The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Thomas Jane
By Mother Brain
In the 1970s, the heavy hitter movie stars like Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen defined masculinity on the silver screen. From McQueen’s Bullitt to Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, these men were not afraid to get their hands dirty. These days, however, the stars are much younger and benefit from the use of CGI to make them larger than life, especially in superhero films. Except for Robert Downey, Jr. and Christian Bale, any actor in a comic book film has a harder time selling a non-comic book movie with their name on the poster. Thomas Jane tried to play the superhero game while working in the style of his legendary heroes of the 70s. Unfortunately, his ideas were ahead of his time. The once promising star best known for Deep Blue Sea, The Punisher, The Mist, and his HBO series Hung, now finds it difficult to ever headline a major motion picture. The question is why?
The Baltimore native got his start in acting while still in high school. At 17, Jane heard about an Indian film crew coming to the D.C. area in search of a child actor for a Bollywood love story about an American boy falling for an Indian girl. Jane landed the role for what became Westside Evening and it would win various awards at international film festivals. He instantly became a Bollywood star with film offers, an apartment, and a car immediately after graduating high school. He turned it all away to move out to Hollywood in 1988 having to live out his car and do street performances with a guitar while furthering his acting studies.
Jane spent most of the early 1990s playing bit character and villain roles in Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the movie, not the series), Nemesis, The Crow: City of Angels, and Face/Off to name a few. On Buffy where he played Zeph, Jane became close friends with fellow costars David Arquette and Paul Reubens as well as ironically being married at the time to the daughter of another costar, Rutger Hauer. He quickly became a favorite of director Paul Thomas Anderson after his swagger performance as Todd Parker in Boogie Nights. But when he was offered a bigger part for Anderson’s next film, Magnolia, Jane had to choose the small role of a young Philip Baker Hall due to his commitment to the forgotten Gene Hackman movie, Under Suspicion. Anderson never forgave Jane as a result.
During this period, Jane was earning positive reviews for indie films such as Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line, Thursday and The Velocity of Gary, all while Jane’s credit billing was getting higher with each film. Then came his first lead role in a studio movie, Deep Blue Sea, in which Jane played shark expert, Carter Blake. It was a physically demanding role more than anything else in a movie about killer CG sharks. Although he had fun making the film which earned over $80 million at the box office, Jane still felt let down by the lack of substance given to the Blake character and that the studio did not market it well enough to compete against the smaller and more profitable Blair Witch Project.
Despite his creative disappointments with Deep Blue Sea, Jane’s leading man presence made him the talk of Hollywood as the next big action star. There was talk at one point to have Jane cast as Cyclops in X-Men; however, Jane was not interested in fantastical parts and he preferred being a character actor using his leading man status to tackle projects that he’s attracted to. Unfortunately, his next films, The Sweetest Thing, Original Sin, and Dreamcatcher failed to prove his worth as a Hollywood leading man. Yet, HBO proved to be a better creative outlet for Jane when Billy Crystal cast him as Yankee legend, Mickey Mantle in 61*. It was the most fun he had on a film, conditioning his body and spending three months training with Reggie Smith. The training resulted in real injuries before shooting. Jane and costar, Barry Pepper, were playing real baseball at a professional level due to the way Crystal depicted the game’s authenticity in the era.
Jane earned incredible raves as South African cop-turned-bank robber Andre Stander in the biopic of the same name. Arguably the best role of his career, Jane had reservations accepting the part due to the accent, his physicality, and the weight of tacking such a troubled man. Eventually, he felt the work needed to play the role along with the extensive traveling to global locations was worth the effort. It was his work in Stander that landed Jane his next role as Frank Castle aka The Punisher.
Comic books were never an interest for Jane growing up. He had more love for 70s crime thrillers including Dirty Harry, The French Connection, and Serpico. What persuaded him to take on The Punisher was the cover artwork of Tim Bradstreet and the character’s appeal as a vigilante who relies on a vast arsenal instead of superpowers. Fan reaction was initially mixed due to early photos of an out of shape Jane in costume with his natural blonde hair unlike the muscular dark-haired Italian-American from the comics. Yet, his dedication to studying the comics plus extensive weapons training, hand-to-hand combat training with Navy SEALs, and dying his hair black changed opinions for the better. Jane and director, Jonathan Hensleigh, were driven to keep the action as realistic as possible without the use of CGI to enhance it.
With stars like John Travolta, Rebecca Romjin, Ben Foster, Roy Scheider, and Will Patton rounding out the supporting cast, The Punisher seemed destined to be another big hit for Marvel upon its release in 2004. While Jane’s performance received praise, fans felt the film was too cartoonish as opposed to its grittier source material. In later years, Jane admitted to the film’s flaws with the Tampa location and the lack of realism which the Batman films had depicted years later. He had been initially set to reprise the role in The Punisher: War Zone; however, long development and creative differences with Lions Gate forced Jane off the project. He still had love for the character as well as a new found love for comics as Jane teamed with Bradstreet and Steve Niles to start his entertainment company, RAW.
After The Punisher, Jane bounced between indie and studio films with mixed results. His biggest success was with Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist which in many ways was a precursor to Darabont’s efforts in bringing The Walking Dead to television. Jane was fantastic as the local painter defying incredible forces to protect his son from the creatures roaming the streets as well as the people in the supermarket where he and his son hide. Jane benefits from a solid script and direction by Darabont along with a heart-wrenching end twist. Sadly, none of his other films (The Tripper, Killshot, Give ‘Em Hell Malone) received critical acclaim like The Mist. Personal projects such as Mutant Chronicles and his directorial effort, Dark Country, went under the radar by critics and audiences. Poor choices and interest in personal projects caused Jane to lose out on more lucrative parts in The Dark Knight, Watchmen, and Jonah Hex (although he voiced the character in a DC animated short). The biggest insult came when Jane was cast opposite Sylvester Stallone in Bullet to the Head. Jane suggested Walter Hill to direct after original director, Wayne Kramer, left the project. Then producer Joel Silver decided Jane was not ethnic enough for his role and wanted Fast & Furious’ Sung Kang instead to replicate Lethal Weapon’s success with the interracial partner dynamic. Jane was more insulted when Stallone did not side with him afterwords.
In 2009, Jane returned to series television for HBO’s Hung. He played Ray Drecker, a struggling divorced high school teacher who turns to male prostitution working alongside his ex as his pimp. Executive Produced by Alexander Payne, Hung earned rave reviews and a cult audience. It gave Jane a chance to be hilarious and sexy at the same time with every ounce of truth as a show reflecting the recession times in America. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for each of Hung’s three seasons on the air.
In recent years, Jane has admit to smoking and alcohol issues affecting his personal life and regrets of not accepting himself as a classic leading man. Yet, Jane feels a purpose to appeal to his core fan base without the Hollywood machine. This gave him motivation to team up with director Phil Joanou and reprise his role as The Punisher in a short film called Dirty Laundry. Of any depiction of the character on screen, this film was the closest to capturing the essence of the Marvel comic as Jane injected all the ideas he envisioned for the 2004 film. It fueled rumors of the new movie now that Marvel retained the film rights back from Lions Gate; however, Jane has gone on record stating he is finished with the character all together.
Thomas Jane’s future is full of more directorial efforts and smaller indie projects that appeal to his style of acting and storytelling. He’s a diamond in the rough around an industry that listens less and less to moviegoers as well as making stars out of actors who are truly disconnected from their audience. Perhaps it’s his controversial opinions about the industry that prevent him from headlining any more studio films like The Punisher and The Mist. Maybe the industry believes the ship has sailed on his career. Though this writer believes Jane is still ahead of his time.