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Harry Dean Stanton Remembered By the Director of His Last Film: ‘An Acting Legend Who Insisted He Didn’t Act’

John Carroll Lynch recalls directing Harry Dean Stanton in his last film, "Lucky."

Harry Dean Stanton Lucky

“Lucky”

Magnolia Pictures

The following was written by John Carroll Lynch, whose directorial debut “Lucky” stars Harry Dean Stanton in his last film performance. 

Harry Dean Stanton was an acting legend who insisted he didn’t act. It was his touchstone. It was horse shit. I’ll give you examples.

We did a reading of “Lucky.”  We wanted to hear the piece out loud and give our investors a chance to hear it. Harry came. One of the agreements made for his participation, of course, was that he could smoke onstage. Apologies to the fire marshall.

As we began, Harry’s voice was weak, his reading slow. Hell, the print in his script was so big, he had to turn the page every half sentence. I was more than worried that this was going to scare off our investors.

Then we got to the scene in the alley. The person reading screen directions described the alleys’ red lights. Harry interrupted with a fierce full voice, his body suddenly engaged; “Do they have to be red? The lights? Shouldn’t they be white?”

For a second, I was surprised. Up until then, he hadn’t given the impression up he was paying attention to what he was reading, let alone what someone else was.

I answered, “No, they need to be red.” He shot back, “White would be better.” I said, “Can we talk about this after the reading?” He returned to his half-voiced, shambling reading.

I suddenly realized he was fully engaged. He just wasn’t ready to perform. He was exploring, the way an actor does.  Needless to say, his exploring was interesting enough to the investors for us continue.

I started going to Harry’s house every Sunday to address any concerns Harry might have about the script before we began shooting. The writers,  Logan and Drago, and producer, Ira Steven Behr also attended.

Harry would mute the TV, and start in, but always with one eye on whatever gameshow was on. “Why am I going on about this realism shit? I would never say that,” he’d say. Logan would remind Harry that he’d said that exact thing a week ago. This didn’t convince Harry.

I would approach it from Lucky’s point of view, what it meant to this self-reliant man living on the edge of the desert.  He’d listen to us, question a bit, then go on to the next topic and the next, but always distracted by the TV. After an hour or so he’d say, “Well, I guess you guys know your shit,” and turn the gameshow back up.

Then one Sunday, his energy changed. He muted the TV and for the first time, faced us. He tore at everything. Questioned everything. It seemed he wanted everything gone. This session lasted three hours.

I knew then, he was in. Both feet. He was working. Asking what if this line, this scene, this moment, wasn’t there? By eliminating it, you make the questioned material prove its worth. As an actor, I do that all the time.

Later, during production, we were shooting the scene where the young men kiss. This had been part of a Sunday discussion. He questioned it again. “Who gives a shit that they’re kissing?”

I explained.  Lucky isn’t upset about two men kissing, it only appears that way. Lucky is upset about being displaced; they were in his seat. And when they kiss, it is their youth, at a moment when Lucky feels so vulnerable, that upsets him. The audience knows this only after the Liberace scene, when Lucky says, “I don’t know why I ever gave a shit about who he was screwing in the first place, if he was getting laid, more power to him.” Then they see that they misjudged Lucky.

This explanation was acting with a capital A. It definitely violated the no-acting rule. Harry said nothing, then went outside for a smoke while we set up. I wasn’t sure what would happen.

When he was called back in, he sat down, and called to me. “John, what about this?” He then played it for me, nothing before or after, just the moment of Lucky’s response to the kiss. It was perfect. I laughed and said, “that’s it.”

Outside, he’d mulled over what I’d said and had come up with a way to play it, and even get a laugh. What is that if it isn’t acting?

So, why was he so insistent on his no acting rule?

I think it drew a line between him and those who wanted to direct him. After all, how do you direct someone who isn’t acting? It protected him. Made him more formidable. It also forced him to dig into the material to a place where being lives. Acting is doing, as they say, but I think Harry wanted to live the character, not just do. The no-acting rule pushed him to chase an effortless being in his work that few actors ever achieve. It’s one reason he was so good in silence.

I’ve had the privilege of watching every take of his performance in “Lucky.”  Every second you will never see. And my appreciation for his craft only grew deeper and more profound with each viewing. It has grown even deeper as I have seen how moved audiences are by his work in “Lucky” and how enduring it is — their connection to his work.

But why should their connection be any different than mine? He would deny all of this. He would say I was the one who was full of shit. And maybe he’d be right.  All I know is that working with Harry has made me think that I ought to try not acting more often.

“Lucky” opens September 29.

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