Sam Shepard

Source: Interview magazine - October 2011


One of the few truisms about Sam Shepard is that he has always been more difficult to know as a person, in the public sense, than he has been as a dramatist, as a writer, or as a performer. There has always been something vaguely punk rock about Shepardís workóa visceral directness coupled with the sense of never quite knowing what to expect or what heíll do nextóthat has made it feel as instantly powerful and iconic as he himself has seemed eternally elusive. Itís a mix of qualities that has helped transform Shepard into a kind of mystical cult figure for teenagers who happen upon plays like Cowboy Mouth (which he co-wrote with Patti Smith in 1971) or "Buried Child" or "Fool For Love", only to later discover that the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who emerged from the experimental theater milieu of New York City in the 1970s is also an actor and a revelatory one at that, who has brought a striking physical presence and contemplative air to a swath of films as diverse as Terrence Malickís "Days of Heaven", Philip Kaufmanís "The Right Stuff ", and Sean Pennís "The Pledge" or vice versa.

Over the course of the last four-plus decades, Shepard has been astounding prolific, having written more than 40 plays, published six books of prose and poetry, acted in more than 40 films, and lent his hand to a range of screenplays, including the scripts for Michelangelo Antonioniís "Zabriskie Point" and Wim Wendersís "Paris, Texas". This month, though, he steps into his first starring role in more than six years in Mateo Gilís elegantly restrained new Western, "Blackthorn", in which Shepard plays perhaps the most punk-rock cowboy of them all, Butch Cassidy, in an evocative re-imagining of what happened after the Wild Westís most notorious outlaw set off for Bolivia on the run from the American authorities in the early 1900s.

Interview magazine caught up via phone with Shepard, who was in Boise, Idaho, for a reading of "Ages of the Moon" that he was scheduled to do that evening with his 'Right Stuff' co-star Scott Glenn, and had stationed himself at a local bed and breakfast.

Q: You once said it first occurred to you to become an actor when you saw Burt Lancaster in "Vera Cruz". Was there ever an equivalent experience that sparked the idea of becoming writer?

Sam: Oddly enough, it was reading Eugene OíNeill. Iíd read "Long Dayís Journey Into Night", and I remember seeing Sidney Lumetís black-and-white film adaptation, which I still think is one of the best adaptations of anything of a book, of a play, ever done. Itís a beautiful little thing. But I remember being struck by the idea that it was a play, so I read the play and I read about OíNeill, and in an odd way, there was something that I connected with there . . . There was something wrong with the family. There was a demonic thing going on that nobody could put their finger on, but everybody knew the ship was sinking. Everybody was going down, and nobody knew why or how, and they were all taking desperate measures to stay afloat. So I thought there was something about that that felt similar to my own background, and I felt I could maybe write some version of that.

Q:  Had you been writing plays before you saw "Long Dayís Journey Into Night"?

Sam: No. When I first started, I didnít really know how to structure a play. I could write dialogue, but I just sort of failed beyond that, and kind of went wherever I wanted to go, which is how I ended up with these shorter pieces. I didnít venture into two-acts or three-acts until, I think, "La Turista". So these things I was writing were all experiments of just tiptoeing into the waters of what itís like to write a play. What kind of shocked me was that theater seemed so far behind the other art forms, like jazz or Abstract Expressionism in painting or what they called ďhappeningsĒ and the other kinds of experimentations that were taking place at that time. Theater still seemed to have this stilted, old-fashioned quality about it. So I couldnít quite understand why theater, as a form, was spinning its wheels and not really going anywhere. Writers like LeRoi Jones . . . Whatís his name now? Amiri Baraka . . . But back then he was LeRoi Jones, and he wrote some brilliant plays like "The Toilet" and "Slave Ship". I think he was the most brilliant playwright of his era. And yet he was being overlooked as well. I donít know what it was . . . Itís hard to say that it was because of the racial stuff . . . I thought his plays were far and away above anything else that was going on, even though there were other people struggling to do that sort of experimental work.

I got to know LeRoi Jones, or Amiri Baraka, a little bit, and he was always sort of wary of me . . . But I thought he was a brilliant fucking writer in prose and poetry as well. Heís overlooked in the scheme of things. He was angry . . . He was pissed. When I first met him, he was running around with an attachť case and a raincoat and was sort of neatly coifed and stuff. Then all of the sudden, he transformed into this revolutionary.

Q: Edward Albee wrote in 1965 about one of your plays where he praised your ďunencumbered spontaneity.Ē I guess that became an early trademark, this feeling that you just kind of dashed off these plays and they were produced almost as quickly as you wrote them. But then you started to shift gears and think about bigger structures.

Sam: Yeah. I donít know why that happened exactly except that the stuff just started to demand a bigger format. I guess the first real encounter I had with stretching it out was "Curse of the Starving Class". In a way, it was the first sort of venture into writing about family, and it seemed to have more longevity. Then that morphed into "Buried Child" and some other stuff.

Q: When you first started up in New York, was there anyone who was a particular accomplice or guide or a friend who helped shape the work you would make?

Sam: Well, Charles Mingus Jr. was a great friend of mine. I went to high school with him, and he was always close to me, but then our friendship got distorted and warped because of his . . . Hell, I hate to say paranoia, but I started to feel as if the influence I was getting from him was more and more negative. I didnít quite know how to handle it, so I broke off the friendship. But he definitely had an influence on me, and so did his father and all of the jazz musicians around that scene, because I felt like jazz was really the art form of that decade. I donít know what it was about that music, but when you saw it live, there was something deeply glowing about it. The way those musicians presented themselves on stage, like [John] Coltrane and Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus and Roland Kirk . . . They were the heroes of that era. I still find it hard to believe that the whole era of jazz is over. It seemed like such an active force in the 1960s, a real expression of the timesóand, of course, it was essentially black and angry. [laughs] I mean, when you saw Nina Simone singing at the piano, she was like a warrior - and a tyrant. When she sang the ďPirate JennyĒ song, the hair on your neck stood up.

Q:  You were working at the Village Gate as a busboy. Were there other clubs, too?

Sam: I also worked uptown, at the Oak Room. One of the great piano players, Mary Lou Williams, played at the horseshoe bar. It was Duke Ellingtonís favorite place for dinner. Heíd come in every night with his entourage and his family and sit down in this huge booth. I remember bussing his table many nights. Sir Duke. [laughs] It was kind of awesome.

Q: What was your sense of identity as an artist at that point? Were you just biding your time?

Sam: No, I mean, I was writing all the time, so I wasnít waiting for anything. I think a part of the reason that those early plays were short was that I just kept having these ideas and Iíd just go off and write them. I wasnít trying to write one-act plays. Itís just how the ideas would be expressed. Every condition I was in seemed like it could be a play. Everything seemed like a possible play. It was also a bit scary. I mean, people talk about the 1960s in a nostalgic way, but to me it was terrifying. People were getting assassinated. There was Vietnam. There were race riots. It felt like everything was going to get blown up sky-high. It didnít feel like flower power. It felt like Armageddon.

Q: But at that point, your work was getting out in the open, too. Albee had singled you out. Your plays were winning Obies. You must have had a sense of vocation by then.

Sam: Well, I never . . . Itís not like I have a career. I feel very lucky and privileged to be a writer. I feel lucky in the sense that I can branch out into prose and tell different kinds of stories and stuff. But being a writer is so great because youíre literally not dependent on anybody. Whereas, as an actor, you have to audition or wait for somebody else to make a decision about how to use you. With writing, you can do it anywhere, anytime you want. You donít have to ask permission.

Q: How did you get involved with "Blackthorn"?

Sam: It actually came through the agency. They offered it to me, and right away I could recognize that it was a really great script.  I did some research on Butch Cassidy. I didnít want to do an imitation of Paul Newman in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", so I thought I would just start from scratch. I found out that he was actually raised Mormon in Utah, and he was pretty handy with horses and cattle at an early age. He went off with a man whose name was Butch, which is where he got his name, and as the guy told him more and more about horses, he became a better horseman. It turned out, though, that the guy was actually a rustler and was stealing horses and cattle, and Butch decided that was a good idea, so this was his first sojourn into the criminal life. It was an easier, more lucrative way to make a living than working in a saddle shop or making spurs or something like that. But, you know, I didnít have anything hard and fast in my head about who this guy was. I just kind of let it unfold.

Q: Where did the singing come from? Was that in the script?

Sam: It was the director Mateoís idea. I had done a little singing with Mateo. You know the little gray instrument that I play on the horse? Itís a beautiful little instrument - itís actually a traditional South American instrument. So we thought, Well, that would be good to do in the film. Then later we decided that maybe I could sing some songs in the studio for the soundtrack. So I did those songs, too. I actually did them in Dublin.

Q: There are some great shots of you riding horses. Thereís a kind of thrilling galloping shot where you think, ďBoy, they got a great stunt double.Ē But then the camera reveals that itís actually you.

Sam: [laughs] One of the appeals of the part was that I got to ride. This guy, Jordi, a Spanish guy, he was the head wrangler. They brought the horses in from Argentina because there are hardly any horses in Bolivia due to the altitude. The horses have a difficult time in high altitudes if theyíre not acclimatized. Many times we were at 15,000 feet, which is really tough on both animals and people. So this guy brought those horses in early and got them used to breathing. A lot of them were ex-polo horses out of Buenos Aires, I think. Man, those horses could ride.

Q: Have you read "The Savage Detectives"?

Sam: To tell you the truth, Iíve read part of it. Some of BolaŮoís stuff is a little dense for me. Itís hard to penetrate. Even 2666 - I cut right away to the murders. [laughs] That said, thereís that extraordinary collection of his stories that they put out, "Last Evenings On Earth" . . . Thereís also this other little story called ďBeachĒ where this guy is trying to kick heroin. He buys a black Speedo and goes down to the beach and covers himself in oil and lays in the sun and observes beach life every day while heís trying to kick. Heís taking methadone and stuff. Itís the most unbelievable story. Itís only about four or five pages long. You get that feeling and then, at the same time, you wonder if heís making it all up. Itís so plausible and believable as real-life documentary, and then all of a sudden you get the feeling that heís just conjured this thing. Itís very weird and odd. What I like most about BolaŮo is his courage.

Q: Courage in what sense?

Sam: In terms of what heís writing about, how heís doing it, and then, of course, the background of it all is that, at a certain point, he realized that he was terminally ill. He had this liver disease and, evidently, he was waiting for a transplant that came too late. But he never indulged in self-pity. I think thereís only one piece Iíve ever read about his illness directly. But itís always in the background and, posthumously, we now understand that he was writing all this stuff while he was dying without indulging in that as a subject.

I think BolaŮo had a generosity about him that was unique. He seemed to include so many people in the circle of his adventures, whereas I felt like I was pretty selfish. When you get right down to it, I was only interested in these plays. And, of course, I did have some friends, but I donít think I was as generous as BolaŮo in his depiction of the people who influenced him and who he hung out with. I was never a part of any kind of literary club. I didnít belong to any sort of brotherhood of writing, which BolaŮo was always referring to.

Q: You were part of Theatre Genesis. You were kind of planted in that group, werenít you?

Sam: That was when I was working at the Village Gate. The headwaiter there was Ralph Cook, who had started Theatre Genesis at St. Markís Church. A lot of the waiters there - Kevin OíConnor, Robbie Lyons, and a bunch of guys that I worked with at that tim, were actors, and all of those guys became involved in my plays after Ralph discovered that I was writing some dialogues. In fact, Genesis was the first place to ever put on one of my plays. Simultaneously, The Poetry Project with Anne Waldman was happening downstairs - William Burroughs was reading down thereóand we were doing plays upstairs. St. Markís was a happening spot.

Q: How many plays a year were you doing at the time?

Sam: Oh, many. I started out with "Cowboys and "The Rock Garden" at St. Markís, and I did probably a half-dozen plays that first year. But then I started moving around. I did stuff at the Off-Off-Broadway places like La MaMa and Caffe Cino, which belonged to Joe Cino, who killed himself over on Carmine Street.

Q: What happened?

Sam: I think he was a speed freak. He was a big Italian guy, great cook. Anyway, one night, Joe Cino hacked himself to death with a butcher knife in the kitchen and that was the end of him.