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Harry Dean Stanton: A Legend Layered with Contradiction

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Indiewire September 20, 2013 at 11:14AM

"Haven't a clue," Harry Dean Stanton tells me when I ask him how his life might have unfolded had he not gone into acting. "I'd probably have been a singer." That night, the legendary character actor would attend the New York premiere of "Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction," a new documentary by Sophie Huber examining Stanton's life in the industry and his unique place in the catalog of great American actors. (The film is currently playing in select cities.)
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"Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction."
"Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction."

"Haven't a clue," Harry Dean Stanton tells me when I ask him how his life might have unfolded had he not gone into acting. "I'd probably have been a singer." That night, the legendary character actor would attend the New York premiere of "Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction," a new documentary by Sophie Huber examining Stanton's life in the industry and his unique place in the catalog of great American actors. (The film is currently playing in select cities.)

Throughout our interview, the reticent Stanton--known to his friends as Harry Dean--espoused a philosophy of Zen-like acceptance, a sustained focus on the here and now and a rejection of any thoughts about the future. But as we spoke, I found that while he initially responded to almost all my questions with a sort of casual self-negation, a portrait emerged of a man who seems to know exactly who he is yet disdains putting his interior self into words. As Huber no doubt discovered as well, there are levels of contradiction in Harry Dean Stanton that are difficult--and maybe impossible--for an outsider to ever explore.

If Stanton had become a singer, it's not a stretch to say that the face of American film in the second half of the 20th century would look very different. This is a man whose career stretches back to the 1950s, whose filmography encompasses hundreds of roles and collaborations with too many iconic directors to count: Sam Peckinpah, Francis Ford Coppola, Wim Wenders, Ridley Scott, John Milius, David Lynch. This is a man who will receive a minutes-long standing ovation when the Academy awards him an Oscar for lifetime achievement--although, incredibly, none of his roles has ever garnered a nod. And yet, there's no escaping the feeling that this is a man that just doesn't care about either of those things.

Harry Dean Stanton Harmonica

Whether Stanton's air of quiet acceptance and lack of self-absorption is studied or inherent, it's undeniably palpable. During our conversation, he often speaks in adages that might verge on insincerity if spoken by somebody with more self-consciousness: "I have nothing to do with anything that happens to me." "It's all written." "It doesn't matter." "It's the way things unfold."

At times, they turn into koans. I ask Stanton how he thinks the industry has changed over his half-century of work--the slow diminution of the studio system, the kinds of movies that get made--and whether he thinks an actor starting out today could have a career like his. "Everything changes every day," he tells me. And then: "It's no different than it was before, as far as I'm concerned."

That's a flat-out contradiction, but Stanton expresses it in one breath, without a shred of irony. To him, there's probably nothing contradictory about it--things can be ever-changing and yet no different then they were. To use his own words: It's all written; it doesn't matter.

As I dig--or at least attempt to do so--another side of Stanton seems to evince itself briefly. In Huber's film, Stanton says that he "avoided success artfully," but when I ask about his motivation for becoming an actor, he tells me, "As with everyone, you want to make money and you want to be well known. You know, you want to be successful."

This article is related to: Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, Harry Dean Stanton, Interviews, Festivals, Wim Wenders, Documentary