which is my home area. They shot in my back yard, basically. [Laughs.] I literally used to play in those woods where The Blair Witch Project was shot. So, yeah, that was a fun time.
61* (2001)—“Mickey Mantle”
TJ: Just the greatest experience in the world. Playing baseball and making a movie at the same time? It was the best experience I’ve ever had making a film. Reggie Smith, teaching me how to switch-hit. Reggie was No. 3 in switch-hitting home runs behind Mickey Mantle, and coached for the Dodgers and… Just a great, great baseball player. God, playing catch with Reggie Smith in the morning, every morning, for a couple months, it literally brought tears to my eyes. Billy Crystal knew every single game that the Yankees played in the ’61 season, and he knew every play. And he’d act out all the different baseball players’ parts in every play, and what happened and what they did. We’d just look around, us actors, in awe at Billy as he acted out every single player’s job on the team. And that’s why the baseball stuff looks so authentic—because it is. We’re recreating plays that actually happened in every single scene. I look at it now, and I don’t recognize myself. They were so good at teaching me how to play baseball that I don’t recognize that athlete.
The Mist (2007)—“David Drayton”
TJ: Ah, The Mist. It was one of the rare, rare occasions that a great screenwriter like Frank Darabont just sends me a script out of the blue and says, “Read this, I want you to play the lead.” Y’know, me getting sent scripts and getting asked to read something and being told they want me to play the lead is nothing new. That happens a lot. But when it’s a script as good as The Mist and it’s Frank Darabont directing, that doesn’t happen often to me. So that was great. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s incredible just how bleak the ending is.
TJ: Yeah, the ending… Stephen King said the ending was better than the book, and he said that he wished he’d thought of it. Which is, I think, the highest praise for the film. I love the film. The black-and-white version is really the only version to watch. If you have the Blu-ray or the special-edition DVD, don’t bother with the color. Watch the black-and-white. It’s the way to see the film.
The Thin Red Line (1998)—“Pvt. Ash”
TJ: Terry Malick offered me three parts in The Thin Red Line. I was busy shooting other movies while he asked me the first two. I shot two other movies, which tells you how long Terry shot the film for, because when I finished those two other movies, he called me again and said, “I’ve got this other little part, it’s just a day of shooting.” I said, “I’ll do it, fine.” And he flew me in to this tiny little island that we were shooting on, the Solomon Islands, and I shot for a day with Terry Malick, who spent half that day running around the island with John Toll, the DP, shooting butterflies. [Laughs.] So when he wasn’t doing takes with me, Jon and Terry would take the camera and run off. And I’d be, like, “Where the hell are they going?” And they’d shoot butterflies flying around, and then they’d come back, and Terry would say, “Uh, okay, where were we?” [Laughs.] And I’m in the film more from shooting that one day than a lot of guys who shot for a year with Terry and got cut out of the film. And I asked Terry why I’m in the movie, and he said, “There’s no real good reason for your scene to be in the movie. I just couldn’t cut you out.” And I think that’s the highest praise I’ve ever gotten.
Stander (2003)—“Andre Stander”
TJ: I did that in Africa, and… I get the most comments about Punisher, Stander, and 61*. Stander is a true story about a South African policeman who starts robbing banks. I turned the part down three times. And the producers were so persistent that I finally caved. I said to myself, “Nobody’s going to want to see a movie where everybody has a funny South African accent. It’s never gonna sell.” [Laughs.] But the part was so fucking good. And that’s the other thing: I thought, “This is an awful lot of work, to learn an accent and to play a real person. That’s a lot of research. That’s an awful lot of work for a movie that nobody’s going to watch.” But they finally got the better of my artistic sensibility or judgment, and I caved and I did the film. And it’s probably the film I’m proudest of.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (film, 1992)—“Zeph”
TJ: Man, the table read… I knew we were making something special when Joss Whedon had a table read. Donald Sutherland and Paul Reubens and Rutger Hauer and this beautiful blonde chick [Kristy Swanson], and all these great actors were gathered around this table, and we had this brilliant table read, where it was, like, so funny and so irreverent, and the acting was so good. I was like, “Wow…” And this was sort of my first real role in a movie—I had, like, one or two days working on this film, and it’s where I met my good friends David Arquette and Paul Reubens. So it’s a special movie for me. Johanna Ray, the casting director, she found me in a little theater in Hollywood doing plays, and she started bringing me in for stuff, and that’s how I started working as an actor. So she really started my career. And I thought, “Boy, if all movies are like this, this is fantastic!” But of course they’re not. Not all movies are written by Joss Whedon and star incredible actors. But I have a soft spot in my heart for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, let me tell you.
Medium (2006)—“Clay Bicks”
TJ: The creator of Medium, Glenn Gordon Caron, is a fan, and he was always bugging me, saying, “If I wrote a part for you, would you do it? If I wrote a part for you, would you do it?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know. It depends on what kind of part you’re going to write. Why don’t you just write it?” And then one season, he did. And I read it, and I thought, “Yeah, this is cool. I’d do this.” And… I’ve never been comfortable with TV. And I don’t really like… the pace is very fast. My television parts that I’ve done before I started doing movies, I never felt comfortable with the pace. Or the writing. And I always think that I kind of suck on TV. I mean, Clay Bicks is no exception. I think I kind of suck. And I don’t know why that is, because on Hung, the pace is much more film-like, we shoot on film, and it feels like a movie, and I feel like I have all the time in the world to do the job I need to do. But network TV? I am just not cut out for network TV. It’s just not in my blood.