Q&A With Sam Shepard
Source: Details magazine - July 2008

The iconic playwright-actor discusses the effect he has on women, his Oscarphobia, and why heís an agentís nightmare.



Q: In The Accidental Husband you play the father of Uma Thurmanís character. Heís very calm and wry and low-keyóa lot like your own dad?

A: Uh, no. Wrong. He was a bit of a maniac. I think down the road he actually went off the deep end. But thatís a whole ínother legend.

Q: Thereís sort of an inside joke in The Accidental Husband, in that your characterís girlfriend turns out to be Brooke Adams, who played your accidental wife in 1978ís Days of Heaven.

A: Right, right. Itís crazy. I think I ran into her once in the whole time since Days of Heaven, and it was backstage at a Broadway show somewhere. I havenít had any contact with her. Wonderful gal, though. Itís crazy, you know. Time is just nuts.

Q: What did you two talk about when you first saw each other on the set?

A: Well, obviously, the time thatís elapsed, and what sheís been doiní and all that. Itís like your whole life passes. The same thing with Patti Smith. With Patti, I hadnít seen her for probably, god, 25 or 30 years, and then all of a sudden we bang into each other in New York and we start doing stuff together again.

Q: I was just listening to Patti Smithís cover version of ďSmells Like Teen Spirit.Ē You play the banjo on that, right?

A: Actually it was a six-string guitjo I was playingóitís a banjo body, but guitar strings. And my son was playing traditional banjo along with John Cohen from the New Lost City Ramblers. It was quite an amalgamation. You know, I hate to say it, but Iíd never really heard the song before, and Patti brought it up, and I love it. Itís an incredible piece of musicóand incredible lyrics, too. I never really studied on it, you know, because I guess it was out of my generation or somethiní, but itís a fantastic song. Itís very esoteric, in a way.

Q: You and Patti were a very close pair in the early seventies. Did she lead you in certain creative directions?

A: Yeah, she had a tremendous influence on me, because I was unaware, at that time, of any of these French poets, the symbolist poets and all that stuff, and she kind of turned me on to Baudelaire and Rimbaud and all those poets that I never paid any attention to, beiní a dumb-ass American out in the middle of nowhere. I wasnít nearly as well-read as she was. Iíd knocked around American literature, but certainly not the Europeans. Essentially Patti was a poet back then. She hadnít really broken into music. Iím certainly not responsible for it, but I kept telliní her, you know, that she should sing this stuff. She was doiní poetry readings and stuff at St. Markís Church, and she was kind of performing these poetry readings as though they were songs, and I said, ďWhy donít you sing íem?Ē So I got her a guitar, and she learned a couple chords, and she started singiní.

Q: So you bought her the guitar, huh?

A: Yeah, I bought that old Gibson that sheís got. Yeah. It was a pawn-shop guitar. Back then I donít think I paid more than 40, 50 bucks for it. Now itís worth several thousand.

Q: So when you got off the bus from Southern California to New York City, had you been there, before?

A: Never. No. Had never been east of the Mississippi.

Q: What was your first day in New York like?

A: I got off the Greyhound in Times Square and I donít think I had more than 15 cents on me, so I saw this little place that said, ďFive dollars for blood.Ē And I went in there and did a blood donation and got five bucks and went out and bought a hamburger. That was the first thing I did.

Q: The fact that you didnít receive an extended formal education in writingóhas that been an advantage to you?

A: In some ways yes, because Iíve been able to explore a lot of writing that Iím not sure I wouldíve gone into if Iíd been educated in itóif it had been introduced to me through a class or a teacher or a scholar, Iím not sure Iíd have the same sense of attachment that I do now. Because I feel like the writers that Iím drawn to, the writers that I really cling to, are the writers who seem to be writing out of a desperate act. Itís like their writing is part of a survival kit. Those are the writers that I just absolutely cherish and carry with me everywhere I go. Because their writing means more to them than just puttiní out a book. Itís somethiní that has to do with their survival. Those are the guys Iím not sure I wouldíve discovered, had I been in a literature class. Maybe thatís not true. But I feel like I discovered them on my own. Itís a long list, but Beckett would probably be at the top of it. And Cťsar Vallejo. Borges. Thereís a ton of Ďem.

Q: How old were you when Beckettís Waiting for Godot famously fell into your hands?

A: Letís see, I was probably about 17, 18ósomething like that. Iíd never seen anything quite like it. Iíd literally never seen anything on the page like it.

Q: Nothing that even looked like it.

A: Yeah. Exactly. I said, ďWhat is this?Ē And then I kept looking at it and kept looking at it, and read it over and over and over again, and it was definitely a spur, you know? I didnít want to imitate it at all. It had nothing to do with imitation. But it felt as though it gave me license to go ahead and try something on my own.

Q: Your longtime partner, Jessica Lange, has two Academy Awards, but when you were nominated for Best Supporting Actor for "The Right Stuff" in 1984, you didnít attend the Oscars. Why is that?

A: It was too many people. Iíve never felt great in crowds, and certainly not when theyíre puttiní the spotlight on you like that. Iíve been to one Oscar thing, I think, with Jessie, when she was nominated foróIím not quite sure what for now. I think it was where she played Patsy Cline. Iíve always felt uncomfortable in those situations.

Q: Your acting career was taking off at the time. Were you getting lots of offers?

A: Yeah. I turned a lot of stuff down. I still mainly considered myself a playwright at that point, and I just felt like, if I start doiní this stuff and become a quote-unquote movie star, itís really going to be difficult to have anybody take my writing seriously. So I kind of backed away from it.

Q: What did you turn down?

A: Oh, well, I guess the most notorious one was "Lonesome Dove". And then the big Clint Eastwood Western, "Unforgiven".

Q: You passed that up?

A: Yeah. Iím not even sure why, now. Then there was another one called "Big" that Tom Hanks did. And Warren Beattyís "Reds". Stuff like that. But I couldnít see myself doiní it.

Q: Your agent mustíve wanted to kill you.

A: She did, yeah.

Q: When I mention your name to women, they actually moan. Are you aware of this reaction?

A: Ha! Thatís very flattering. No, the first thing is, if women do have that response, they always try to hide it. Thatís the last thing in the world theyíre going to reveal. I mean, I wouldnít mind if there was some revelation of it, but itís not the case. So you really donít get that much perk out of it.

Q: Youíre 64. Is writing harder now or easier?

A: Both. Once I get into it, thereís something more accessible about it now. But itís tougher to begin nowóto really begin, and to really commit. I think you have more doubts about whatís valuable, I guess.

Q: Because particularly back in your early days you were spitting out a flurry of one-actsÖ

A: Yeah, you didnít give a shit. Just go. Just go. The great New York poet Frank OíHara, he said you go on guts. Thatís what he said. You go on guts. Thatís what you feel like when youíre that age. But now itís like itís like you go on terror! Youíre terrified. Itís still guts, but itís a different deal.

Q: Whatís else has changed as youíve gotten older?

A: Well, I notice Iím a little slower getting up on a horse. Fishiní in a river, sometimes I get out of breath and Iím a little more tentative about getting into deep water. The physical
limitationsóyour balance isnít as strong as it used to be, you canít jump fences.

Q: Could you jump fences before?

A: Oh, yeah. You know, you just vault íem.

Q: What do you rely on when youíre writing?

A: I go between two typewriters. The one that Iíve got now thatís just a monster is this little IBM Selectric from back in the seventiesóthat electric ball thing. Itís just a monster. I mean, itís extremely fast, extremely sensitive and accurate, and it feels good. And then Iíve got a little HermŤs portable that I like very much, and I take that on the road. Youíve really got to slam on that one, whereas the electric one is very fast. But I basically go from the handwritten notebooks to these other two deals. You know how it is if youíre a guitar player and youíve got a great old Gibson? The instrument feels good and you feel good playiní it.

Q: So you donít use a computer for writing?

A: Never. Never. I donít touch it. I donít go anywhere near it. I mean, everybody around me knows about it, but Iíve turned my back on it.

Q: Do you e-mail?

A: No. Donít need to. Itís a complete hype. Itís not a necessity. Why do I need e-mail?

Q: You need it for the same reason youíd need heroin.

A: Yeah. Right. Yeah. And I knew a lot of junkies growiní up. But you donít need that.

Q: You captured fraternal friction so perfectly in the play "True West" with its two sparring brothers, Austin and Lee that I was surprised to learn that you donít have a brother.

A: Right. I mean, basically theyíre the same person. Itís just a split. I just wrote íem as two characters, but theyíre basically two conflicting parts of one person. So itís very easy to do that withoutóyou donít need a brother. Youíve got your own brother.

Q: Speaking of which, you were known as Steve Rogers growing up in Duarte, California, but when you came to New York City in 1963, you switched your name to Sam Shepard.

A: If you remember, back in the old days there was a Steve Rogers who was Captain Americaóthat was his alter ego, right? And I always thought, I donít want to be carrying around the name of a cartoon hero. Actually, my legitimate name is Samuel Shepard Rogers, so I just shortened it to Sam Shepard and dropped the Rogers. I just kind of invented it.

Q: Do you ever feel as though thereís a Steve Rogers still out in the Mojave, living an alternate life?

A: Spinniní his wheels. Yeah. Iím sure there is.