I Don’t remember calling him James. Jimmy from the start. An email from his agent: Jimmy wants to talk about my script, but he’d prefer to see me in person. Can I come to Los Angeles? I’m on the next flight. I desperately want him to play Tom Rockwell, a retired Air Force colonel with a lot to hide, my film Out of Blue is a neo-noir adaptation of Martin Amis’ novel Night Train, directed by Patricia Xia Clarkson starred in the investigation into the death of Tom’s daughter.
I met Jimmy at the polo lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the beating heart of Old Hollywood. I thought he was going to be late, but he was already there, at his ordinary dining table, in the best light in the room. He is in his 70s and full of life and stories. I can’t stop thinking about all the legends he’s played, all the incredible directors he’s worked with as I sit next to him, but all I know is that in order to make sure he agreed to play Tom, I had to seem not at all intimidated by these.
Jimmy slowed down and said even though he made some movies for the money – he lost his house in four divorce settlements so he had no choice – For this reason, he didn’t consider doing Out of Blue. Hell, there is hardly any money to have. What is the budget? how is this possible? When I punched my fist in combat mode and said I could do it, he said with a look of contempt, “That’s not how you fight! I’ll teach you boxing someday!” To some extent, over the next few months, he did.
An hour into the meeting and we hadn’t even looked at the menu, that’s when Jimmy made me think I was the only vegetarian he’d ever met. I opted for avocado toast, which he claimed had never heard of before. But he also ordered it and when it arrived it was the only time I saw him stunned. It’s huge and garnished with grapefruit. We started laughing and found it hard to stop.
But he made me cry, and so did he, when he told me that after he made his first pile of dough, he bought his parents a limo — and surprised them outside the small Bronx basement apartment where he grew up The parents still live there. Although his father drove down the street with pride, he couldn’t bring himself to be proud of his son. Even when Jimmy was a kid and made his mark in baseball, his father instead praised another teammate’s skill. Decades later, Jimmy has longed for a love he never felt from his father. He is still in pain.
I was so excited when Jimmy agreed to join Out of Blue. After I got back to the UK, he started making daily calls and continued pre-production in New Orleans. Ultimately, as much as I liked and was stimulated by everything he said, I was getting more and more worried: we only had 28 days to make this movie, and if he expected to get so much attention on set, I wouldn’t make it to the end deadline. On the next phone call, I told him I didn’t have enough time and we ended up arguing and yelling at each other. We were both laughing when we both calmed down and I was hooked when Jimmy said he liked his deep conversation with Karel Reitz in The Gambler and felt like we were doing the same thing.
Costume designer Abby O’Sullivan was shown a photo of Jimmy’s worn golf shoes by his assistant when he stipulated that Tom should wear a special vintage golf shoe. We’re guessing if Jimmy just wants some new shoes, maybe he does.After all, when he was done shooting, he walked away all Clothes for his characters, saying, “Thanks for my new look, boy.” But it’s definitely more than that: He’s obsessed with his characters, and he loves to detail the inside and out, from shoes to hats.
I asked Toby Jones, who played the prime murder suspect in the film, to take it easy in the violent confrontation scene because Jimmy was in poor health. Toby later said the thrill of being in the orbit of this generation of film actors continued until Jimmy managed to find the strength to push him against the wall and slam him in the throat with a cane. He did everything he could, and it showed: his Tom was subtly twisted.
I’ll never forget that day, as we left the Beverly Hills Hotel, as Jimmy and I passed by the pianist, he got into The Godfather theme. Jimmy stopped happily. “Listen!” he said. “Do you believe it?” I love him because he retains every ounce of fresh enthusiasm and never forgets he has become who he is: a terrific actor, a movie legend, a great character. There will never be someone like him, but thankfully because he gave himself and everything for so many characters, he will always be with us.