Guest of Honor

Harry Dean Stanton’s Cinematic Singing

On the release of his first solo album, the Hollywood legend talks about singing, acting, and how neither's really all that hard.

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Michael Buckner / Getty Images Entertainment
Michael Buckner / Getty Images Entertainment

Harry Dean Stanton has appeared in over a hundred films in his long acting career, including landmarks like “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Godfather: Part Two,” “Alien” and the punk classic “Repo Man.” But music has been as constant a passion as acting. Said director David Lynch, “He has one of the most beautiful voices ever. He sings from the level of the soul. The way he sings the songs opens my heart and makes me cry.”

Though he’s played with the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Ry Cooder, it was only this week that Stanton released his first solo album, “Partly Fiction” — renditions of his favorite tunes, recorded live in his living room for the soundtrack of a 2013 documentary about his life.  (That film, from director Sophie Huber, is also out on DVD this week.)  Harry tells Brendan about his singing — and about the time he held a broken bottle to Kristofferson’s throat.

 

Brendan Francis Newnam: I love your take on Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou.”  Does the song have any special significance to you, or do you just like the melody?

Harry Dean Stanton: It’s just a beautiful song, beautifully written.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Was that the guiding framework for all the songs on this album? Just songs you thought were pretty?

Harry Dean Stanton: Yeah, it’s just songs that I resonated with over the years.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You also cover Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Help Me Make It through the Night’ on this album… and you and he are friends, correct?

Harry Dean Stanton: Yeah. We’ve been friends for years.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And you starred in “Cisco Pike” with him. And you…

Harry Dean Stanton: Yeah, I got him in the movie.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh yeah? How’d that happen?

Harry Dean Stanton: Well, they couldn’t get in touch with him, and they had Fred Russo, my manager-agent, call me.  And he said, ‘Can you get Kris in for an interview?’ So I met him at… what’s that club on Santa Monica [Boulevard]?

Brendan Francis Newnam: The Troubadour?

Harry Dean Stanton: Yeah, the Troubadour. So we met there. So I went with him on the interview. I read with him at the interview, and right before… I forget who directed that. Do you have that?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Bill Norton.

Harry Dean Stanton: Bill Norton, yeah. I was waiting outside the door; Kris was inside ready to start the interview. And Bill came out and told me, ‘I want you to scare Kris when he opens the door.’

I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to scare this guy? He’s a boxer, helicopter pilot, all-American hero…’

Brendan Francis Newnam: Tough guy, yeah.

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Harry Dean Stanton: ‘How the hell am I going to scare him?’ And for some reason or another — I never did anything like this in my life — there was a beer bottle sitting in the corner, empty beer bottle. I knocked on the door. Kris opened it. I broke the beer bottle on the knob of the door, grabbed him by the shirt and stuck the broken bottle under his chin. And he was scared.

Brendan Francis Newnam: [laughing] And this was an effort to demonstrate he could play a scared guy, right, for the screen test?

Harry Dean Stanton: He had to be frightened in the scene for some reason or other.

Brendan Francis Newnam: This album comes from a documentary that came out about you, and in that documentary Kristofferson appears, and he tells you that he thinks you’re more into music than you’re into acting.

Harry Dean Stanton: It’s pretty much equal, actually. I like both forms of performing. If you can sing you can act. As a matter of fact, anybody can be a film actor. Anybody off the street can be a film actor, if you’ve got a good director.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Is that all it takes, really? You seem like you have some special qualities.

Harry Dean Stanton: Yeah. If I give you a line, I say, “I want you to come in and say, ‘Hello. What’s your name?’” You come in, you say, “Hello. What’s your name?” Anybody can do that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: “Hello. What’s your name?” How was that?

Harry Dean Stanton: Yeah. I just gave you a line, you remembered it and you said the line. Right?

Brendan Francis Newnam: You make it sound so simple.

Harry Dean Stanton: It is. It’s very simple.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So when you were a kid was music ever-present in your life?

Harry Dean Stanton: No. I started singing when I was about six years old. When people’d leave the house I would get up on a stool and sing. It was an old Jimmie Rodgers song. ‘T for Texas’. They called him The Singing Brakeman.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Jimmie Rodgers also yodelled a little bit, and in this movie you do kind of a yodel. Do you remember when you…

Harry Dean Stanton: I can yodel a little bit. [Yodels] My voice is a little fuzzy today!

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s pretty good, though. You also appeared in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” with Kris Kristofferson. And another actor in that movie was Bob Dylan.

Harry Dean Stanton: Oh, yeah. We’re good friends too.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, really?

Harry Dean Stanton: Oh yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Did you and he ever play any music together?

Harry Dean Stanton: Yeah. I recorded with him once.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh. I didn’t know that.

Harry Dean Stanton: He asked me did I want a copy of it, and I said, ‘No.’ Like an idiot!

Brendan Francis Newnam: So we have a couple standard questions that we ask each of our guests and one of them is: what question do you not like being asked in interviews?

Harry Dean Stanton: One question? There’s more than one!

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m sure there are a couple. You mentioned you get annoyed about the term ‘character actor’.

Harry Dean Stanton: Yeah. Every actor’s a character actor. If you’re playing a lead you’re still playing a character.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s true.

Harry Dean Stanton: It’s a silly category. I could have been a romantic lead too. I had opportunity…did a movie with John Carpenter, “Christine,” the movie. He called and they offered me a series playing a private eye. Said I would be able to direct ultimately, help cast. I would have more… the words they used: ‘You’ll have more money, you’ll be more famous and have more pussy, on camera and off, than you’ve ever had in your life.’ That’s the way they offered it to me.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And you turned it down?

Harry Dean Stanton: I turned it down. I just didn’t want to work, I guess.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Our second question we ask people is to tell us something we don’t know.  Something they haven’t shared before in interviews, or they can tell us an interesting fact about the world.

Harry Dean Stanton: Interesting fact about the world? Yeah: there’s no answer.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Is that your fact?

Harry Dean Stanton: Yeah, that’s a fact.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That answer sounds reminiscent of one of your friends and heroes, Marlon Brando, with whom you shared an interest in Eastern philosophy.

Harry Dean Stanton: Oh yeah. We were very close the last three years of his life. We spent hours on the phone. Marlon was great.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And did you have those sorts of conversations about Zen and nothingness and what it all means?

Harry Dean Stanton: Oh yeah. Everything. He taught me Shakespearean monologues on the phone. Had me recite them to him.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Do you remember a piece of one in particular?

Harry Dean Stanton: “Our play is now ended. These are actors, as I foretold you. We’re all spirits and are faded into nothing. Into air. Into thin air.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: William Shakespeare from “The Tempest.”

Harry Dean Stanton: Yeah.

Something else about Marlon: he asked me once, he said, ‘What do you think of me?’ I said, ‘I think you’re nothing.’ He went, ‘Ahh, haha ha!’  He understood what I was saying. He said, ‘You like me because I’m Marlon Brando, or because I’m a real person?’ I said, ‘Well, when I started out acting I liked you because you were Marlon Brando. Now I don’t give a fuck.’