Veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton, who died two weeks ago at age 91, could be just as mesmerizing in real life as he always was on the big screen. John Carroll Lynch, director of Stanton’s penultimate film, “Lucky,” out Friday, remembers one trippy conversation he witnessed at the actor’s frequent West Hollywood hangout.
“I was outside Dan Tana’s,” says Lynch, “and some guy was talking to Harry about resurrection, in the religious context. Harry said, ‘Yeah, but do we even know that we’re actually here? Is this really what’s happening? Right now, you and I could be in a dream.’ The guy was flummoxed.”
Lynch draws on the worldview of the man nicknamed “Harry Zen Stanton” in “Lucky,” the story of a 90-year-old atheist wrestling with his own mortality. “When [in the film] he says, ‘No one’s in charge,’ that came straight from his philosophy,” says Lynch, also an actor whom readers may recall from the 1996 Coen Brothers movie “Fargo” or, more recently, his role in “American Horror Story” as the gruesome-faced Twisty the Clown.
Making his directorial debut with “Lucky,” the 54-year-old Lynch couldn’t have asked for a better leading man than Stanton, one of film’s reliably classy screen presences, from “Paris, Texas” to “Alien” to HBO’s “Big Love.” In all, he acted in nearly 200 films, becoming a familiar, world-weary face for cinephiles.
But Lynch couldn’t have foreseen the weight his film would take on in the wake of Stanton’s death. “Lucky,” a thoughtful, quiet and often delightfully weird movie that draws much of its dialogue from the screenwriters’ conversations with Stanton, sees the actor’s cowboylike character re-examining life after taking a fall. “He was in excellent health, for an 89-year-old man,” Lynch says of Stanton during filming. “But at that age, of course, you don’t know. One fall and he might not get up. The fall that Lucky has in the kitchen is the kind of thing that takes people out at that age.”
Shot in a small Southwestern town almost as weathered as Stanton’s famously hangdog face, “Lucky” also features turns from other industry veterans — Tom Skerritt, Ed Begley Jr., Beth Grant (“The Mindy Project”) and, best of all, David Lynch (no relation to John Carroll Lynch), who featured Stanton in many of his own movies and on “Twin Peaks.” “They’d been friends for a long time,” says the “Lucky” director, “and when they weren’t sitting next to each other on set, they were outside sitting next to each other chatting. They had such a warm and enduring relationship.”
The Kentucky-born Stanton had many such friendships, including with Jack Nicholson — a onetime roommate, who wrote a breakout role for him in the 1966 film “Ride in the Whirlwind” — and actor-musician Kris Kristofferson. But, as Lynch says, “he was also content to be alone. He was a loyal person, but he didn’t need anybody around.
“He lived up to every expectation I could have had,” the director continues. “He was charming and funny but also quiet and mischievous. He could be furiously angry one second, and the next the clouds would part, and when he smiled, everybody loved it.”
Lynch says Stanton, sadly, never got a chance to see his last film: “The opportunity just never came.” But it’s renewed Lynch’s own focus on living every day to its fullest. “I try to keep my mortality in my vision as best I can. That’s what makes my food taste delicious, and life so precious. Because I know that I’m not going to be experiencing those things forever.”
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