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Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky
Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky

Speaking to the director of Harry Dean Stanton’s last lead role, in Lucky

John Carroll Lynch reflects on working with the beloved actor – and David Lynch and his pet tortoise – in the desert

The legendary actor Harry Dean Stanton died on 15 September last year. Our interview with John Carroll Lynch, the director of Lucky, took place three weeks later. That piece of news, in itself, would cast a shadow over any conversation. But Lucky is a film in which Stanton, who lived up to 91, depicts the title character as a thinly disguised version of himself: a chain-smoking atheist grappling with his mortality. “Can I tell you a secret?” Lucky whispers to a waitress. “I’m scared.” 

Stanton, as beloved as he is, rarely played leading men. So Lucky opens with a bombastic statement: “HARRY DEAN STANTON IS LUCKY”. It’s Stanton’s first major role since Travis in Paris, Texas, and the screen icon may as well be a doppelganger for his 1986 self. In fact, the opening scene is a callback. We meet Lucky as he drifts through a desert landscape, appearing wistful and forlorn. In Wim Wenders’ masterpiece, Travis collapses and is rescued by his brother’s family. Here, Lucky just ambles on with his lonesome routines.

At times, it’s hard to tell if Stanton is even acting. Such is the effortlessness of his on-camera charisma, he exudes the same magnetism that stole scenes in AlienRepo Man and Pretty in Pink. In Lucky, though, Stanton is the star. The script was written specifically for his tics, the stories are semi-autobiographical, and numerous supporting roles are filled out by friends. One of the more recognisable ones is David Lynch. “There are some things in this universe, ladies and gentlemen, that are bigger than all of us,” the Twin Peaks director tells Lucky. “A tortoise is one of them.”

Read on for our interview with John Carroll Lynch (no relation to David) from last year’s London Film Festival. Topics include Harry Dean Stanton’s greatest role, why Stanton didn’t lead more movies, and the connection between Lucky and Paris, Texas.

Did Harry see acting as a way to live beyond the grave? Was he concerned about death during the shoot?

John Carroll Lynch: No. People have been using the term “passed on”. Harry didn’t pass on, he died. Harry was certain that he didn’t have anything after this, and the character reflects that worldview. The character never lost focus of his own belief system to make his world meaningful. The movie isn’t about somebody looking at mortality for the first time, it’s somebody looking at mortality for the last time.

Wim Wenders said he wanted to do a sequel to Paris, Texas, and that the cast agreed to do it. In Harry’s mind, was Lucky a sort of follow-up?

John Carroll Lynch: You can’t ask Harry Dean Stanton to walk through the desert without knowing people are going to think of Paris, Texas. Many reviewers have said it feels like we’re watching the same character 40 years later. Maybe. I’ll tell you, they’re very different people. The man in Paris, Texas is filled with such fundamental longing for connection that Lucky does not have. In the story that we tell, the character doesn’t need anybody – until he does.

Harry hasn’t been the lead in anything since Paris, Texas. I know he turned down a TV show with John Carpenter because it was too much work. Why didn’t he star in more films?

John Carroll Lynch: I really don’t know.

I ask because, since his death, everyone in Hollywood has been publicly mourning him and praising his performances. But they had their chance, and they didn’t take it.

John Carroll Lynch: There were certain things he was offered that were lead roles, and he was just like, “I don’t want to go there.” Emotionally, he didn’t want to live that life. And there was another circumstance where he was offered a movie that did very, very well with somebody else, and he was just like, “Nah, it’s too much work.” But he wanted to do this. He had a lot of friends in the movie.

Did he bring David Lynch to it, then?

John Carroll Lynch: He asked if we’d gotten someone for Howard yet, and we said no. He said to (the co-writer) Logan, “What about David?” I thought it was a great idea. I’d seen them together in Partly Fiction, the documentary. I thought their dynamic was terrific. David  brought in a sense of whimsy, a sense of the supernatural, just by his presence. And also, he nailed that relationship with (his pet tortoise) President Roosevelt, which was very tricky.

“You can’t ask Harry Dean Stanton to walk through the desert without knowing people are going to think of Paris, Texas” – John Carroll Lynch

David doesn’t do anything wacky with it. He plays it with complete sincerity.

John Carroll Lynch: He just makes it so true. There’s never a question in my mind – and I’ve watched it thousands of times – that President Roosevelt is a real relationship that he has. I think the moment David locked, we had the cast together. I was like, “Wow, I’m the only one now who can fuck this up.”

There are some lines that, at first, appear to be homophobic. A lot of actors, in a film where they seem to be playing a version of themselves, would probably scrub that from the script.

John Carroll Lynch: We had a great conversation about that. He asked about the scene: “Why am I so upset with these guys kissing in the scene? Why is that there?” I told him why I thought it was there. I said, “It harkens back to the Liberace scene. The audience will assume, because you’re a person of your age, that you’re homophobic because you’ve seen these guys kiss. When in actuality, it’s because they’re in your seat, and you’re upset that they were in your seat, and you’re like, ‘And now this, too?’ But in actuality, you’ve gone to a totally different place in your life from where you’ve started, which we discovered in the Liberace scene.”

And when we were talking about that, Logan was like, “Harry, you’ve always been so tolerant, and you’ve never really had a problem with gay people.” Harry just looked at him and said, “I was in the Navy when I was 19 years old in World War Two. Of course I was homophobic. I was from Kentucky.” And then he said exactly the same thing as the character, which was: “But then I started thinking, what difference does it make to me who they’re screwing? If they’re getting laid, good for them.”

You played the Zodiac killer in Zodiac. Could you have made Harry do 70 takes, like David Fincher did to you?

John Carroll Lynch: Absolutely not.

Is Harry the kind of actor where you want to use the first or second take?

John Carroll Lynch: If you need a second take from Harry, his first question is: “What was wrong with the last one?” So there’s a lot of techniques you have to use to get more opportunities. But Harry is directable. You just have to earn it. I certainly did. I don’t think David needed to earn it. I think he’d earned it already.

Do you have a favourite role? Mine might be Repo Man.

John Carroll Lynch: Certainly Repo Man and Paris, Texas in the same year were exciting to me as a young actor. The movie that I think is the clearest sense of his gifts is The Straight Story, because without Harry’s performance, the movie doesn’t work. He has five minutes and no dialogue, and yet he replays his brother’s entire journey in his mind – and you watch it happen in real time.

Is this a John Carroll Lynch film or a Harry Dean Stanton film?

John Carroll Lynch: I don’t see any conflict at all in that. It’s my desire that Harry is celebrated in this picture because he deserves it. The response that people have towards this movie is going to be based entirely on this performance.

To separate them in terms of what notoriety may come is to miss the point of the picture entirely, which is that both he and I were in service of a story that expresses something important about the human condition: you and I share this moment in time, we don’t know how many of these we’ll have, and so we better make this one count.

The way we make it count is to be in the presence of joy. Whether or not accolades come, whether or not anything else happens, that’s what you do it for. If you get focused on what the celebration is, I think you’re going to make a lot of shitty movies, because they’re going to mean nothing.

Was it important to end the film on an optimistic note?

John Carroll Lynch: To me, it ends on a true moment. He looks right at you. It’s beautiful because after 60 years of us looking at him, for the first time he looks at us.

Lucky is now out in UK cinemas and VOD