Sam Shepard Gives a Rare Interview, Thinks Safe House Could've Been Better
Source: GQ - June 2012

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, Clint Eastwood.

GQ: This is the play "Heartless" that you're working on right now?

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 before.

GQ: Wasn't there a time in your life that you didn't do any rewriting?

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 work.

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 not?

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 it.

GQ: Both "Killing Me Softly" and "Safe House" have themes about disillusionment with the American government. Is that something you're feeling acutely right now?

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.

Sam: No.

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 beyond that.

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 e-mail?

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 goes on.

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 that idea.

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 Eastwood's "Unforgiven".

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 mentioned him...

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.