In conversation with Sam Shepard

From August: Osage County to Derry, Ireland with Stephen Rea, Beckett and Henry James.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Sam Shepard on what would be exchanged for all the pleasure in the world: "His soul, of course, isn't it always the soul?"
Sam Shepard on what would be exchanged for all the pleasure in the world: "His soul, of course, isn't it always the soul?" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The thread through Sam Shepard this year wraps around a number of nominated films starting with the cast of John Wells' chilling portrait of an American household, August: Osage County. In 2012, Julianne Nicholson performed in the world premiere of his play Heartless in New York. In 2006, Juliette Lewis was in the revival of his 1980 play Fool For Love in London, directed by Lindsay Posner. Posner recently directed American Hustle star Alessandro Nivola in the Broadway production of The Winslow Boy. In 2010 Nivola starred in Before Midnight actor/co-writer Ethan Hawke's revival of Shepard's A Lie Of The Mind.

Shepard plays Beverly Weston, in August: Osage County, husband to Meryl Streep's Violet, father of Barbara, Ivy, and Karen, played by the three Julis, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis. Beverly's sister and brother-in-law, Mattie Fae and Charles Aiken are played by Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper.

Sam Shepard: 'I still don't like to look at myself act'
Sam Shepard: 'I still don't like to look at myself act'

In Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, we witness the best ensemble acting in a film with actresses in leading roles that Hollywood has produced in 2013. The prodigal members of the family assemble resentfully in their rural Oklahoma home at the time and place of the title to let loose the individual and collective demons that plague them.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Shepard took on the role in the film originated by Letts' father Dennis on the stage at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago in 2007 and on Broadway, earning Letts, the younger, a Tony Award.

Sam Shepard had just returned from Ireland, where his play, A Particle Of Dread (Oedipus Variations) had its premiere at the Playhouse in Derry by his good friend Stephen Rea's company Field Day. Rea played Oedipus and Sam explained to me the title. "It's a line from Sophocles" and he quoted to me what the character Choragos says: 'If the killer can feel a particle of dread, your curse will bring him out of hiding.'" The words are spoken before the blind seer Tiresias is introduced, who says "How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be when there's no help in truth! I knew this well, but did not act on it: else I should not have come."

The issue of fate is not new to Shepard's work and the sense that the present has always already been written pervaded even our conversation. "It's so different," he said about Ireland, "people talk to each other," and are not playing with their phones and devices as much as they do in New York.

Stephen and Sam's collaboration goes back to the first production of Geography of a Horse Dreamer in 1974, directed by Shepard. In New York, they last worked together on Ages Of The Moon in 2010.

Meryl Streep on Shepard's performance: "To look at him [Sam] in close-up and see his loathing of me, that was really hard."
Meryl Streep on Shepard's performance: "To look at him [Sam] in close-up and see his loathing of me, that was really hard." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In August: Osage County, Sam's Beverly hires a cook and housekeeper to take care of his out-of control pill-addicted wife Violet, before he decides to disappear. Johnna, who prepares the infamous catfish meal and defends the youngest member of the family, is played by Misty Upham. I asked Shepard if he had seen his co-star in Arnaud Desplechin's Jimmy P: Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian where she plays Benicio Del Toro's love interest. He hadn't and seemed intrigued. "Misty is a good actress," he said, as we rode downtown over to Pastis after the lunch at Le Cirque, to continue our conversation.

His own performance in August: Osage County makes him as uncomfortable as his acting does in general. "I still don't like to look at myself act," he said to me. "Still?" I asked and he explained that watching himself on the screen, he can see all the moments of untruth mixed in with where falseness was overcome. He said he liked the play very much and praised Tracy Letts.

"My wife takes pills. I drink," is how Shepard as Violet's husband Beverly, sums up the main occupations of their lives. In the film, he cannot stop the endless flow of venomous words. When I mentioned how at a recent press junket Meryl Streep said she was deeply affected by Shepard's unloving glances, he smiled devilishly and wanted me to repeat the story.

"Are you bored?", Shepard asked me after uninterrupted hours of conversation at Pastis as the winter sun was slowly setting on the Meatpacking District. "They used to pack meat here," he said and taught me some new cattle expressions. I forgot the number of "head of cattle" he has on his ranch in Kentucky but remember that you use the singular, not plural to count them. "No, I am never bored - too much nervous energy," I said, which is the truth, though I was glad to hear that Sam Shepard was enjoying himself as well.

Chris Cooper's Charles Aiken personifies all the maternal instinct you will get.
Chris Cooper's Charles Aiken personifies all the maternal instinct you will get. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

We had discussed the power of names, family, Beckett, and how his own name change, ridding himself of the surname Rogers was a decision he made a long time ago. The topic of happiness brought us to birds. I told him that some of the purest happiness I experienced in my life was when I managed to disentangle injured wildlife that had been trapped in fishing line and barbed hooks. "Here in the city?" he asked and was surprised, it seemed to me, at the peril. Sam, who likes to go hunting and fishing - I called it "killing things", he corrected me back to "hunting" - did very well understand what it means to "hold a heart in your hands". He once rescued a starving egret and the act of giving freedom to a creature in pain who would otherwise perish can make a potent impact.

"My writing" Shepard said, was the focus of his life at the moment and Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus one of the texts he is marveling about. "Deals with the devil," are on his mind and when I asked why Marlowe more than Goethe, Shepard referred to the 16th century dramatist's fascinating life as writer and spy and his mysterious death that appealed to him. “He that loves pleasure must for pleasure fall,” Marlowe writes. What would be exchanged for all the pleasure in the world in a Shepard play, I asked? "His soul, of course," said Sam, "isn't it always the soul?" "Not necessarily," I said, "there are folk tales where a man promises his daughter to the devil instead." He took note, opened his big little book, and wrote down the title of a tale I gave him.

I asked Sam how the characters in his plays evolved in his mind. He told me they came to him fully formed. I told him he sounded like Henry James in the foreword to Portrait Of A Lady, which made Shepard smile. He has not often been compared to James.

Beckett's work, on the other hand, had great influence on his own development as a writer. When I commented how much I admired Beckett's writing, although I possibly would not have liked to spend time with Beckett, the person, Sam told me otherwise: "I don't think so. You would have liked him. And he would have liked you." A wonderful and strange statement to hear from Sam Shepard. I am willing to believe him.

At Pastis, a toast with Sam Shepard.
At Pastis, a toast with Sam Shepard. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In August: Osage County, Chris Cooper and Sam had no scenes together but both share some things with Margo Martindale. She plays it as real as it gets - there isn't a single false tone in her marvelous multi-layered performance. On the set outside of Tulsa where the cast lived in a compound, Shepard, the gentleman, brought Martindale safely to her door, unharmed by the "ghosts and rapists," as she said, lurking in the Oklahoma night. When I told Chris his Big Charles Aiken "personifies all the maternal instinct you will get" at producer Jean Doumanian's luncheon earlier, he was surprised and thanked me.

Coming full circle in the new year, the Discovery Channel signed on Shepard for the role of Father Judge in the miniseries Klondike about the Alaskan Gold Rush of 1895 which premieres on January 20. His character, Father Judge, is described as "like the other men who come to Dawson City… [with] a burning ambition. But his quest is for the souls of the miners, not the gold in the dirt." He is replacing Cooper, who had suffered a minor heart attack in March, 2013.

August: Osage County opens in the UK on January 24.

You can read Alessandro Nivola's take on Sam Shepard here.

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