Sam Shepard made a big entrance into the world of movie
acting as the doomed romantic farmer in Terrence
Malick's critically acclaimed "Days of Heaven." He has
appeared in 40-odd films since that 1978 breakthrough.
He has played iconic roles (heroic test pilot Chuck
Yeager in "The Right Stuff"), walk-ons (Valerie Plame's
father in "Fair Game") and a whole lot of sheriffs.
But rarely has he appeared to enjoy himself so
thoroughly as in the new Bolivian Western, "Blackthorn."
Shepard, 67, stars as an aging Butch Cassidy, who evaded
an army ambush to live out his golden years as a
A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated
actor, Shepard chooses his scripts with some care. This
one offered him several irresistible lures: the best
screenplay he had seen in a decade, a nine-week trip to
Bolivia's gorgeous high-desert plateau and the chance to
ride lots of horses.
"This was a special script, I could recognize that from
the get-go," Shepard said by phone last month.
The film is more than a latter-day epilogue to 1969's
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Spanish director
Mateo Gil, who co-wrote "Abre Los Ojos" ("Open Your
Eyes") and "The Sea Inside," toys with Western lore,
imagining the old outlaw returning to his daredevil ways
after a long retirement. Cassidy wants to visit America
to meet the grown son of Etta Place, who might be his
child. A chance encounter with a crooked Spanish mining
engineer (Eduardo Noriega) hauls the old fugitive back
into trouble with the law.
The role gives Shepard a role to rival Jeff Bridges'
Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit." He has richly written
dialogue duels with an old adversary from the Pinkerton
detective agency (Irish actor Stephen Rea), exciting
shootouts and even a raspy-throated singing scene.
"I loved the scope of it, the storytelling aspect and
the way it keeps twisting and turning and going through
different contortions," Shepard said. "I thought it was
quite interesting the way it was structured. And from
the very beginning it didn't seem like an exploitive
film," riding the coattails of the Paul Newman-Robert
Redford classic. "It just seemed very much itself, its
Making the role his own was an enjoyable challenge.
"I haven't played a big, deep role like that for quite
some while. I did some research on it. I wasn't looking
to try to re-create who Butch Cassidy was, but to invest
in the history and the time of it and the outlaw aspect
An even bigger challenge was shooting at the crest of
the Andes, where the air was so thin that the filming
locations and the actors' hotel rooms had auxiliary
Shepard's first experience of South America was arduous
"and also adventurous," he said. "It had a 'Mad Max'
appeal to it, like you were really out there on the edge
of something. Shooting in a place like Uyuni, which is
on the edge of the salt flats, and the high plateau, you
did feel that there was a pioneering aspect to it that
was kind of great."
"A lot of the time the altitude's around 15,000 feet, so
the air was very thin," he recalled. "Breathing was
somewhat of a problem. Sometimes we'd travel two hours
to the location.
"It's amazing country. When you're out there on the salt
flats you have absolutely no orientation. There are
flamingos flying parallel to the car about 6 feet above
the salt. You wonder where in fact you are. It's like
Shepard, who lives in Kentucky and New Mexico, also did
a fair amount of high-altitude filming in the upcoming
"Darling Companion," an ensemble comedy set for a 2012
release. The film was shot in mountainous northern Utah
this year. The cast includes Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton,
Richard Jenkins and Dianne Wiest.
"I enjoyed it very much," Shepard said. "Great actors.
I've worked with Diane many times," memorably as her
suitor in 1987's "Baby Boom." "Always love working with
Kline and Keaton play a long-married couple whose
relationship has sputtered to a stop. She pours her
emotions into a stray dog; Kline loses it, and their
friends go on a mission to find it. In outline it sounds
like a shaggy-lost-dog story, "but what comes out of it
is this hilarious conjunction of all these different
characters, the way they bang up against each other and
the way they deal with the situation. It's a very
well-written, funny little script. It's a true comedy."
Shepard's role? "The sheriff, of course," he laughed.
"The tin star."