NEW YORK " The men of "No Country for Old Men" are having a smoke.
Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin each light up while, all dressed in dark suits, they gather in a back room at Manhattan restaurant Cipriani's for the National Board of Review Awards.
While Jones fiddles with the matches, Brolin rolls his eyes and alludes to Jones' Ivy League education: "Harvard," he says in disbelief.
The NBR Awards, which named the film the year's best picture, are just one of many to honor the Coen brothers' movie, adapted from Cormac McCarthy's novel. On Tuesday, "No Country" was nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture and best supporting actor for Bardem. Jones was also nominated for best actor for his performance in "In the Valley of Elah."
"No Country" has grossed more than any previous Coen film, an unlikely financial success for a violent, somber allegory of a movie.
Each character is symbolic. Bardem's Anton Chigurh is a prophet of destruction with the hair of Prince Valiant. Brolin's Llewlyn Moss is greed; he attempts to take a found suitcase of money for himself. And Jones' Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is justice; a wise, old man trying to make sense of a new violence.
Similarly, in person, they appear archetypes of masculinity. Among the trio, Brolin is the wry jokester; Bardem is the affable, sensitive one; and Jones is the dour, sarcastic elder statesman.
AP: Though Joel Coen has said this is a film about three men, you're never seen together on screen. In fact, any two of you hardly appear together.
JONES: Not once.
BROLIN: Or once, but without any dialogue.
JONES: But we're a terrific ensemble, as you can see. (all laugh)
AP: Did you have that sense that you were an ensemble when making it, even if you didn't have dialogue together?
JONES: Albuquerque is a really hard place to work. It's very noisy. There are crows there, planes, trucks, people working on their cars. It's just a noisy place to shoot. It's a little quieter in West Texas. That's about all we dealt with, is trying to do the best we could and work around the noise of Albuquerque and the topographical features of West Texas. I suppose that made us an ensemble, but it's not as if we walked around a drawing room exchanging witticisms.
AP: It's ironic that it was noisy while making it, considering the film is exceptionally quiet, with barely any music at all. When did you know that there would essentially be no music?
BROLIN: Not until we saw it. We had no idea.
JONES: There was no music? (all laugh)
BROLIN: There's a bit. There's ambiance. And it's kind of good; I don't know of any movie that's done that " kind of accentuated the ambiance of the wind, the footsteps, the rustling. So it kind of has a natural soundtrack, but a soundtrack nonetheless.
AP: Is that nerve-racking to hear that there isn't music? Maybe you're more naked on screen that way?
BROLIN: Well, we didn't know beforehand. I think if we had been told that there was going to be nothing on the screen but your breathing, at a certain point we probably would have imploded.
BARDEM: I was really hoping for them to cover my whole voice, my terrible English, with some tension, some music. But they didn't.
BROLIN: Heavy metal or something.
AP: It's been interesting to see how ongoing the discussion is about this film. Critics and moviegoers seem to still be turning over the ending, the hair, the meaning of Chigurh.
JONES: That's good. It's a good thing if it causes conversations.
BROLIN: I know that some of these critics have seen the movie more than once, and from what I've heard, up to four times. ... It's not your typical structure of film. You rape the audience of a protagonist, and suddenly they go, 'We don't like that.' But of course you don't like that because you're not supposed to like that.
AP: Javier, your character is the instigator of these questions. How do you prepare for a character like this, who's less a normal person and more an embodiment of violence?
BARDEM: The only difference that I had in approaching the character is not really worrying about the backstory of the character: where he's coming from, if his mommy fed him well when he was 10. It was about how to bring this iconic and symbolic idea of what violence represents into human fear " which was a difficult task because it's very easy to get lost in the machine, in the Terminator side of it.
AP: Many have also been unsure of how to react to the ending (a scene in which Jones' character gives a long soliloquy). How did you approach that scene?
JONES: I worked at it every day, several times a day, because it was poetic and you wanted to get the rhythms right and try to embody in the performance all that it might imply as a work of literature and hopefully cinema. And worked at it real hard. Are you asking me what it meant?
JONES: Good. (all laugh) Because it means what it means. It says what it says. It's pretty straightforward.
AP: Is it something that you believe? Once we're no longer saying "sir" and "ma'am" is all lost?
JONES: No, not all is lost. What I think is the book and the movie, in general, is a contemplation of morality. And the character of Ed Tom feels somewhat overwhelmed by a new character of evil and says so to his wiser and older uncle, and his uncle tells him that that's vanity, that evil doesn't change and that you, Ed Tom, do not live in the center of the universe. You can't be overwhelmed. It's the same old deal. Then he tells the story about these Indians who ride up to another uncle's house maybe a hundred years ago, kill him on his front porch. And when he recounts the story, if you look at it on the face of it, it seems like a recounting of a scene from a grade-B Western, but somehow you get the feeling that if you were there on that day, you would have seen real evil. And it would have impressed you; it would have been real. And I think that's important to this movie's outlook. No matter how overwhelmed you might feel, it's not about you. ... And like all considerations of Cormac, the questions are far more important than the answers. The question that arises there is that wonderful dream of riding ahead and reuniting with your father in the warm fire place in the cold, in the dark, hostile country. And if it is a dream, does the dream have any efficacy at all? If you wake up from a dream, what have you woken up from? Have you woken up from reality? So these get to be pretty sophisticated questions and I really appreciate the Coen brothers' careful reading of Cormac's moral thinking. Finally we're left with the really good questions, which are better than any simple answers. Did that make any sense?
BARDEM & BROLIN: Mm-hmm. (applauding)