Interview: Harry Dean Stanton and Sophie Huber
Sophie Huber’s unconventional documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction is a kinetic portrait of the actor’s mesmerizing face and slow charm, punctuated with handsome black-and-white vignettes in which the 87-year old sings to the camera with an arresting voice that compliments his forlorn and famously weathered mug. Huber and Stanton have known each other for 20 years, and the actor has admitted that his reluctant participation and promotion of the film is a tribute to their enduring friendship.
Jeannette Catsoulis summed up her New York Times review of Partly Fiction with “You won’t learn much, but you’ll be strangely happy that you didn’t”—a catchphrase that Stanton immediately latched onto, repeating it proudly to an adoring audience at the film’s New York premiere. After decades of partying and flower-child philosophizing, Stanton remains an old-fashioned man, protective of his privacy. Like the lyrics in his friend Kris Kristofferson’s song, he’s crafted a persona that’s “partly truth and partly fiction” with a spaced-out demeanor that obscures a rusty internal filter—trickling out tidbits of information that are both everything and nothing, his own Eastern-inflected pearls of wisdom.
The following interview was conducted in the unregulated territory of Stanton’s hotel room so that he could smoke his American Spirits liberally. The director and her subject seemed at ease in each other’s presence, passing a chilled coffee drink back and forth like a bottle of contraband hooch while Huber benevolently acted as her friend’s hearing aid. Stanton’s memory proved to be intermittently sharp as he brushed off long forgotten acting roles but recounted salient life experiences in impressive detail, like the Battle of Okinawa, or the time he brazenly offered a slab of raw chicken to a wild coyote matriarch named Tippi.
Sophie, you started this project some years ago when you set out to record Harry performing songs?
SOPHIE HUBER: Yeah, I would go up to Harry’s house and record, pretty much in the same scenario as in the film, and then that lead to the idea of the documentary.
You’ve been in a few music videos, Harry. In the Eighties you appeared in a video for Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.”
HARRY DEAN STANTON: Yeah, what was that? I can’t remember why I did it.
Honestly, I just watched it and I can’t give you a straight answer! I couldn’t quite follow what was going on, it was strange.
HDS: Did I sing in it?
No, you acted in it.
HDS: I can’t remember. I wish I did, it’s a pretty song.
When you sing, you only perform covers. Is that right?
HDS: No, I’ve never written songs. I could, but I just never got the urge to sit down and do it.
Is it similar to acting out a role that was written by someone else?
HDS: Yeah. Ultimately there’s no answer to any of it. Everything just happens. There’s no answer to anything.
Your approach, or some might say your philosophy, has evolved over the years. For example the idea that everything is nothing…
HDS: It’s all Eastern thought. Buddhism, Taoism, the Jewish Kabbalah. The real Kabbalah—the Jews don’t get it and the Christians don’t get it either. The real Kabbalah is the same thing as Taoism and Buddhism. There’s no answer. The void. No beginning, no end. In the Jewish Kabbalah they use the word Ein Sof: the void. There is no person, there is no individual soul, no identity. There’s a Buddhist saying: to think you’re an individual person with an identity and an individual soul is not only an illusion, it’s insane. That makes sense to me.
Sophie, you spent about two-and-a-half years shooting the film. Did you notice Harry Dean go through any changes over the course of your filming?
SH: Not really. I wanted to film it in an intimate setting so that Harry comes across as he is, so he feels comfortable around people he knows. The only thing that I noticed him do professionally is how he would know exactly how the light would hit his face. Seamus [McGarvey, the DP] said that it was so great to film Harry’s face because he knows exactly how it looks even in the available daylight.
Didn’t Harry perform that cameo in The Avengers because Seamus was shooting the film?
SH: Yeah, because we were shooting the documentary and Seamus told Joss Whedon about it.
HDS: And he cut part of that scene out. It’s the best scene in the movie, and it still pisses me off, totally. He didn’t keep it in the regular version, it’s in the blu-ray version. I still don’t get it; it was the best part of the movie. But in spite of that it still worked, as short as it was, it still made an impact. It had the best writing in the film too. The rest of it was a bunch of noise. It was constant gunshots and firing…
SH: Men in tights.
In the documentary, you speak about your so-called laziness. I admire how you’re not ashamed to admit that, how you’ve embraced it.
HDS: I’ve had many opportunities that I’ve passed on. I did Christine, you remember that one? John Carpenter called me after and said: “I want you to do a series with the Mary Tyler Moore people.” (I think it was that company.) And they offered me a whole career as a leading man, playing a private investigator. They told me: “You can direct, you can produce, take part in the casting, all of it.” [Carpenter] said: “You’ll be richer and more famous and have more pussy on camera and off than you’ve ever had in your life.” That was the way they worded it. At that stage of my Christian background—which is gone now—I thought that it was an offer from the devil! So I’ve really turned down success in a lot of ways.
SH: You turned down Hustler magazine too. Remember when they wanted to come and photograph you?
HDS: Yeah, I’ve never been too crazy about Hustler.
SH: Maybe your Christian upbringing held you back!
HDS: No, I just think it’s shoddy. I don’t have any moral issues with it.
You guys are also planning to release a soundtrack album?
SH: Yes. There will be one song from the original short films that I did with Harry and the rest will be the songs from the feature, about 15 or 16 songs.
HD: I don’t remember, what did we leave out?
SH: “Promised Land” is not in the film. And “She Thinks I Still Care.”
“She Thinks I Still Care” by George Jones? That’s a great one! Do you prefer sad songs, Harry?
HDS: No, it doesn’t matter.
SH: There’s no answer to it. [Laughing]
People are really drawn to your talent for expressing sadness.
HDS: It’s blues really, blues.
Do you prefer older songs?
HDS: No, there’s a lot of good music around today, I’m just not into rap. Hard rock, metal rock…
Do you still consider yourself a late bloomer? You’ve described yourself as such before.
HDS: A late bloomer, what’s that? I’ve just evolved like everybody evolves and everybody evolves differently. You know we’re hardwired genetically when we’re born. There’s no you or me, that doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s all predestined, no answer to it, ha.
I think that’s a beautiful idea but at the same time it gives me anxiety.
HDS: It’s terrifying for most people, to face the void. There’s nothing out there. And when you die it’s black [laughs]. No afterlife. It’s all bullshit.
I read that you received a commendation for “coolness under fire” when you served in the Navy during the Second World War.
HDS: [chuckles] Oh yeah. It was the Battle of Okinawa, and one night a Japanese bomber came over. Five thousand feet up, totally out of range, and the whole harbor opened up—15, 20-millimeter canons, everything. You couldn’t hit it. I was a gunner, “Gun Toter Number Two” on an LST landing ship. I was the pointer, the one that fired the gun. Everybody’s firing and I radioed into the bridge: “Number Two request permission to fire.” They were all screwed up, they didn’t know what they were doing, told me: “Wait a minute, wait a minute!” They finally radioed back to me, “Hold your fire!” [laughs] so I held my fire. I never fired a shot.
HDS: Later on I joined the Naval Air Corps but I dropped out after three months. I didn’t want to be a pilot or have anything to do with the military anymore. So that was one of the commendations, “Cool under fire.”
But you had this equanimity before you even joined the military, right? Or did your war experience teach you to stay calm?
HDS: I don’t know. You don’t have time to be afraid when you’re in a situation like that because you’re too busy doing what you’re supposed to be doing.
I guess acting, singing, everything else pales in comparison.
HDS: Yeah. There’s ultimately no answer to everything. It all just happens as we speak. It’s only the moment. Learn to be intimately in love with the gift of presence and what is right here, right now. That’s it, the seed of all you will ever long for, simple ordinary and magnificent—you see you’re already at home as we speak. That’s Tony Parsons, he’s a British enlightened guy, you should read him.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
Sophie, what do you plan to do when you’re finished promoting this film?
SH: I’m pursuing another country musician, to do another portrait thing, and then there’s also a narrative project. One I’m writing, and one I’m hoping to direct.
Are the two of you traveling to promote Partly Fiction?
HDS: Sophie is. I don’t like to leave town because my pool gets all filled up with leaves and I have to leave all of my lights on all day and then all night long.
Do you have any pets?
HDS: No, I don’t like pets.
HDS: I like animals but I don’t like pets. I had a cat that came with the house I bought years and years ago. A big huge black cat named Michelangelo, and he’d been spayed, but he didn’t lose any of his balls! The coyotes never got him, and they’ll eat any cat, cats can’t live up there. He escaped from all of them. He rode two German shepherds once, young ones that came into the yard. I heard this ruckus in the bushes, looked up and he was on top of one of those German shepherds with his claws in its back riding him around the yard! Then the other German shepherd saw it and took off! He was an amazing cat…
Anyway the weirdest of all was this raccoon: I had a cat door for Michelangelo and before I closed it up I heard this noise in the kitchen once. I went into the kitchen and there was this raccoon just standing there looking at me, with that black mask. He didn’t move, didn’t run from me or anything. I started thinking how this is a wild animal and he’s gotta get out of here so I gave a real phony RAAAAAHHH!—like that—and he looked at me again and slowly turned around and went out the door. I was wearing a white terrycloth bathrobe and the next day my housekeeper came in yelling “Mr. Stanton, Mr. Stanton something terrible has happened!” Raccoons are nocturnal, they only come out at night and she had gone to iron my white terrycloth bathrobe in the daytime and this raccoon had come during the night and taken my white terrycloth bathrobe off the ironing board, ripped it to shreds and pissed all over it!
HDS: The weirdest thing I have every seen in my life, creepy.
SH: That’s quite aggressive.
HDS: Yeah! It was like saying “This is my territory. Not yours, with the white terrycloth bathrobe.”
SH: Harry used to feed wild coyotes in his backyard.
Oh my God.
Did you name them?
SH: Yeah he named all of them.
HDS: Oh yeah. One was Riley, the other was Crash—he was the son or cousin—and Tippi was the female, she ran the show. She was a little coyote with a white tipped tail. They would back off from her whenever the food went out. I gave her a piece of raw chicken once. I decided to hand it to her, I was going to let her take it out of my hand and she came up to me and WHOOSH!—like that—and my whole body went into shock. I’ve never felt anything so powerful in my life. I didn’t do that again!