Sam Shepard is tall and handsome, with crooked teeth
that never seemed to get in the way of his acting
career. But age apparently has.
"I'm not in
demand,'' says the 61-year-old Shepard, who stars in the
new thriller "Stealth." "I'm all washed up.''
He lets out a laugh
to signal that although roles might be slower in coming,
he is still very much ready to take on challenges.
In "Stealth," which
opened Friday, he plays a Navy project leader with an
agenda beyond God and country. His state-of-the-art
unmanned fighting plane is joining a squadron of three
human jet jockeys (Jamie Foxx, Josh Lucas and Jessica
Biel). They chase terrorists and impress each other with
derring-do. Call it a "Top Gun" for the post-9/11 era.
Shepard, at his
leathery, cigar-chomping best, did much of his acting in
front of computer monitors on a Sydney sound stage.
"I'm very rarely
having an exchange with another actor,'' he says. "It's
very tough. I'm having a relationship with a television.
It's horrible. I don't ever want to do it again.''
Shepard's knack for
animating authority figures will reacquaint him with the
cineplex crowd. He's comfortable as a leader, having
played a law man, politician and military officer. His
best-known role is as test pilot Chuck Yeager in 1983's
"The Right Stuff," for which he received an Oscar
He took the
"Stealth'' role in part to see Australia. But his
hired-gun status didn't necessarily provide a vacation
from his day job as one of America's most famous
"There are places
where writing is acting and acting is writing," he says.
"I'm not so interested in the divisions. I'm interested
in the way things cross over.''
interview at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Shepard
smokes a small cigar while the odor of crab-piled buffet
plates mingle with the smell of suntan lotion at a
seaside restaurant. It's pushing 80 degrees, but Shepard
wears a black leather jacket. Nobody has ever questioned
his flair for the dramatic.
Pulitzer Prize winner for 1979's "Buried Child'" and a
Tony best-drama nominee for "Buried Child'' and "True
West," revels in his latest screen effort.
While writing the
yet-to-be-released "Don't Come Knocking,'' which had its
premiere at the festival, he decided to make himself the
lead character, a drunken actor who hightails it off the
set of his latest Western to track down the son he just
found out he had. That leads him to the woman he did
have, played by his real-life companion and mother of
two of his three children, Jessica Lange.
"Don't you find it
kind of self-indulgent for actors to ago around writing
parts for themselves?'' he says. "That's why there's
something embarrassing about this.''
Lange, who was
directed by Shepard in the 1988 film "Far North,''
suggested they not rehearse their big confrontation in
"Don't Come Knocking'' to keep it fresh. When director
Wim Wenders called "action!'' she slapped Shepard.
"I was so amazed, I
forgot to walk away,'' he says.
Shepard would work
with her again, "but it's a little bit scary because of
the emotional territory of it. It's something I don't
think you can do every day.''
Acting and writing
have been his dual stock in trade since he built his
avant-garde reputation as playwright-in-residence of San
Francisco's Magic Theatre during the 1970s. Shepard, who
had an affair with rocker Patti Smith during a marriage
also tested by his drug abuse, later moved into a Mill
Valley ranch with his then-wife, O-Lan Jones, and son.
There the cowboy laureate churned out some of his best
work, which emphasized family and dysfunction.
The Magic's "Buried
Child,'' a squirm-in-your-seat yarn of incest and
murder, launched him from rebel dramatist to a stage and
screen commodity. He returned to the Magic in 2000 with
the premiere of "The Late Henry Moss'' starring
Sean Penn and Nick Nolte. The run briefly rekindled the
artistic energy that Shepard and San Francisco fed off
one another decades earlier.
"Sam doesn't have a
cerebral approach,'' says Wenders. "Like me, he believes
in the characters.''
Shepard isn't sure
that's always a good thing.
"That's lacking on
my side,'' he says. "I wish there was more mind. It's
funny how the grass is greener on the other side of the
He's gotten by. By
the time he was 30, the Illinois-born, California-raised
Shepard had written 30 produced plays in New York. He
made his screenwriting debut with director Michelangelo
Antonioni on ``Zabriskie Point'' (1970). Other notable
film-writing credits include ``Paris, Texas'' (for
Wenders) and ``Fool for Love'' (from his play).
His latest stage
venture, the 2004 anti-Bush rant ``God of Hell,''
featured a farm couple being visited by a mysterious
government agent. He has never been afraid to mix the
playful and the polemic.
"You're still much
more afraid of the audience,'' he says, "and yet on the
other hand, you desperately want to plunge into new
territory. So every once in a while the real opportunity
to make this leap gets handed to you. It's like jumping
into cold water.''
Perhaps one day
Shepard will find a bracing outlet in taking on the film
industry's youth movement, which he believes is gutting
says, pulling out his cigar, "is geared toward teenage