Sam Shepard reflects on violence and dads in his life
When I call his cell, Sam Shepard is in Utah, shooting
the film Darling Companion. It’s a fitting locale for
the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright-actor whose
persona and plays (Buried Child, True West, Curse of the
Starving Class) have been bound with the rural West. He
lives on a working farm in Kentucky, where, he says, “I
ride horses, make coffee and sit around and write.” (He
laughs when I ask if his partner, Jessica Lange, lives
there with him: “She likes the big city.”) Born in
suburban Fort Sheridan, Shepard, one of the most
dominant influences in American theater, last week
turned 67, the same age as his father when he died (that
thought “comes and goes,” Shepard says simply). On
Saturday 13, he accepts the 2010 Chicago Tribune
Literary Prize as part of the Chicago Humanities
Any thoughts on what you’ll say at the
I’m not a speech maker, so that’s gonna be a problem,
yeah. [Laughs] I would just as soon not make a speech.
It’s an honor, of course.
In his review of your latest play, Ages of the Moon, Ben
Brantley wrote that, in your universe, “it’s hard to be
close to someone without wanting to kill that person and
occasionally acting on the instinct.”
[Laughs] Did he say that? I was unaware of that. Well,
there is a barbarism and bloodlust and primitivism in a
lot of the stuff. There’s a savageness in us that is far
more interesting than the sophisticated.
How do you account for that barbarism—where’s it come
America. Being raised in
America. Everything that constitutes what we call
America—its collapse and its terror and, yeah, the
raggedness of it.
Much has been said about that thread of violence in your
work in terms of your father’s influence, his violence
and his alcoholism. John Lahr wrote that for you and
your characters, “there is no escaping the father.” You
agree with that?
Yeah, I do. We see
our father in ourselves, we see our son in ourselves.
It’s an old story.
You speak about a general we, a general father. What
about you and your own father and how that dynamic
played out in your work?
The reason I
was writing him was not to re-inhabit my father, make
him come back to life. It was the notion of the father
as the figure beyond one’s own father. The more you talk
about it personally, the more you take away from the
impact of [plays like] Buried Child. It’s not intended
to have a realistic basis.
But why does that figure capture your imagination?
’Cause it was the biggest influence of my life.
So it was personal then.
personal becomes general.
Did your father ever see your plays?
He sat through a production of Buried Child in Santa Fe.
He charged into the play and sat down and started
yelling at the actors. They kicked him out, and then
they realized he was my father and they let him back in.
And he started the same thing over again. [Laughs]
Did he ever ask about your work?
no, no, no. I remember him calling me after I won the
Pulitzer Prize, and he said it would be remiss not to
congratulate me. But beyond that, he didn’t say
“Remiss not to congratulate you”?
You share with your dad a history with alcohol, which
came into the news last year when you were stopped for
speeding under the influence—
speeding. I was just drunk. In fact, I was under the
speed limit. It was the day after New Year’s, and the
cops were staked out, and they saw me come out of a bar
and get into my car. They stopped me, like, a block
later. It was in Normal, Illinois. [Laughs] I was
visiting a couple of buddies.
Has drinking been part of your creative process?
Oh, it’s impossible to write on alcohol. Writing to me
is a sober activity.
So now you must be more prolific—you’ve stopped drinking
since the arrest. Was that the turning point?
It was one of many.
Since your career as a screen actor took off in the
’80s, you’ve written fewer plays. Is there a link
between acting more and writing less?
No. By my midthirties, I’d written dozens of plays. I
had no idea where I was going, and I just plunged in.
That becomes less interesting the more you find out
about the form. And it requires more time. So writing
less plays didn’t have anything to do with my career as
an actor. The [movie] I’m in right now, I’ve been on
hold for five days, so I’m stuck in a motel on
Interstate 15, writing my ass off. [Laughs]
In the e-mail
informing me that Sam Shepard had agreed to an
interview, his publicist told me to give the
writer-actor a call. No date or time scheduled down to
the exact minute—which is almost always the case when
interviewing notable figures such as the
Pulitzer-winning playwright. Just: “Please contact him
directly on his cell.” So I called Shepard to schedule a
time for the interview. He asked, “Can you do it now?”
Um, no, actually; can we set up a time? He demurred:
“I’m no good at future dates.” Just call back some time,
he said. So, some time later, I did. “Do you have time
now?” I asked. “Yeah, I suppose I do,” he said. Here are
a few moments from our conversation that didn’t make it
into this week’s published Q&A.
When asked which playwrights working today does he like,
Shepard said, “I like the Irish the best. I think the
Irish are doing the most interesting stuff. There’s a
bunch of them who are heads and shoulders above us in
terms of modern writers.” What’d he think of a recent
work that’s drawn comparisons to his own, Steppenwolf’s
production of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County? “I
thought it was an interesting melodrama,” Shepard said.
“That company is always great to watch. The actors are
always astounding.” He called Steppenwolf’s 1995
production of Buried Child, which Gary Sinise directed,
and which helped solidify the Chicago company’s national
reputation, “the best production of that play that I’ve
After speaking with Shepard about fathers and alcohol,
given his famously tumultuous relationship with both, I
mentioned that, speaking of fathers, it often seems like
when the artist-parent dynamic is discussed, it’s often
from the viewpoint of the artist as the kid. How did
that dynamic change once Shepard himself became a
father? “Well,” he said, “it’s a revelation to see
yourself becoming the father, and it’s also a
revelation—the repetition of things that occurs without
you being able to help it, without you knowing it. You
see your father in many aspects that you thought you
Could he give an example of what he meant by “aspects”?
“No,” he said.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“I don’t want to.”