Sam Shepard Takes Lead in Two New Films by Don Ricker
Source: Hartford Courant - July 31, 2005

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 nomination.

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 playwrights.

"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.''

During this 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.

Shepard, the 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 field.''

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 older talent.

"Hollywood,'' he says, pulling out his cigar, "is geared toward teenage idiocy."