When Sam Shepard appeared as an early 20th-century Texas farmer in his first Hollywood feature, Terrence Malick’s 1978 Days of Heaven, the movie world immediately took notice of him as an actor. Pauline Kael, the doyenne of film critics, wrote in The New Yorker, “Though the irregularly handsome, slightly snaggletoothed Shepard has almost no lines, he makes a strong impression; he seems authentically an American of an earlier era.” Yet even when he won an Academy Award nomination for his performance as test pilot Chuck Yeager in Philip Kaufman’s 1983 The Right Stuff, there was still the sense that Shepard the actor was moonlighting from his “real” job as a prolific, Pulitzer-blessed playwright. Who knew that 20 years later Shepard would be steadily employed as an actor, making one or two films almost every year? He can currently be seen in Blind Horizon, a thriller starring Val Kilmer and Neve Campbell. He just returned from Australia where he worked on a film called Stealth directed by Rob Cohen, maker of big-box-office B-movies like The Fast and the Furious. And he will shortly begin work on a low-budget independent film called The King.

Shepard has written and directed two movies of his own (Far North and Silent Tongue) but they didn’t create enough of a stir to ensure his future as a filmmaker. Although the search for financing has caused a series of delays, he and German director Wim Wenders (they collaborated on 1984’s Paris, Texas) are ready to go with a new film called Don’t Come Knockin’, which Shepard wrote and is supposed to star in with Jessica Lange. 

Appearing in films alongside a multitude of big names has given Shepard an opportunity to develop his own perspective on the differences between acting in film and acting onstage. This So-Called Disaster, Michael Almareyda’s documentary film about the San Francisco production of The Late Henry Moss, lets us be the proverbial fly on the wall as Shepard works day-by-day directing actors like Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Woody Harrelson in what is, for them, a rare stage appearance. I asked him about that:

I’m guessing that the real experience for you was being in the rehearsal room with those guys.
Yeah. Which is why I had the impulse to make a documentary. I knew this was sort of a chance of a lifetime, with this many great actors. The thing is that, as is true of any production, you don't see the work the actor does. You don't see the sweat, the real grit, the energy that goes into making the character. These guys were absolutely dedicated. For movie stars, this was something that a lot of them hadn't really encountered. The daily grind of showing up and the obligation to it. They were incredibly loyal. 

With Sean and Nick, I could palpably feel that these guys had their ears up. They felt like they were being paid attention to as actors, and not just: what are you gonna look like with the furniture? How do you fit into the plot? Are you gonna speak loud or speak soft or be brutal here? You know what I mean? One thing about a play is that it requires teamwork. And that's not true of film. The grips do, the lighting guy does, all those guys have to work as a team. The actors don't. They can go solo the whole way. Half the time they're there by themselves anyway. Not to say there's not some craft in that. There's some brilliant film acting. But it's very different from going to the theater every day and working together in this team situation. 

Sean Penn is a really interesting actor, and he's done some stage acting. How was it watch him work?
I felt like Sean wanted to go much, much further than he allowed himself to go. Out of all the actors, I felt like he was the most vulnerable. He's a very sensitive, smart actor but scared a little bit by the possibility of laying it out there with the other actors. Nick -- not a fear in the world. He's gonna crash and burn the whole way. He'll jump over the cliff for you. Sean is a lot more tentative, but a lot of yearning. I regret now that we didn't experiment more.

See, a film actor doesn’t even get that opportunity to mess around. You come the day of work, you've got your lines, you put the costume on , you go to work and you do it. Here we were, day after day after day, in the lap of this luxury, being able to experiment, go places, move here, move there, for weeks.

Tell me about being in Hamlet yourself. 
I loved doing that. The weird thing is, when I first ran away from home and decided I would go audition for this one-night-stand company called the Bishops Company, they gave me a piece of Shakespeare. I don't even remember what play it was. I was so nervous and I read the whole page. Only later I realized that I'd read Shakespeare and then the footnotes, scrambling it all together. The next day they hired me! Anyway, that was my first experience with Shakespeare. I thought never in a million years am I ever going to do Shakespeare. Then Michael, bless his heart, asked me to do this thing. I spent, I guess, a month and a half memorizing that thing. I was in Montana at the time, driving around in the truck, doing the lines. I thought, “This is the most spectacular writing I've come across in my life.” By the time we went to film it, the language had found its way into me somehow. 

In a way that other movies hadn't.
Never. I'm always rewriting my shit in films. I look at it and say, “I can't say this.”

Other sidebars:
Shepard and Jasper Johns
Shepard and Wallace Shawn
Shepard and Gurdjieff

American Theatre, April 2004