One father’s search for the truth behind his son’s murder is brought to light in director/writer Paul Haggis’ newest drama “In the Valley of Elah.”
In the film, Hank Deerfield (Academy Award-winner Tommy Lee Jones) doesn’t trust the military or the police department to properly investigate the death of his son, who had just come home after a tour in Iraq.
Instead, Hank decides to question everyone himself, including the soldiers his son served with in the Middle East. One of these men is Pvt. Richard Ortiez (Victor Wolf).
I spoke with Wolf via telephone from his home in Inglewood, Calif., about working with Paul Haggis and Tommy Lee Jones and what a role like this can do for his career.
It seems like director Paul Haggis has his hands in everything these days. What did it feel like to be on a movie set with someone whose stock is so high right now?
Well, the audition process was a little weird. I got to sit down with him and talk about my character and he was really open to my suggestions. I was truly blessed to work with him.
Why was the audition process weird?
When I went in [to audition] they told me, “Uh, that was good but we want you to play him totally different than what you just played him.” So, I thought of the way they wanted me to play [the character] but I thought it was too stereotypical. When I went in for the callback I talked to Paul about who [the character] was and why he does certain things. I told him [the character] has a heart and doesn’t always have to be so disturbed.
You told this to Paul Haggis, an Oscar-winning screenwriter?
Yeah, and he liked my idea. It was sort of weird telling an Oscar-winning writer that the character he wrote wasn’t really correct.
Were you at all excited about what a role like this could do for your career? I mean, take Michael Peña in “Crash,” for instance. No one knew who he was until that Paul Haggis movie, and now he’s everywhere.
When I saw “Crash,” I thought Michael Peña did a good job. Then when I saw that Paul was doing this, I thought, “He’s just going to cast Michael again.” I didn’t think I was going to get the role. But he ended up going with me and I thought that was cool. As to what’s going to happen, I have no idea and no expectations. I just want to go out there and do some good work and work on some good projects.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when your character is talking to Tommy Lee Jones’s character at the end of the film. A lot of critics, including myself, are saying this is the best performance of Jones’s career. Were you at all nervous to have such a significant scene with him, you being a newcomer and him being an Oscar-winning actor?
Yeah, that was one of the first scenes we shot. Basically, people told me, “When you sit next to him, don’t see Tommy Lee Jones, see his character. That will make it much easier to do.” I went into the scene hearing rumors about how tough he is on actors – you have to come prepared. So, I went in as prepared as possible. And he was such a sweetheart. At the end of our scene he invited me to have lunch with him.
What is lunch like with Tommy Lee Jones?
We went out and I asked him all the cool questions every fan wants to ask him. He was very cool and amazing to work with.
So was that actually you or a stuntman when you got your butt kicked by Tommy Lee Jones in the film?
(Laughing) No that was all me. And he’s hitting me for real, so they had to put extra padding on me. You can see how intense Tommy Lee Jones is when he’s standing above you. When you can see the fire in his eyes it’s something that’s indescribable. That old man can fight.