Sam Shepard’s cultural reach goes deep. There’s the Oscar nomination for supporting actor in “The Right Stuff,” the Pulitzer Prize for his play “Buried Child” and his screenplay for the seminal film “Paris, Texas.” Shepard makes a brief appearance in Patti Smith’s recent memoir, “Just Kids,” in which she describes him as “my cowboy with Indian ways.” And with his soulful, loner swagger, he represents the poetic masculine American ideal.
The new film “Blackthorn,” which is already available on video on demand and which opened in Los Angeles on Friday, presupposes that the Wild West bandit Butch Cassidy did not die in a sepia-toned shootout as famously depicted in 1969’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Rather, Shepard, in an increasingly rare lead role, portrays the outlaw as an old man living in the hardscrabble mountains of Bolivia, feeling time passing him by and dreaming of returning to America. His performance is equal parts tender and lonesome, fearsome and commanding.
“I don’t get offered leading parts,” Shepard said dryly by phone from his home in Kentucky. “I suppose I’ve become a kind of character actor or sideman. I think it had to do with probably in the ‘90s, I refused so many leading roles that they gave up on me, or I just became unpopular, or I became old. All those reasons.”
Having already established himself as a playwright, Shepard delivered his breakout screen performance in Terrence Malick’s 1978 “Days of Heaven.” More recently, he has settled into supporting roles in films as diverse as “Black Hawk Down,” “The Notebook,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Fair Game.”
It was following the Academy Award nomination for his role as pilot Chuck Yeager in 1983’s “The Right Stuff” that Shepard had to actively decide his priorities. The intensity of his acting style and his hard-chiseled features seemed to position him as a natural throwback to an Old Hollywood leading man.
“A lot of it had to do with my idea of myself as a playwright,” noted Shepard, now 67, of his decision to draw back from leading parts. “I felt I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a playwright anymore if I suddenly became quote-unquote a movie star.”
“Blackthorn” plays strongly to thematic ideas that run throughout Shepard’s own work — a division between nostalgia and a sense of what’s coming as well as a pained exploration of what it means to be a man in the modern world. A lifelong horseman, Shepard thrilled at doing his own riding for the film, with the exception of a single stunt. He even sings a number of traditional songs throughout the film.
“This is just a fiction, we are not saying that Butch Cassidy didn’t die there, but there are people who have doubts,” director Mateo Gil said of the film’s perspective on the legend of Butch Cassidy. Gil is best known for his work as a screenwriter with filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar on such movies as “Agora” and “The Sea Inside,” and he worked on the “Blackthorn” script with credited writer Miguel Barros.
“Actually, when we were working on the script, we thought about the possibility of everybody thinking he is Butch Cassidy but to also say, ‘Maybe he’s not, maybe he’s just an old American man,’” added Gil. “The important thing for us wasn’t the story about Butch Cassidy but the meaning of the way of life of Butch Cassidy and this old man making his own decisions now.”
For Gil, having an acclaimed writer on the set wasn’t intimidating, not least because he was surprised to discover Shepard’s collaborative spirit and intense focus on his performance.
“He worked on his dialogue but always on-set and not before,” said Gil. “The changes were not big changes. They were about the way of expressing an idea or a way to make the dialogue more easy. It was an actor’s approach, not a writer’s approach.”
“It’s funny, in a way the actor is a writer,” said Shepard. “It’s not like the two things are so separate as to be like apples and oranges. The writer and the actor are one.”
Working in all these mediums — acting, writing, music, theater and film — Shepard often sees the inter-relationships of what he does rather than the differences.
“I still think it all comes from the same place, but it’s great to be able to change it up,” Shepard said. “It would be like riding the same horse all the time. To sing a song is quite different than to write a poem. I’m not and never will be a novelist, but to write a novel is not the same thing as writing a play. There is a difference in form, but essentially what you’re after is the same thing.”
Shepard has upcoming supporting roles in Andrew Dominik’s “Cogan’s Trade,” Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” and Lawrence Kasdan’s “Darling Companion.” He also continues to write — he’s working on a three-act play even though “I didn’t think I’d write another three-act play in my whole life.”
Shepard doesn’t fly while within the continental United States, so he is frequently just out there, somewhere, driving from place to place. A recent phone interview was pushed back a day because he was literally seeing a man about a horse or, as he explained later, “I was at a horse sale yesterday, and it was just all-consuming.”
All of which perhaps adds up to why, most of all, Sam Shepard might be best at just being Sam Shepard, lost soul of the modern American male.
“I don’t think Marlon Brando ever set out to be an icon,” Shepard said. “But he said one of the best things about acting I’ve heard. He said, ‘Just because they say ‘Action’ doesn’t mean you have to do anything.’ And he’s absolutely right.
“In other words, if you can reveal some glimmer of the truth, whatever that might be, however that’s interpreted, people recognize it when they see it. If you can do that, then you become an inspiration in some kind of a way. But you don’t set out to become an inspiration; you just set out to do something simple and truthful.”