What’s a good Catholic boy doing making a movie about the spiritual journey of a 90-year-old atheist?
That how actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch — a graduate of a Jesuit high school and an alum of Washington’s Catholic University, with a 1986 BFA in theater — describes his directorial debut, “Lucky,” starring Harry Dean Stanton. Like Stanton, who died in September, Lynch is known less as a leading man than as a prolific character actor, as recognizable for salt-of-the-earth roles (“Fargo,” “The Founder”) as he is for creepy ones (“Zodiac,” “American Horror Story”). While in town to give a master class in acting to students at his alma mater, the 54-year-old Lynch sat down to talk. The subjects were varied — life, death, his career and his filmmaking debut, with a movie about a man facing his own mortality that he calls a lightly fictionalized “love letter” to its late star.
Q: Stanton turned 90 a week after you finished shooting “Lucky.” Fourteen months later, he was dead. Let me first offer my condolences. His death adds a layer of poignancy to the film.
A: Thank you. When we made this movie, we didn’t know how long Lucky was going to be out there. And now he’s not. That changes a lot.
Q: Was Stanton physically and mentally all there during the filming?
A: Physically, he was completely vital and completely fragile at the same time. The desert town of Piru, California, where “Lucky” is set, is a metaphor for fragility and vitality — and for where Lucky is in life. Mentally, Harry Dean was absolutely all there. A lot of the material is based on stories from his life, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to rewrite the screenplay. He was very aware of the dichotomy of the circumstance, where he’s playing a person inspired by him. It was intended to be an elegy, an ovation. It certainly wasn’t intended to be his last performance.
Q: How much of the character of Lucky — a smoker, a practitioner of yoga, an inveterate crossword puzzler, an aficionado of game shows — is Stanton?
A: The smoking, the yoga, the game shows, the puzzles — calling people on the phone to try to try to figure out what a seven-letter word is he can’t figure out — that’s all taken straight from his life. Harry Dean used to say, “I only eat so I can smoke.”
Q: Those phone calls he makes are like little monologues. Whom is he talking to?
A: It’s the only mystery in the movie that isn’t answered in the screenplay. I can tell you, but I think it’s diminishing to the experience.
Q: You’ve said that your directorial role models were Jim Jarmusch, John Ford and David Lynch, who has a small role in “Lucky,” as a man whose best friend is a tortoise named President Roosevelt. Is the surrealism in “Lucky” the Lynchian part?
A: There are doorways in “Lucky” that you slide into — revealing an acceptance of idiosyncrasy — that are not realism. But the one David Lynch movie that this most evokes is probably the least Lynchian of his films: “The Straight Story.” It’s that sense of emotional extremis.
Q: Lucky, like Stanton, is an atheist. How do you explain the film as a spiritual journey?
A: I think atheism is a faith. Believing anything with certainty is a faith. I think of it in dramatic terms. Drama is based on ratcheting up the stakes. My high school drama director, a priest, had diabetes. He had lost his legs, yet he eventually chose not to continue dialysis. You have about five days to live after you stop dialysis. And he went out with utter joy, eating fried chicken and drinking Frangelico, because he believed that he was going into the arms of Jesus Christ. For an atheist like Lucky, the stakes are so much higher.
Q: If none of this matters, aren’t the stakes lower, not higher, for Lucky?
A: It reminds me of the old joke about tenured professors. The fights in academia are so much more vicious — because the stakes are so low.
Q: Would you call “Lucky” a religious allegory? There’s this bar in the movie called Eve’s — an allusion to the Garden of Eden perhaps — that Lucky has been cast out of, for the “sin” of smoking.
A: A little bit of that was always in the script, which was originally a series of stand-alone vignettes, but that element evolved. I asked the writers [Stanton’s longtime friend and personal assistant Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, who featured Stanton in a 2009 documentary] to tie these separate moments into a journey.
Q: You have a lot in common with Stanton, who called himself a “late bloomer” and whose first leading role, in “Paris, Texas,” didn’t come until he was 58. Your first leading roll will be in the forthcoming drama “Anything.” What do casting directors see when they look at you? The favorite uncle?
A: Yes — who might have bodies under his floorboards. I seem to be asked to play complicated people. I bring a certain level of menace. The weather changes from sunny to cloudy to stormy with me, and the storms are dangerous. If you want to figure out where you fit in the acting ecosystem, you look at where you would have fit into the generation that came before you. For a while, I thought I was George Kennedy, Karl Malden. “American Horror Story’s” Twisty the Clown took me to a place where I had to reconsider that. I might actually be Boris Karloff. I guess I’m thinking a lot about death lately.
Q: What will you be teaching the students at your master class?
A: The class is about how you, as an actor, enter into a film project. I don’t really go into theory, but I’m going to stress that there’s no point in pretending the camera isn’t there. Why am I wasting time creating imaginary circumstances that don’t involve the camera and the film crew? If I’m onstage in “The Glass Menagerie,” and I’m pretending I’m in a 1930s apartment in St. Louis, I still project to the back rows of the theater. On a movie set, why pretend that the camera doesn’t exist?
Q: Did Stanton do that?
A: Harry Dean had no interest in the camera at all, but he knew where it was, at all times. I think he had been doing it for so long that he just forgot about it.
Q: With your leading man’s advanced age, were you aware of a figurative ticking clock while making “Lucky”?
A: Oh, that clock was very real.
Q: Talking about the movie in this way makes it sound morbid. Yet “Lucky” is very funny. There’s a birthday party in it, not a funeral.
A: It’s about a way in which to live, rather than a way to die. It’s about experiencing the natural eternity around us, and realizing that none of us does that alone.
Q: And that we’re lucky to have it?
A: Yes. We’re lucky.
Lucky (Unrated, 88 minutes). At area theaters.