With his rangy good looks, Sam Shepard is perfect in an
updated western about the exiled outlaw.
'I don’t get offered many lead roles in movies these
days,” Sam Shepard says, laughing. “And if I do, they’re
not very good scripts. So I haven’t been jumping on that
bandwagon. But when one comes along…” He lets the
A couple of years ago, one did come along. “The best I’d
seen in years,” says Shepard, who knows something about
writing. He would play the famous outlaw Butch Cassidy,
widely believed to have been killed (along with the
Sundance Kid) by the Bolivian military. In this version
of his life, Cassidy lived quietly for 25 more years
under the name James Blackthorn in a remote Bolivian
village, before yearning to return home and see his
The film, Blackthorn, is a Spanish production with
mostly English dialogue, written and directed by
screenwriter Mateo Gil (Open Your Eyes, The Sea Inside).
Much of it was shot 15,000 feet above sea level in
Bolivia, which provided stunning landscapes. It was,
Shepard recalls, a unique experience.
“They don’t breed many horses in Bolivia, because of the
altitude. They had to import polo ponies from Argentina.
I got to do most of my own riding, rather than stunt
guys. I did a little singing. And I found the character
intriguing. I didn’t want to do an imitation of Paul
Newman (from the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance
Kid) so I did a lot of research about Cassidy.
“I thought the film might be different from other
American westerns, especially as it was Spanish and shot
in Bolivia. And I think it turned out that way.”
Certainly Shepard, now 68, is a plausible Cassidy; his
rangy six-foot frame and weather-beaten good looks make
him perfect casting for a western hero. He grew up
loving horses, even working as a stable hand in his
teens. “To sit on a ranch horse that’s been broken in,
it’s like getting in a Porsche,” he says, beaming.
We meet in Paris. He approaches me among the crowds on
Boulevard Saint-Germain, a celebrated man who has
mastered the trick of going unnoticed in public. He
walks alone, without a retinue. As a film actor, he
excels at playing soft-spoken, self-contained men; after
an hour in his company, one sees why.
He wears his fame lightly. Plays such as True West,
Buried Child and Fool for Love established him as a
great American playwright, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for
drama. He’s a gifted actor, Oscar-nominated for playing
legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.
Shepard is also a screenwriter (Paris, Texas), an
accomplished musician and a film director (Far North).
He has illustrious friends – Patti Smith, Bob Dylan,
novelist Cormac McCarthy – who seek out his company as
he seeks theirs.
He travels widely, beneath the radar, living the
fulfilled life of a successful, versatile artist. He has
suggested we have lunch at the famous Left Bank
restaurant Cafe de Flore; even before we sit down,
Shepard reminds me this was a favoured hang-out of one
of his heroes, Samuel Beckett.
But why is he even in Paris? He’s also a friend of
legendary theatre director Peter Brook, who lives there.
Brook’s daughter Irina, who also directs, is staging a
new production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt at this year’s
Salzburg Festival. “I’m helping her adapt some of the
monologues, turn them into music,” Shepard says
Tomorrow he leaves for Dublin, where on Monday at the
Abbey Theatre he and Patti Smith take the stage for an
evening of music and readings to benefit the Abbey’s
programme for new playwrights: “I’ll read from Flann
O’Brien at the gig, she’ll be reading Yeats,” he says.
Then it’s on to New York to discuss his new two-act play
opening later this year at the Signature Theatre; he’s
thinking he may call it Artless.
Perhaps it’s the rich variety of his life that allows
him to treat today’s film industry with scepticism: “I
don’t do much screenwriting anymore, because everyone
tries to tell you what to do. On every film, there are
producers all over the place, and everyone’s got to have
an opinion. I think the screenplay is a beautiful form
with great potential, but the environment around it is
awful for a writer.
“The wonderful thing about writing for theatre is you
can go anywhere you want with the language. There are no
limits. With film, they frown on language – it’s always
'Too many words’.” Movies, he thinks, have suffered
because of this tendency: “I recently did a film called
Safe House [starring Denzel Washington] and I counted
the cuts [between shots]. I don’t think there’s a shot
longer than three seconds. That doesn’t give you a
chance to settle into the characters, it’s unbelievable.
“But that’s the style of popular film-making today. It’s
cut so hard and so fast that it takes everyone’s breath
away. They can’t catch up to it. So consequently you
don’t get the language, you don’t understand the movie.
And in the end it really doesn’t matter what’s going
In the same way, Shepard has no time for the cult of
fame and celebrity. He has an agent, but never has a
team of hangers-on and assistants around him.
“All that stuff just slows you down’” he says. “I think
[actors] get trapped in this notion that they have to
have a cushion between themselves and the world.”
Certainly he keeps the details of his life discreet. He
seems to be single these days, dividing his time between
New Mexico and his farm in Kentucky...
In New Mexico he lives a quiet, almost donnish life. He
is affiliated to a think-tank called the Santa Fe
Institute: “It’s mostly scientists, some of them very
well-known, Nobel Prize-winners. There’s only a couple
of writers – me and Cormac McCarthy, who introduced me
“We all meet up every day. It’s a way of seeing if
there’s a dialogue between different [disciplines].
There’s a lot of discussion about complexity theory and
neuroscience, how things control human behaviour. You
run across people with different areas of expertise.
It’s very cool.”
He talks about this far more enthusiastically than being
in movies. “With acting you can find a way to make it
interesting for yourself, if nobody else – even on
big-budget films.” He sighs: “But you’re very much on