Back in the saddle
Source: Wall Street Journal - October 7, 2011

The 66-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, iconic actor, and long-ago East Village drummer with the Holy Modal Rounders, was back in New York recently to talk about his performance in the film, which opens Friday.

You've mentioned that this was one of the best screenplays you'd ever read. That's mighty high praise given the source. Were you really that impressed?

Yeah. At least in the last decade. I thought it was beautifully constructed and well-wrought.

You must get piles of scripts. What grabbed you?

The twists and turns of it, the way it moves, the way the story continually surprised me. The other thing is that it was set in Bolivia and was being shot down there, and I'd never been in that part of the world. It seemed like, although it's an odd way to phrase it, like an authentic Western. It wasn't a take-off—it was actually telling its own story.

Those mountain vistas were made for the movies. What was it like to actually be there?

We were up at 15,000 feet and the air is pretty thin. There was oxygen sometimes at the hotel, motel. Some of the flatlanders had a little hard time. And then we had to bring in horses from Buenos Aires, these ex-polo ponies, because Bolivia has almost no horses because of the altitude. They have llamas and alpacas, but no horses. And the horses had to acclimatize for a month and a half. It's a wonderful country. It's 70% Indian and there's an Indian president. It's very Indian, which I loved.

Were you ever a Butch Cassidy aficionado?

When it came up I had of course researched it. I went down to Archer City, Texas, where Larry McMurtry has all these big warehouses full of books. It's his hometown. Many of them are Western books, and I found some extraordinary old research books not only on Butch but that whole neighborhood: Robber's Roost … Utah, Nevada, around Moab where all the bandits used to hang out. And I even found this whole book on Etta Place, this woman who came from Denver. I wasn't particularly fascinated with that story before I found the screenplay.

You're in a lot of movies but rarely are you this prominent. Had you just been waiting for something like this to come along or was it that you liked the screenplay so much?

It was both. I think the script molds your choice. I thought it was very much there on the page. It had that kind of obsessive beauty about it. This was obviously somebody's labor of love. You can feel right away when a script is written by committee as opposed to passion. You can't go more than three pages before you see that.

How were the horses to handle?

I ride all the time. I've been on horseback since I was 5 years old. That part wasn't a problem. What was a problem was, with the altitude, learning how to breathe. The Indian people chew coca. So I started chewing coca every day. And I learned how to breathe by inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. So you have to learn certain techniques to get along with that altitude.

I was going to ask if you'd sampled some of the chicha [a fermented beverage common to South America], but I'd heard you don't drink anymore.

[Laughs] I drink now and then. It's not my favorite drink. It's kind of rank. Call me crazy but I prefer tequila.

You haven't had a lot of major roles, but one of them was in Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven," which was recently released on Blu-Ray. Do you ever revisit your old movies or is it a case of once you're done you're done?

Some of them I've never seen.

Any you're particularly fond of?

There are ones that I'm not embarrassed about. "Days of Heaven" would be one. It's such a beautiful thing to look at. The cinematography. I was on good terms with Nestor Almendros, who shot it, Truffaut's cinematographer. I got to know him very well. The exteriors were shot entirely with natural light; there's no synthetic light, which at that time I think was unheard of. The Hollywood crews were kind of snickering in the back that no one would be able to understand the imagery because it would be too dark. And it won the Academy Award.

When you're on the set, do you write every day?

I write quite a bit on set because there's a lot of time sitting around. Oftentimes it's just notebook stuff that later turns into short fiction or notes for a play or dialogue but I don't sit methodically and try and make a play as if I was on my own time. But trailer time is a perfect opportunity to get some writing done.

Is it true you only use a manual typewriter?

I have two manual typewriters that I use. I prefer them. I started out that way. I get habitual about stuff. I just prefer it over the computer because it doesn't feel like you're doing anything. You're looking at a screen and clicking the keys, but the keys - they're just representative. They don't actually hammer a letter down on the page. I like the page a lot. I don't relate to the screen so much.

You do a lot of singing on the soundtrack. When's the album coming out?

I'm doing some music with Patti [Smith] over at the Electric Ladyland studio, where Jimi Hendrix used to do his stuff, which is kind of extraordinary in that atmosphere. With the ghost of Jimi. I've collected a lot of songs and she has spare time there that allows me to do a few things.

Are they your songs?

These are old songs from all different kinds of writers. I don't think I can write a song.