The Write Stuff by Jeff Dawon
Source: London's Sunday Times -  June 4, 2006


Sam Shepard’s "Fool for Love" is riding into town. Jeff Dawson meets its Pulitzer-winning author.

Is there anyone cooler than Sam Shepard? Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, Oscar-nominated actor, sometime musician, he is tall, lean, with a weathered, Marlboro Man handsomeness. To cap it all, he goes home at night to snuggle up with Jessica Lange. If there is one image to hold, it’s of Shepard as test pilot Chuck Yeager in "The Right Stuff", strolling nonchalantly out of the desert, having survived the crash of his jet: a man’s man in the ultimate man’s-man’s movie. It is only halfway through our chat that I discover Shepard had a phobia about flying, tackled only when the real Yeager forced him up for a spin. “I thought, if I’m gonna go down, I’m gonna go down with the greatest pilot that ever lived,” he sniggers. But let that not spoil the picture.

Shepard’s film antics, anyway, are a mere sideshow. It may be the medium that gives him greater public recognition, but it is as a playwright that he will leave his legacy. For 30 years, the best of his 50-odd works have quietly earned their spurs as modern American classics — plays such as "Curse of the Starving Class," "Buried Child" (for which he won the Pulitzer in 1979) and "True West," revivals of which play nearly continuously.

His milieu of pick-up trucks, dusty farmsteads and cockroach motels, where long-lost fathers/sons/husbands seek out absent sons/fathers/wives, has made Shepard a sort of laureate of the modern West. His best-known crossover work, the film "Paris, Texas," for which he wrote the screenplay, has been so imitated that any time he catches some moody desert imagery with a Ry Cooderish slither on the soundtrack, he must afford himself a private chuckle. “I saw some advertisement,” he drawls, “I forget what the product was, but it started with a view of the desert, a hawk flies by, twangy guitar, and you see a guy in an overcoat with a red baseball cap. And it’s like, they couldn’t have been a little inventive and disguised this?”

Meeting the laconic 62-year-old is an intriguing prospect, not least because he doesn’t do many interviews; more so because we are in Manhattan, 2,000 miles from his literary habitat and half as much to Kentucky, where, these days, this former rodeo rider breeds horses on his 107-acre farm. But when I turn up early for our lunch at a cavernous downtown brasserie, Shepard is there already, dressed in black, ensconced at a corner table and scrawling in a leather-bound notebook. “It’s horrible,” he groans, in an accent as dry as the dust bowl. “The only good part of New York is that I’m able to write. I get in the country and there’s a million things I’d rather do. I’d much rather work on the farm physically than sit in a goddamn room.”

He is currently toiling at a collection of short stories and a new play, an array of coloured pens in his breast pocket, one for each character, suggesting progress. Shepard is as unreconstructed as his protagonists. He has an ancient electric typewriter at home. “It must weigh 50lb.” None of this computer nonsense. “I don’t like the screen. I don’t like this mystery of the disappearing page. I like paper, being able to scratch things out with a pen and write on it. Writing is a tactile experience.”

This month sees a London production of Shepard’s celebrated 1983 play "Fool for Love." The story of a man turning up at a seedy motel (where else?) to reconcile with his lover, and with a trademark skeleton rattling in the closet, it is probably the most repeated of his dramas. I wonder why. “Male/female conflict, which is eternal,” he says. “And it’s really an actors’ play, in the sense that actors love to get hold of the material and mess around with it.” He reckons the main reason his plays have endured is, moreover, a practical one. “You can do ’em in a bare-bones situation. It doesn’t require a lot of sets.” But he is being a tad modest.

Shepard orders his lunch (calf’s liver). He has little to do with the London production. He rarely does. Not since the film version by Robert Altman, in which he starred with “whatsername?”. Me: “Kim Basinger.” He laughs. “It just dropped out of my head for a minute.” It wasn’t very good, he admits. The latest update stars Juliette Lewis, in her stage debut, and Martin Henderson as the sparring lovers. Shepard is sceptical of “movie stars” — a term of disdain — trying to get kudos on stage. He didn’t know it would be Lewis’s stage debut. “Is it really?” he asks. But, as a musician himself (currently immersed in guitar and banjo), the fact that the run will be suspended while Lewis’s band gigs with the Foo Fighters adds a bit of integrity. “Good for her.”

Shepard has a deep association with London. His plays are mounted regularly in the city, and it was here in the early 1970s he came, fleeing the excesses of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. He got work at the Royal Court, which allowed him to direct for the first time — his own "Geography of a Horse Dreamer." “It was a great experience,” he says. “I met some extraordinary actors — Stephen Rea and Bob Hoskins, before they were (here we go) ‘ movie stars’.” An inveterate gambler, he reminisces fondly about his acquired obsession for dog racing, the words “White City” and “Hackney Wick” tumbling incongruously from his lips. The White City stadium is long gone, I say. “Wow,” he mourns. “That was a great track.” In the end, the weather got to him, together with “that whole kind of insular thing. I needed to get back”.

There is little rain where Shepard comes from, the farming community of Duarte in California. Although he was born in Illinois and moved around as an air force brat, it was here that the family settled. Outsiders were rare, he says, and he didn’t see a television until 1959. Equally influential on his writing was his relationship with his drunken father (captured most notably in The Late Henry Moss). “It’s hard to elaborate on that situation because it’s so extremely violent. I’d rather the plays speak for that,” he says. He dropped out of a husbandry course, fell in with the beatniks and became the driver for a touring theatre group, eventually dismounting in New York in 1964.

“That was a transformational time,” he says, detailing the explosion of the underground scene. He was inspired by bebop jazz and drummed with a rock band, but it was theatre that captivated him. “Beckett was here, there was some Pinter stuff coming over, Ionesco — there was a lotta stuff going on. I said, ‘You know, I can do that, but I can do it maybe through my own perspective.’” His channelled stories of western life were both exotic in tone and everyman in experience. Married to an actress called O-Lan (it was the 1960s), he soon began an open, stormy relationship with the proto-punkster Patti Smith, with whom he wrote and acted in "Cowboy Mouth"; on his hand, still, is a crescent-moon tattoo from that time. But “things got kinda out of hand in a number of ways”, he says. This precipitated his trip across the Atlantic.

Returning, he hung out with Bob Dylan (Shepard’s song Brownsville Girl appears on the album Knocked out Loaded). “I mean, we’re friendly, as much as you can be a friend of Dylan’s,” he clarifies. He went on 1975’s Rolling Thunder Revue, wrote a book about it and ended up in Dylan’s bomb of a movie, Renaldo and Clara. He had had a brush with the film world before, as co-writer of the hippie trip "Zabriskie Point." Suddenly, film seemed a new avenue of possibilities. He was cast in Terrence Malick’s cornfield drama, Days of Heaven (1978); then, on the set of 1982’s "Frances," he met Lange (they have never married but have two children, plus one more each from previous relationships).

But with "The Right Stuff" (1983), for which he was Oscar-nominated, he became the star/celebrity beast he so scorned. “I was leery of wandering into it too deeply because of the writing, you know. I thought the writing wouldn’t be taken seriously. The writing was more important to me.” Not that he has been fool enough to untether the gift horse. “The film stuff was very lucrative,” he adds unapologetically. Indeed, he currently has four movies awaiting release and has been happy to slip into character roles (notably military ones) in "Black Hawk Down" and "Stealth." “It was amazing to suddenly be able to make a living, because up until that point, I was living off grants.” Even at his esteemed level? “Oh, yeah. You can’t make a living as a playwright. One movie, and I don’t have to work for a year — then I can feed some horses.”

There is the odd labour of love, such as the recent "Don’t Come Knocking, " which reunited him with the "Paris, Texas" director, Wim Wenders. The film, in which Shepard stars, was poorly received, but was amusing for the fact that he plays a cowboy actor who quits the corny film he’s in and rides off into oblivion. “I don’t remember a movie where I haven’t wanted to run away at some point,” he muses.

Fool for Love is unlikely to get the reaction that greeted "The God of Hell" at the Donmar last year. His most overtly political work was dismissed, in a rare tirade by the London critics, as a facile bit of Bush-bashing. “It was meant to be nothing more than an exorcising of American demons,” he counters. “I wasn’t trying to pick sides. Hopefully, the play could be presented 10, 15 years from now and still have an impact, because I don’t think the Bush administration is particularly unique.” You think he really gives a stuff what the critics think? No, exactly.

Shepard returned to the New York stage in 2004, after 30 years, in Caryl Churchill’s "A Number." But he won’t be doing that again in a hurry (his stage fright is on a par with his fear of flying) and will stick with what he gathers in his precious leather notebook. He is off in a few days, he explains, to Texas, to do a reading of western literature with Tommy Lee Jones and Lyle Lovett, which seems a bit more to his liking. Lunch over, he gets out a cigar, sparks it up and strolls off manfully. In a westerly direction, too. All that’s missing is the sunset.