Sam Shepard has been an unmistakable
presence in American film ever since he made his debut
in Terrence Malick's 1978 drama "Days of Heaven". By
that time, Shepard had already established himself as
the cowboy poet of off-Broadway, his inventive plays
capturing the jazz rhythms of New York City, the wounded
isolation of his native Midwest, and the emotional chaos
of the late sixties. But the moment he turned his steely
blue eyes onto matinee audiences, Shepard became
something else: a hot Hollywood commodity. It was the
last thing he wanted. After a flirtation with
leading-man status (including his Oscar- nominated
performance in 1983's "The Right Stuff"), Shepard made a
point of defying fans' expectations, frequently
retreating from the spotlight altogether and (as he
explained to GQ) turning down roles that might have
solidified his status as the next Gary Cooper.
These days, Shepard is inclined towards film roles that
are short on screen time, big on impact. In the thriller
"Safe House", out on Blu-Ray and DVD today, the actor
plays a CIA director operating in a moral gray zone.
He'll also hit theaters soon in "Killing Them Softly"
and "Mud", both favorites at the Cannes Film Festival.
When GQ caught up with Shepard, he was at home on his
ranch, working through a draft of his new play
"Heartless" (premiering at New York City's Signature
Theater this August). Thoughtful and soft-spoken,
Shepard talked about his unpredictable film choices, his
rejection of memoir-writing and web-browsing, and his
work with the think tank at the Santa Fe Institute. The
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright also explained why he
hasn't written more screenplays, and why he's never
worked with that other great icon of American Westerns,
GQ: This is the play "Heartless" that you're working on
Sam: Right. This is the third draft,
and I've pretty much got the first act done, probably a
quarter of the second act done, and then I'm trying to
rewrite much of the second act. So it's sort of
emergency writing, but I've been in that situation
GQ: Wasn't there a time in your life that you didn't do
Sam: Yes, when I was young and dumb,
you know. Nineteen or twenty or something like that. I
thought rewriting was against the law.
GQ: So how has your process changed since then?
Sam: Well, it changed radically. You
know, I'm still very much a believer in the spontaneity
of certain kinds of writing. But then you have to
eventually, when you're writing a long play, make
adjustments along the way, all kinds of adjustments. So
most of those early plays, the very early plays were
very short one-act plays, so they were kind of bursts of
energy more than anything.
GQ: From the casting notices, it looks like this play
has some great parts for women.
Sam: Yeah. There's four females and
one male, which is kind of unusual. I don't think I've
ever written anything like it. Lois Smith has already
committed. She's been the first actress to commit, which
I'm just thrilled to have her. She did my play "Buried
Child" on Broadway years ago, and I actually think she's
best known for "Five Easy Pieces", where she played Jack
Nicholson's sister. And then we're hoping to get Treat
Williams for the male part. That's what we're working on
now. And Carla Gugino, I don't know how you pronounce
her last name. So that's where we're at with the
casting. We still have to go a long distance with it.
GQ: So we're talking about "Safe House". And I'm curious
about what drew you to that film. What sells you on
doing a film these days? Because you seem to be doing a
lot of them right now.
Sam: Well, I had a run of good luck
running up against really good scripts and really good
directors. And with "Safe House", I was very interested
in working with this director [Daniel Espinosa], who's
basically a Chilean kid who was raised in Sweden. He's a
very intelligent kid, and very enthusiastic about what
he was doing with [the film].
GQ: Then it was the director in particular?
Sam: And the script as well. You
know, the original script was kind of intriguing. Of
course it got cut in half, I think, when they finally
made it. I don't think there's a cut in it that's longer
than three seconds, which is very frustrating for
actors, because you never feel like there's a complete
scene. They tend to interpret it as being very exciting
for audiences, but I don't think so. Maybe I'm talking
out of school, but I think it could have been more
powerful if they'd allowed the scenes to play out a
little more and actually experience the characters. But
this style of filmmaking is the Bourne Identity style,
you know. I don't mind being critical of it, though,
because I'm on the cutting room floor half the time.
GQ: Was there more to your character that we didn't see?
Sam: Well, I think when you treat
scenes that way, where everything is pure action, you
never get a chance to actually experience the character.
I think it was even true of Denzel's character, which
had much more scope than was allowed because of the
editing. But that's just my opinion.
GQ: You have two other films that were just at Cannes,
both of which got very good reviews.
Sam: Yeah. "Mud" in particular I'm
very interested in seeing. Well, the other one I'm
hardly in at all. "Killing Them Softly" I'm just in for
a little bit. However, they did a trailer that featured
a thing that I shot with [Ray] Liotta and the kid from
Boston [Slaine], which was the entire trailer as far as
I can make out.
GQ: It's online—I was going to ask you about it. The
only thing they've released online is this 40-second
clip of you kicking the shit out of Ray Liotta.
Sam: [Laughs] It's actually very
comic. Does it match the rest of the film, or is it just
completely out there?
GQ: I wasn't at Cannes, so I don't know. It's pretty out
of context. But it's entertaining!
Sam: Oh well. And then there's "Mud",
with Jeff Nichols, who did "Take Shelter". It is a
beautiful little script, it's just impeccably written.
And he's from Arkansas, so the vernacular of it in the
dialogue is just right on the money. A beautiful script.
GQ: I saw something you said about that script. You said
you wouldn't even think about touching it except
rearranging a little bit of the language in it, which,
first of all, I imagine would be a huge compliment to
any writer. But it got me wondering if you ever do
change lines in scripts, if you're ever asked to doctor
scripts for movies that you're working on.
Sam: Oh, constantly, constantly. And
I never get credit for it. [Laughs] And I never get any
money either. But that's all right, you know. It's just,
I don't think I changed one word [in Mud]. Definitely
great the way it was written.
GQ: Is there a project you've done that you can think of
where you contributed a lot of your character to it?
Sam: Oh, not off the top of my head,
no. I certainly don't want to embarrass anybody.
GQ: Sure. I just find it interesting because you haven't
written too many screenplays, relative to your other
Sam: Well, I did. You know, I started
out gung-ho because I thought it was such a terrific
form. But the problem is, it's very difficult to be left
alone to your own devices when you're writing a
screenplay. You have a thousand opinions. You have
producers and you have producer's girlfriends and
everybody else giving opinions about what you're doing.
And I've been so spoiled in the theater, writing plays
where I can just do exactly what I want and nobody
messes with me.
GQ: I would imagine it's easier to get your vision
onscreen with the rise of independent film, but maybe
Sam: You would think so, but my
experience has been that even with these great little
independent films, they leave the director alone to a
certain extent during the shoot. But then they interfere
in the editing process. You know, they suddenly start
taking it over. To do that to an artist, I think, is
just horrible. And it just seems to be matter-of-fact in
Hollywood, you know, to shoot the film and then rethink
GQ: Both "Killing Me Softly" and "Safe House" have
themes about disillusionment with the American
government. Is that something you're feeling acutely
Sam: Well, I'm not the only one. You
know, the whole country's in a turmoil about the
government, no matter who's at the head of it, you know?
But I think that's a kind of inherently American thing,
you know, to mistrust the government. We've mistrusted
the government since the 1700s, you know? So why not
now? I think it's a very American attitude.
GQ: So do you see that as a positive thing?
Sam: Yes, I do. I mean, I think if
you start believing everything you're told, you get in
big trouble with it.
GQ: You've said in the past that you have no interest in
writing a memoir.
GQ: Some of your colleagues have written memoirs
recently: Patti Smith, Bob Dylan a couple years ago—
Sam: Patti's isn't— Excuse me, but
it's not really a memoir in the traditional sense. She's
talking about a relationship that was very important to
her in the past, and it's just a piece of her life.
She's not trying to write a memoir of her entire life.
That's kind of a misconception.
GQ: Okay, that's fair. So when you say you wouldn't
write a memoir, you don't want to encapsulate your
entire life in 300 pages.
Sam: No, no. I mean, if anybody wants
to understand who I am, they just read my plays, or go
see my plays, or read my books. I don't have to go
GQ: The reason I'm drawing that connection is that
Dylan, Patti Smith and you have all been somewhat
mythologized over the course of your career. People like
to use you as a symbol of the American West, that kind
of thing. And it seems like writing about yourself is
one way to reclaim your own story.
Sam: No, I don't think so. I
disagree. I think, unfortunately, it's in the exact
opposite way. That's why I've never appeared on The
Charlie Rose Show. Because as soon as you start talking
about your art and examining it and analyzing it, you
kill it. You absolutely kill it. So I'm not going to do
that. I'm not interested in putting it to death, you
know? Once everyone is through, they'll go, "Oh, now I
get it." They discard it. They throw it away. So long as
they continue to question it, and so long as it
continues to put them in the unknown and in the
questioning mood, I think it has value. When they all of
a sudden say, "Oh, I get it, I understand it, that's
what it's all about," you're dead as an artist. Don't
you think? That's why I will never write a memoir.
GQ: It's an unusual perspective in this day and age,
when everybody overshares about everything.
Sam: Sure. Look what they overshare,
you know. "I went shopping for shoes today." [Laughs]
GQ: Do you use the Internet at all?
Sam: No, I don't have a computer. I
don't have an Internet, I don't have the e-mail, I don't
have any of that shit. I do have a phone.
GQ: And your kids let you get away with not having
Sam: Oh, yeah. They just kind of
laugh at me, like I fell off the horse a long time ago.
GQ: Before I let you go, I'd like to hear about your
work with the Santa Fe Institute.
Sam: Oh, I had a fellowship here a
year ago, and it lasted for about six months. Cormac
McCarthy's also here, and he made this memo inviting me
into it. I didn't know how I was gonna take it, because
I've never been a part of a body, a group like this. But
they were incredibly generous, and gave me an office and
a place to work and a house and a stipend and all that.
And what I suddenly discovered was, when I have a place
to go, I produce a lot more work. When I just sit around
my house and work, I can work two, three hours, and then
I go off and ride a horse or do something that I
perceive to be a lot more fun. But here, I'm actually
producing stuff, I think beyond what I did when I wasn't
here, you know.
GQ: So are you writing plays there? I'm curious what
Sam: Well, it's mainly scientists,
you know, ninety-percent scientists. So a lot of the
language that goes on is way beyond, you know, it's as
though they're speaking French or something. I don't
understand any of it. But then there are other areas
where there's compatibility and a kind of crossover, and
where the dialogue suddenly makes sense. And it usually
has to do with process, you know? In other words, the
process that some of these scientists are going through.
And there's all kinds of people here. There's
physicists, there's archeologists, there's biologists.
The process that they're going through of investigation
is very, very similar to art in an odd way, or to
writing. So there's a lot of dialogue formulated around
GQ: That's really fascinating.
Sam: The main thing is that it's
extremely productive for me. You know, I come here it's
as though I'm going to work, you know.
GQ: Is it the first time you've had an office?
Sam: Yeah, outside my home, yeah.
GQ: You told The Guardian that when you were younger,
the experience of being on the verge of being a movie
star was like being "the hottest whore in town,
everybody wants you." So if you were the hottest whore
in town back when you started out, how would you
describe yourself now?
Sam: The oldest! [Laughs] The old
wrinkly one that's facing the train with a mattress on
her back. It's a matter of age, really. And of course,
I'm no longer a leading man, which gives you
perspective. In a way I'm very relieved about that,
because now I can do characters. Now I can do strictly
character work, which I always wanted to do anyway, you
know? I never considered myself a movie star, and I
didn't want to become a movie star, because as soon as
you do you throw away that possibility of playing
character. You really do. All of a sudden you're just an
entity, you know?
GQ: Was there a deciding moment when you were offered
something that you knew would make you into the thing
you didn't want to be?
Sam: Yeah. I turned down, well, in a
way, I regret two Westerns. You know, I turned down
"Lonesome Dove". Twice. And I turned down Clint
GQ: You turned down "Unforgiven"?
Sam: Yeah. And it was for a number of
reasons. I mean, at that time I was raising kids, and
Jessica [Lange] was pregnant around the time of
"Lonesome Dove". And I don't know, I just felt like
staying at home, you know? Career-wise, it was probably
a mistake. [Laughs] If I ever did have a career. But
those two are the only ones I regret, and anything else
I don't regret, because everything else turned out to be
just kind of movie star stuff.
GQ: I was curious why you've never worked with Clint
Eastwood, and then I thought maybe it was a rude
question and I wasn't going to ask. But since you
Sam: Well, I think probably it was
because I rejected that script, at a time when I was
trying to do something else. And he may have taken it
personally. I don't know. I don't know him that well.
Actually, I don't know him at all. But he may have taken
the rejection as though I was rejecting him, but it
wasn't intended to be that way. I just decided not to do
it. But it would have been fun. But a great actor ended
up doing it. Gene Hackman ended up doing that role, and
he did a great job with it.