The actor and director ponders animal pain, a
disconnected world and the wisdom of days gone by.
By Allan Richter
Lean and tall, wearing a five o’clock shadow and a brown fedora, Thomas Jane suggests an era gone by. The 46-year-old actor’s old Hollywood square-jawed good looks evoke Gary Cooper with a good bit of Bogie thrown in. The hat offers little protection from the biting cold back in March as Jane walks the downtown Toronto streets. The fedora—he owns six—is Jane’s nod to anything that ever got lost or pilfered in the dark alleyways of film noir classics.
And he wears it comfortably, for his is an old soul.
Known for a well-reviewed turn as Mickey Mantle in “61*” and for the title role in “The Punisher,” among other works, the three-time Emmy nominee—for playing a hapless high school coach turned male escort in HBO’s “Hung”—is in Toronto shooting his latest project. He plays the lead character, a hardened detective—kind of a “noir” detective, Jane says—and native of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, in the sci-fi series “The Expanse.” Jane is spending part of a day off from shooting doing post-production audio work on an upcoming film, the thriller “Standoff,” in which he co-stars with Laurence Fishburne.
Light and Shadow
Jane’s heart belongs to another age. In large measure it is attached to a roughly decade-long period beginning in the mid-1940s that saw the birth of black film—or “noir,” as the French dubbed it—that referred to both the content and visual style of storytelling in films like “Double Indemnity” and “Touch of Evil.” It is not just the films themselves with which Jane identifies, but the way these cheerless, shadowy works machete their way through the saccharine post-World War II chirpiness that seemed to rule the day. In fact, that seeming innocence masked a darker mood borne from the gloomier side of war and its battle-scarred veterans.
“The mood of the country was, ‘We’re the champions; we just won the war,’ but that’s not what was going on at all,” Jane says in an interview over dumplings and tea in the lobby lounge of Toronto’s Shangri-La Hotel. “Really it was that we’re dirty now. We’re no longer innocent. We’ve been to war. The white picket fence and all that was a sham, it was a façade.” For Jane, the reality of the era reflected “the shadow self. It’s Carl Jung’s shadow, that dark half that’s knocking at you. I love the exploration of the darker side of human psychology.”
That tension between a darker reality and the artifice of a more generally accepted and contrived version of existence not only attracts Jane to his favorite acting roles, it feeds his search for authenticity and has its fingers in his spirituality, sense of purpose and how he approaches his health. To help him navigate what he says is an up-river battle, he meditates and regularly consumes books that challenge convention. And to avoid becoming conditioned like the masses, he says he has avoided consuming the mainstream news for at least 15 years.
“I’m seeking total independence, probably to a fault because I feel like you have to swing hard the other way,” Jane says. “You really have to break out of the control system. You’re fighting against the current.”
Consider Jane’s approach to his diet. Of late he is questioning the efficacy of eating meat, concerned about the contribution of cattle to global warming and the fear that runs through arguably sentient animals that are raised in confined, appalling conditions only to be slaughtered. “I’m sure some of the hormones they release when they get killed goes into the bloodstream and the muscles, and then we eat the muscles,” Jane says. “If you believe in vibrations and things like that, it can’t be good.”
His thinking on the subject is driven in part by the book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: The Belief System That Enables Us to Eat Some Animals and Not Others (Conari) by social psychologist Melanie Joy, PhD. “I’m a meat eater, but this made me think,” he says.
“We’re conditioned to accept the farm industry,” Jane says. “Melanie calls it a ‘violent ideology,’ and there are several violent ideologies that man grows up with that we just consider to be normal, natural and necessary. It becomes part of a way of life, like male dominance, for instance. The farm industry is one of those illusions that we’re brought up to not question.”
Taking a cue from Joy’s book, Jane has begun eating one vegan meal a week. He has dropped eggs and meat from his breakfasts, opting instead for oatmeal, blueberries, whey protein or almond milk and an occasional granola bar. “I tend to find a breakfast I like and eat it every morning, maybe for half a year. Then I’ll change to something else,” he says. He supplements his meals with turmeric and fish oil.
His aversion to farm-raised meat also harkens back to his youth, when he joined his father on hunting and fishing outings and ate the spoils: pheasant, quail and trout. “We were eating everything that was killed, plus we weren’t buying as much farm factory meat,” he recounts.
“As a kid, I knew the pheasant and the quail that my dad killed tasted better than the chicken that my mom bought at the market.” But it wasn’t until later that he considered the larger “more holistic” environmental picture, a view that keeps him at arm’s length from vanishing stocks of seafood and has him subscribing to the notion that humans are in an “Anthropocene” period in civilization. The period’s name refers to a human-dominated geological age and was coined by Paul Crutzen, a Dutch chemist who shared a Nobel Prize for shedding light on the effects of ozone-depleting compounds. It is examined in another book on Jane’s night table, The Sixth Extinction (Henry Holt), in which New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert explores the disappearing species that have scientists monitoring a sixth extinction in civilization.
For all the weightiness of the subjects dear to Jane, the actor is quick to seize a moment or two of levity. When a server swaps a small plant on the table in front of him for one nearly identical, he says, “This one looks much cuter, thank you. That one is more perky.” And when a man with a can of Coke in his coat pocket wanders the lobby before entering an elevator, Jane conjures a cloak-and-dagger scene and wonders what he is up to.
“He’s quite eccentric, but he’s very authentic and real,” says Christine Hazelton, ACSM, Jane’s longtime personal trainer. “What you see with Thomas Jane is what you get, which is what I love about him. He’s not trying to be anything other than what he is, which makes him truly refreshing.”
Jane is just as quick to return to the thought-provoking themes he is exploring in his personal library: sustainability, the mystical, quantum physics, perceptions of reality and the links that connect all of those esoteric concepts while transcending space and time.
“Hopefully you can have an experience of the timeless, of the impermanence of physical reality,” he says, when asked how these ethereal ideas play out in his life and art. “If you can experience through meditation a deeper sense of self that transcends time, that is not what you do or who you are in the world, but that deeper sense of ‘I’, if you can connect to that deeper sense of self, then that’s very freeing because it makes all of this like a dance or a game. It takes all the pressure that we tend to put on ourselves and blows it away like smoke. You’re able to break out from the conditioning, the shell. That’s freeing so then hopefully you can enjoy your life more.”
He compares the immersion into oneself that meditation brings to the deep concentration and engagement of method acting, a technique by which an actor lives a role on and off screen to fully inhabit it. Jane clearly embraces the technique: Our interview continues in a cab to a seedier side of Toronto where he is living during shooting “The Expanse” in a bare-bones flophouse in which he shares a bathroom. The living quarters are meant to give him the feel of the cramped, low-budget space domiciles of “The Expanse,” he explains.
Mark Fergus, executive producer of “The Expanse,” says Jane can tap into a full spectrum of feelings, making the actor ideal for the role of the space gumshoe Detective Miller in the sci-fi series. “Thomas doesn’t act, he lives and breathes the human experience and becomes the character,” Fergus says. “He really digs into the heart and soul of the person he’s portraying. He’s not afraid to get to the truth of the character through himself. Miller is a guy grappling with the light and dark of humanity; idealism and cynicism at the same time. It takes a serious actor to dive into that kind of character. A character like Miller is not for the faint of heart. You need an actor like Thomas who’s gonna go for it.”
Acting, for Jane, is therapeutic and not a finite process. “It’s like chasing smoke,” Jane says, his eyes closed and head down in concentration. “You’re searching for moments of perfection that come and go, and there’s never a completion, there’s never a final act, it’s never over.
You just kind of hit the pause button in between days that you’re not working. It’s a tapestry that’s constantly being woven. Some parts are incredibly beautiful and other parts are ugly, but the tapestry keeps moving, it keeps being woven. It’s not work. It’s never been work. I’ve been very lucky in that regard.”
If there is a single dynamic that Jane says has had the most impact on him, it is meditation, a practice he took up five years ago. He meditates each morning, sometimes twice a day. “It drops you down into the center of your being, and you are able to differentiate between the [artifice] and real life, which, before I started meditation, you could sense the difference but you’re not living the difference,” he says.
“I call it the divided self,” he continues. “We’re individuals. We place great emphasis on individuality, but we are as a society divided from each other. We are partitioned off. Your experience is not my experience. In fact my sense of myself is differentiating between me and other. There is ‘inside my skin’ and ‘outside my skin.’ There is ‘us’ and there is ‘them.’ There is ‘me’ and there is ‘the world.’ This division is a construct. I think that it’s breakable. People could come together. Group meditation perhaps. And I think the Internet is the very beginning of it. We’re starting to connect. That’s the way forward. Instead of a hard line between you and me, it has to be a diaphanous, fluid line between you and me.”
As a self-described former “card-carrying member of the control system,” Jane says his next step is to think about how to make these larger issues in which he has indoctrinated himself part of his work. In the meantime, it will be difficult to miss Jane’s multimedia presence. In addition to his imprint on “The Expanse,” which launches in December on the SyFy Channel, and other film work, Jane has commissioned another graphic novel, a love story involving werewolves called The Lycan, for the book company, Raw Studios, he founded and runs with illustrator Tim Bradstreet. Jane directed and starred in the film version of Raw’s first graphic novel, Dark Country, a horror thriller and nod to the old EC Comics’ crime and science fiction of the 1940s and 50s.
In a mammoth Toronto warehouse on the set of “The Expanse,” Jane is at the end of shooting a scene in a space vessel. His detective character sits exhausted but content as he eyes a bright light shining through a portal. “Beautiful,” his fatigued but enlightened character says in a barely audible murmur as if he has found Nirvana.
The scene may as well have been scripted for the intuitive spontaneity, a kind of extrasensory perception, with which Jane is seeking personal growth. “There’s always more to know and more to learn and more to be, but it’s what the Zen masters say: ‘You have to follow the master, get on the master’s path, you have to walk with the master, you have to see through the master, then you have to be the master,’” Jane says.
“In a way you have to kind of transcend,” he continues. “The other way of saying it is, ‘kill the Buddha.’ Seekers of Buddhism are constantly following the Buddha. They’re saying ‘the Buddha would do this’ or ‘Zen is this.’ And the masters would say, ‘kill the Buddha.’ If you’re thinking about what the Buddha is doing, you’re not being the Buddha. You’ve got to get to a place of no mind.”