In a rare interview, Stillwater resident and
Jack-of-all-Entertainment Sam Shepard explains how he
keeps even familiar projects like "Hamlet" eternally
If you do an Internet search for Sam Shepard, the
results will yield two possibilities: "Sam Shepard,
Celebrity'' and "Sam Shepard, Playwright.''
The celebrity is the guy who earned an Oscar nomination for
"The Right Stuff'' and has been in a relationship with Jessica Lange, who now
lives in Stillwater and on a nearby ranch, since 1982. The playwright is the guy
who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Buried Child'' and who is nominated for a Tony for
the current Broadway production of "True West.''
Turns out these two people are one guy, who was at the St.
Paul Grill a couple of weeks ago because he's interested in talking about his
performance in "Hamlet,'' which opens Friday. He's not particularly interested
in talking about the Internet. In fact, he doesn't have a computer. Shepard
writes on a burgundy typewriter made in Germany, which he describes as looking
like an old convertible.
"Writing to me is hand-held. That feels more natural to me. I
like being able to cross things out. Computer screens don't appeal to me, and
that green color makes me sick.''
Much of the time, Shepard writes the same way the gentleman
who wrote his current project wrote: in longhand. But Shakespeare wouldn't
immediately recognize this new "Hamlet,'' which uses much of the original
language but is set in the present.
Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) is battling his stepfather, who he
believes killed his father, for control of the Denmark Corp. (in the
pre-mergers-and-acquisitions Elizabethan era, Shakespeare had them battling over
the country of Denmark). Shepard plays the ghost of Hamlet's father.
Shepard has seen enough off-kilter productions of his own
work to be wary of that sort of thing (and he's not fond of the movie versions,
which include "A Lie of the Mind'' and "Simpatico''), but he thinks this
"Hamlet'' is a fine way of getting at Shakespeare's beautiful language. Even if
the Bard didn't really intend for the "To be or not to be'' speech to be
delivered, as Ethan Hawke does, in Blockbuster Video.
"It's a strange notion, this thing of intention,'' he says,
taking a drag on a Camel. "The popular idea is that a writer is totally aware of
his intentions. That might have been true about Shakespeare or Conrad, but now
it's a complete myth. At the best, you start out with an intention, which is all
fine and dandy, but then something more powerful takes over. The material has an
actual, tangible force to it, depending on what the characters want. It's so
subtle and complex that the writer can't control or predict it.''
Shepard found enacting Shakespeare's language intimidating. "
"You don't accomplish Shakespeare. He accomplishes you. Playing this part, I
didn't want to invent anything and stick it on top of the character. All I could
do is try to make it seem real and approach it through the language.''
For example, Shepard cites a scene in which the ghost talks
about the poison that killed him, reciting the scene loudly enough that you can
imagine surrounding St. Paul Grill diners looking suspiciously at their Caesars.
"That language is so powerful that when you speak it, it becomes poisonous,''
Shepard says. "The language takes you on. It becomes the thing it refers to. And
if you play the scene exactly as it is written, it takes ahold of you, like
For Shepard, it was also important that his character's
appearance demonstrate how shocking it would be for Hamlet to suddenly see his
dead father. In the new version, there's no dry ice or soft-focus to blunt the
impact of the ghost, who looks as real as the pop machine he occasionally
springs out of.
This idea of the dead revisiting the living is not new to
Shepard, whose plays are full of characters haunted by a past they cannot reckon
"I've always been fascinated by fathers and sons and by
this thing about revenge,'' Shepard says. "In a way, the film makes clearer than
anything I've ever seen this idea about trying to rectify a wrong from the past
through violence. The violence gathers force in the play, and nobody can see how
they are getting swept up in this brushfire, in this death.''
Not surprisingly, death is at the center of Shepard's new
play, "The Late Henry Moss,'' in which there's a corpse on stage. It will be
produced this fall, so it's too early to say much about it. Shepard also
doesn't seem especially interested in chatting about his personal life, although
he chuckles when it's pointed out that, between Lange's recent "Titus'' and his
"Hamlet,'' they were both doing Shakespeare.
"That does seem strange. Not just that we were both doing
Shakespeare at the same time, but both of us for the first time.''
Shepard has been known to enjoy cross country drives but says
he spends "quite a bit of time'' in Minnesota, although he's more likely to be
spotted in a feed store than a theater lobby here. He reports that he is getting
over his fear of flying, which should come in handy this fall if Sam Shepard,
Celebrity, has to do any publicity for the Matt Damon movie, "All the Pretty
Horses,'' in which he co-stars, or when Sam Shepard, Playwright, attends the
opening of "The Late Henry Moss'' in San Francisco.
He just finished the play, but he does not appear to be a man
who has been spending much time hunched over a legal pad. From the look of his
weathered, sunburned skin, he looks like he's spent more time piloting a tractor
than a typewriter, suggesting that whoever runs those Internet search engines
needs to add a new category: "Sam Shepard, Rancher.''